Valuing Cultural Diversity in the Arts1

Ronald Crutcher

Cultural diversity and multi-cultural participation in the arts are receiving increased attention at all levels as the demographic composition of this country changes. In the next century, it is estimated that one-third of our nation or more will be comprised of people of color. Already, movement toward this proportion is having impact on our behavior and language. For instance, in California the term "minority" is practically obsolete. In a few years the majority of that states' population will be comprised of "minorities." In fact, more than fifty percent of those enrolled last fall at the University of California at Berkeley were minority students.

Cultural diversity, multi-culturalism, and cultural pluralism have become "buzz words" in our current society. These terms have, in one sense, replaced "affirmative action" or "equal opportunity" in our vocabulary. And rightly so, because they attempt to define more clearly our efforts to resolve historical social imbalances in this country—to become more inclusive. Validation—or at a minimum, recognition of the existence—of the cultural traditions of non-European groups is an essential element in the process of overcoming these imbalances. However, the notion of validating non-eurocentric cultural traditions is rejected by many, because they assume a basic lack of commonality and, therefore, no basis for understanding these different traditions.

To some degree music ought to be a means through which we accept and appreciate these differences in traditions and recognize points of commonality. After all, music is a universal human activity. And yet a cursory review of the programs or activities of the majority of music institutions and organizations gives one the impression that a particular set of cultural traditions—namely western European—is valued more than others. There is no doubt that America has consistently excluded the traditions of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos from artistic programs, activities, and curricula. This neglect is supported and condoned by our educational system and, most importantly, by the media.

About fifteen years ago, ethnomusicologist/anthropologist Alan Lomax developed two systems for measuring commonalities in song and dance of peoples around the world. Entitled cantometrics and choreometrics, Lomax sought to point out similarities in song and dance based on the type of economic system of a group of people (Lomax 1976). Lomax intended to utilize his system to introduce a repertory of songs to elementary and secondary teachers, in order to promote cross-cultural understanding. I am not certain why his tapes and films were not utilized within the school curriculum. Perhaps it was the cost of the tapes and the film. Or, perhaps it was his failure to consult with professors in Schools of Education around the country who, during this period, were teaching future teachers not to emphasize or focus on differences among children. Of course children recognize differences—even if encouraged to view the world from neutral-colored glasses, and they should be encouraged to appreciate and celebrate them.

It is much easier, however, to teach children to respect and value differences in our tradition than to teach adults. A major problem for adults is that we must first unlearn much of that which we believe to be accurate information about American society and institutions. With regard to minority groups, a significant impediment is the misinformation, misconceptions and stereotypes about these groups and their traditions stored at the subconscious level of the brain. A close examination of our organizations and institutions reveals that the majority of them are overwhelmingly monocultural, with respect to programming, social interaction, policies, procedures, management style, and structures. This should not be surprising given the fact that we are, as a society, but one generation away from legal segregation by race. As a result, most of our institutions maintain practices, policies, and procedures which are perceived as sexist or racist, and these institutions are often not even aware of it. As we enter the twenty-first century, this lack of awareness will become more and more a handicap to our institutions and organizations as the basic fabric of this nation changes.

To presume that human beings—through some mystical act or through osmosis—suddenly will become aware of these issues is naive at best. It is imperative that those in the majority begin to take a close look at themselves and evaluate the motives behind many of their actions—no matter how well intended. Peggy McIntosh's article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (McIntosh 1989:10-12) presents an interesting paradigm for consideration in this process of self-evaluation. Based on observations of her own personal experience and environment, she suggests that whites carry around with them an invisible knapsack of privileges, which they have taken for granted most of their lives. To some degree, one can apply this same paradigm to any privileged class, regardless of race. Although I would submit that a brown-skinned person or female, regardless of class or degree of privilege, will have fewer items in her knapsack. McIntosh lists those items which, in her particular situation and environment, "attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though...all of these other factors are intricately intertwined" (McIntosh 1988:5). Some examples from her list:

  1. I can arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  5. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  6. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  7. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  8. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group, etc. (McIntosh 1988:5-9).

McIntosh concludes that these privileges result in a set of assumptions passed on from one white person to another—assumptions which impair the ability to see clearly outside the western European cultural turf. It is precisely for this reason that I am not confident that some whites in leadership positions understand what it is they are looking for and, therefore, will not necessarily know cultural diversity when they see it!

