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At the Kimmel Center, actions speak louder than words in diversity efforts | Opinion

As the art world reckons with racism, mandatory $1,000 donations raise questions.

The national tour of "Hamilton" is slated to return to Philadelphia. But the best seats will cost you.
The national tour of "Hamilton" is slated to return to Philadelphia. But the best seats will cost you.Read moreJoan Marcus

According to Inquirer reporting last week, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts is instituting a mandatory $1,000 donation for access to the best seats in its Broadway series — not including the cost of tickets themselves.

The Kimmel’s publicly available diversity statement says, “The diversity of our region is our strength and KCI [Kimmel Center Inc.] is dedicated to creating a diverse and inclusive cultural campus that reflects our commitment to an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued onstage and off.”

» READ MORE: ‘Best seats’ at Kimmel Broadway series will cost you

That’s why I was so surprised with the decision to institute a mandatory $1,000(!) annual charitable donation for access to exclusive “platinum circle” seats for the Broadway series. This move is not in alignment with the values expressed in the diversity statement and I implore the Kimmel Center to reconsider this policy. If it won’t do that, it should remove its diversity statement since its actions speak louder than its words.

Over the last year, our nation has had a reckoning with its white supremacist past, including how it manifests in fund-raising practices and the arts. A recent study of 2,000 fund-raising professionals conducted by Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) found that 58% of respondents thought that current fund-raising practices and philosophies were harmful to nonprofits’ work of addressing systemic injustice. Additionally, CCF highlighted that 84% of the respondents were white. In the name of transparency, I encourage the Kimmel Center to publicly share the diversity of its donor base, fund-raising team, and “platinum circle” members so the community can hold it accountable to reflecting the racial and socioeconomic demographics of Philadelphia.

In a time when society is attempting to dismantle barriers that have limited access to the arts, I am curious why the Kimmel Center is building new barriers. Will the “platinum circle” members reflect the demographics of Philadelphia or will the people in these seats tell a different story?

I was disappointed to see that a representative from the Kimmel Center explained away this issue by mentioning that the organization ensures access to its Broadway series through community rush, a ticket price range starting at $20, and complimentary tickets to Art-Reach. I sincerely hope that the Kimmel Center did not expect us to applaud these basic policies, particularly providing 10 free tickets to Art-Reach when the Academy of Music seats a whopping 2,900! There are theater companies in Philadelphia with smaller operating budgets and smaller houses that provide more free and affordable options to their audiences. Ten complimentary tickets in a 2,900-seat venue is not the same as 10 complimentary tickets in a 100-seat venue. As an arts leader, the Kimmel must dig deeper and do more.

» READ MORE: Kimmel Center plans to reopen this fall with ‘Hamilton,’ and major arts groups back on stage

What makes this policy even more tone deaf is the fact that the Kimmel Center announced its curtain will rise again with the return of Hamilton, the story of America then, told by America now. It is unsettling to reckon with the reality that diversity in musical theater is cherished when it generates ticket sales for a hip-hop musical but ignored when it comes to decisions that are antithetical to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. An arts organization cannot flaunt its alleged diversity while implementing a fund-raising strategy that contradicts these values.

To quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, the people in the “the room where it happens” — including the Kimmel Center’s executive leadership and its board of directors – need to ask themselves if cognitive dissonance is the image they want the Kimmel Center to convey as our city and the arts sector recover from the economic and cultural impact of the pandemic. If the Kimmel Center is indeed having “internal discussions about equity all the time,” I wonder who has a seat at the table and if the participants in these conversations reflect the region’s diverse community that the Kimmel Center engages.

Gilberto Vega is a Costa Rican American creator, educator, and administrator for music and theater. A proud Pennsylvanian, he resides in South Philadelphia.