A View from the Data: How Diverse, Equitable, Inclusive, and Accessible are Arts Organizations?

By Sunil Iyengar
illustration showing a back view of a line of people of different body types, skin colors, and abilities looking at a row of rectangles representing visual art works

Soon after COVID-19 broke, a premium was placed on certain types of arts data—what losses the sector would sustain, how quickly it would recover, and how visitor/audience perceptions and expectations were likely to shift in the interval. Various surveys sprung up to address these topics. More or less in tandem—but tied to longer, systemic struggles—another class of data has vaulted in demand among cultural policy-makers and funders. How diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible (DEIA) are arts organizations, in terms of staff and governance, but also in their missions and programs? 

A Presidential Executive Order on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities” has pushed all federal agencies to re-assess data on their target populations, even as a follow-up order has prompted inquiries about DEIA in the federal workforce. As a veteran of cross-government meetings about “data and equity,” I can attest to a steep learning curve.

In this context, I asked senior analyst Bonnie Nichols to trawl available datasets for this kind of information. For example, using national survey data, it is possible to understand how artists and arts participants are distributed by race, ethnicity, and gender. In recent years, other demographic data have illumined specific segments of the arts workforce (e.g., art museum staff in 2018), geographies (e.g., Los Angeles County in 2019) and—in at least one country—creative industries (i.e., the UK in 2016). 

In the U.S. however, there are limited public data on the demographics of leadership and staff at arts organizations. Absent these statistics, Bonnie turned to the Annual Business Survey (ABS), a collaboration between the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Science Foundation. See below for findings from a new research brief by Bonnie Nichols, a senior research analyst at the Arts Endowment. 

The ABS dataset reports business ownership by gender and by racial/ethnic minority status. Although the question of ownership applies only to for-profit entities, the data should interest anyone monitoring DEIA issues in the broader arts ecology. For this brief, and an accompanying data table, Bonnie mined the 2017 ABS for ownership data covering arts businesses from a range of industries.

Some of the industries are: “arts, entertainment, and recreation” (including performing arts companies, arts presenters, and a category called “independent artists, writers, and entertainers”); “information services” (motion picture and video companies, sound recording firms, web publishers, and book publishers); and “professional, scientific, and technical services” (specialized design firms; architectural firms; advertisers; and photographic services). Other industries in the brief are manufacturing (jewelry and silverware makers; musical instrument manufacturers; ornamental and architectural metalwork firms; and manufacturers of custom architectural woodwork and millwork); and retail trade (musical instrument and art supply stores; bookstores and newsstands; florists; and art dealers). 

Here are selected findings from Bonnie’s analysis:

1. Members of racial/ethnic minority groups own arts businesses at a lower rate than they own businesses in general.

  • For example, Hispanics and non-Whites own 9 percent of all “arts, entertainment, and recreation” businesses and 11 percent of performing arts companies. By contrast, 18.5 percent of all U.S. businesses are minority-owned. 

2. Although African Americans are more likely to own sound recording businesses than they are to own businesses in general, the overall percentage is still low.

  • More than 4 percent of classifiable sound recording businesses are owned by African Americans. This ownership rate compares with just over 2 percent of all businesses.

3. The Hispanic ownership rate for ornamental and architectural metalwork firms (6 percent) is the same as for all businesses. But this is an anomaly. 

  • Hispanics remain underrepresented as owners of arts-related businesses. For example, this group owns roughly 3 percent of firms in performing arts presenting or in motion picture and video production.

4. Among all racial/ethnic minority groups, Asian Americans are the most likely to own web streaming and web publishing companies.

  • Asian Americans own 9 percent of such businesses. On the whole, 15 percent of web streaming and web publishing companies are owned by people from racial/ethnic minority groups.

5. One in five classifiable businesses is owned by women—a ratio that also applies to women’s ownership of “arts, entertainment, and recreation” businesses and performing arts companies in particular.

  • More women own businesses consisting of “independent artists, writers, and performers” (27 percent) than own businesses in general. From an occupational perspective, 65 percent of writers and authors are women.

6. Nearly 60 percent of interior design businesses and 50 percent of florist shops are owned by women. Yet women own only 13 percent of architectural firms.

  • Even from an occupational perspective, far greater numbers of men than women are architects—nearly 72 percent of employed architects in 2020 were men.

The disparities operating in even this quick summary are ample proof, if more were needed, that the sector has plenty of work ahead in pursuing its frequently voiced objectives around diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

Sunil Iyengar is the director of the National Endowment for the Arts Office of Research and Analysis.