How do we, as a nation, overcome this handicap? (As it will indeed become.) More specifically, why is it essential for us as music professionals to become actively involved in overcoming this handicap? From my personal vantage point, the answer is quite simple. Thirty years from now in the year 2020 I will be 72 years old, and hopefully retired. It is my desire, in addition to traveling and reading, to attend public musical performances (symphony, chamber music, opera and jazz) as well as art museums, ballets etc. It is highly probable that these institutions may not exist in the same manner as they do today; it also is possible that they may not exist at all. We are told by John Naisbett in his Megatrends 2000 that the decade of the 90's will bring about a resurgence of interest in the arts. Most of this renaissance will be supported by the ever-increasing population above the age of 60 in this country (Naisbett and Aburdene, 1990:62-92). My concern is, however, that after the year 2000, unless something is done to the contrary, there may not be the audiences, performers or supporters of our traditional arts organizations and institutions.

A child growing up in the inner city of America today, who is made to feel that his/her culture is insignificant and unimportant in our society, is not likely to be interested in supporting the more traditional art forms. He or she is not likely to be interested in attending a chamber music concert, the symphony, ballet, or going to an art museum (even if cost were not an obstacle). They are more likely to look upon these institutions as the domain of the elite of our society, thus excluding them. Isn't it interesting that after years of neglect, we expect these individuals to flock, "en masse" to our concerts, exhibitions, or performances during "Black History Month," or "Hispanic American Week," or "Martin Luther King Day!" The point I am trying to make is that if we as professionals in the field of music, or any of the arts for that matter, neglect to realize the importance of inculcating a love for and appreciation of the arts in these children at a young age, we can virtually write off our traditional arts institutions within 20-30 years.

How do we accomplish this? Providing positive experiences in arts education for children at a young age is one avenue. It has been my observation that if the quality of the performance is good and the sincerity of the performers is evident, children's concerts or "informances" can have lasting impact on young people. The goal of these kinds of experiences should not necessarily be to inspire children to play an instrument. Rather, these concerts should demonstrate to children that music can be fun, that there are many styles of music, that individuals from a variety of cultures have written music, and that most human beings possess some degree of ability to perform or sing music. In other words, the experience must contradict the myths that most children—but particularly inner-city minority children—might have about classical music. These experiences, when well done, provide the spark that ignites a flame within their hearts—a flame that no matter how small—will continue to burn. The memory of that experience as manifested by the warmth of the flame is likely to conjure up positive rather than negative feelings about the experience.

The Chanticleer Quartet (Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana) and The Cavani Quartet (The Cleveland Institute of Music) are groups which have successfully performed effective children's concerts on a regular basis. The letters they receive from children attest to their success at providing that "spark." Their programs are varied and range from the Cavani's collaboration with an African-American poet to the Chanticleer's collaboration with two mimes. Both groups exude their love of music to their audiences, and both are sincerely interested in sharing their art with young people of all races, backgrounds, and ages.

Clearly, the Chanticleer and Cavani Quartets recognize the intrinsic value of education in the promulgation of their art. It is my opinion that artists and arts professionals must begin to view arts education as an investment in the future and not merely an activity in which to be engaged for funding purposes. Given the virtual lack of quality arts education in the schools and the magnanimity of the competing forces (videos, pop music, etc.) we must take the lead, if the traditional arts are to survive. This means not only expanding our participation in the educational process but also allowing ourselves, as artists, to be educated.

Robert Garfias sums up my points quite well in his essay on cultural diversity prepared for the National Endowment for the Arts: "Our cultural isolation has been allowed to become pronounced, and the task of rebuilding contacts and bridges may seem impossible." In my opinion, if we are to succeed, "education must play a very important role in expanding our attitudes about what is considered beautiful and about who shall make our aesthetic decisions" (Garfias 1990:4).

The goal is to create a cultural fabric which is inclusive—which values the contributions and traditions of all Americans. This will require revising the agenda of arts institutions and organizations, changing existing priorities, and purposefully disrupting the status quo. The task is not a simple one and it cannot be accomplished within a few months, or even a few years. It will require the kind of long-term commitment and effort of which I am confident that we, in the arts professions, are capable.


Garfias, Robert. "What Do We Really Mean by Cultural Diversity?," North Carolina Arts (Spring 1990): 4.

Lomax, Alan. Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music. Berkeley, California: University of California Extension Media Center, 1976.

McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989): 10-12.

________. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies. Wellesley, Massachusetts: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988.

Naisbett, John and Patricia Aburdene. Megatrends 2000. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990.


1An early version of this paper was delivered during the Annual Meeting of the College Music Society on October 28, 1990 in Washington, D.C. as part of the panel Toward the End of a Century: Cross-Cultural and Minority Perspectives.