The Institute for Composer Diversity: White Leadership, DEI Initiatives, and Ethical Advocacy

When I think about the Institute for Composer Diversity, I think of a 2017 podcast interview with author and cable news host Chris Hayes, in which he discussed his new book, Colony in a Nation. Hayes says that he didn’t want to write a “white guy explains Black Lives Matter book.” Instead, he felt that it was the other side of the coin—why white America constructed the racist system we live in—where Hayes knew he had something unique to say. In doing so, Hayes found his way to contribute to a conversation about race without stepping outside of his lived experience.

When the Composer Diversity Database launched in 2018, its founder, Dr. Rob Deemer, established a reputation as an advocate for a better future in classical music. On Twitter, I often witnessed his incisive, data-centric takedowns of all-or-mostly-white-male orchestra seasons, and his creation of a searchable resource to find and contact composers based on gender and race seemed like an idea that could achieve tangible results. The public seemed to agree, as the Database grew to the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD), raising over $11,000 on Kickstarter in the process.

This reputation did not last. Amidst missteps and controversy, Deemer received significant criticism from composers listed in its database.

“Deemer was the singular recipient of the 2018 ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Internet Award, an honor he proudly totes…and that came with a cash award. Rather than humbly deflect praise and redirect attention to those his work ostensibly serves, Deemer evidently enjoys the limelight and constant influx of congratulation, while doing little to elevate discourse on the subject of diversity, equity and inclusion.” [link]

ICD under Deemer’s leadership flags broad categories of identity (Black, women, racially fraught assumptions of Latinx identity on the basis of Spanish-sounding last names, etc.), recommending numerical percentage-oriented quotas to concert presenters, while engaging very little, if at all, with the music and ideals of individual creators, except for those in their own immediate circle.” [link]

Dr. Rob Deemer

Dr. Rob Deemer

The most common refrain is a suggestion or even demand for Deemer to step down, citing his status as a white cisgender man. For this reason, the contention that surrounds the Institute for Composer Diversity is an important one to examine. In our classical music infrastructure that heavily skews white and male, what is the proper role for white men to play to help build antiracist structures?

In part due to objections from the LGBTQIA2S+ community over categorization, the ICD paused operations for a two-month period at the end of October 2020 to switch from its previous model of manual input by ICD to a composer-controlled opt-in model. In November, as a response to concerns, it announced that Deemer would be joined by a new, more diverse leadership team.

By examining the individual situation of the ICD and its founder, it’s possible to make sense of the larger dilemma that surrounds antiracism, and envision how initiatives like the Institute can truly serve the music community rather than exploit it.

What is the Institute for Composer Diversity?

A simplified SparkNotes biography for the ICD would read something like this:

Classical music has a problem with not programming female composers. With this in mind, in 2016 a professor named Rob Deemer created a simple spreadsheet for his composition class: a list of women composers and their websites. Over the next year, Deemer expanded the spreadsheet into a searchable website, and then expanded further to encompass other criteria like race, rebranding as the Composer Diversity Database (CDD).

One problem: there are too many composers for Deemer to input into the CDD by himself. He therefore asks volunteers to help him, but soon receives criticism for not paying said volunteers. Since the database makes no money, Deemer decides to partner with his employer, the State University of New York at Fredonia, in a fiscal sponsorship. This way, donors could write off contributions to the CDD on their taxes, and the database could apply for grant money. Rob decides that people would be more likely to donate with a more “official” name for the database, and finally rebrands it as the “Institute for Composer Diversity.”

During this process, the Institute continued to grow in reach, scope, and influence. Per the ICD, the website received 138,000 unique visitors from January 2019 to December 2020.

Composer Diversity Database (June 2018)--Photo courtesy Rob Deemer

Composer Diversity Database (June 2018)–Photo courtesy Rob Deemer

We can see three organizational decisions that contributed to the erosion of trust between the ICD and the composers in its database. First, renaming a volunteer-run database to the Institute for Composer Diversity conferred a sense of authority and resources that gave its users a false expectation of the speed and quality at which concerns could be addressed. Second, Deemer not only chose to intertwine his own personal account messaging with the Institute’s on social media, but he also began speaking at a number of music conferences, invited and therefore seen as the face of the ICD. Third, Deemer steered the ICD to not just serve as a database, but to also provide diversity recommendations, posting guidelines on its website as to what percentage of a program should have composers from marginalized backgrounds. In a phone interview, Deemer provided additional context on the latter:

“It’s great to say, “You should be doing more X, or programming more composers from different groups.” But at what point do we have a goal? Are we going somewhere? So I made a conscious decision to try to not just be Switzerland and say ‘here’s the information, do with it what you will’, but to advocate, saying “Hey, here’s a way for you to be able to think about programming maybe differently than how you’ve been doing it before.”

You can see Deemer’s thinking here. He has an existing platform and an existing audience, and wants to maximize its impact. But what does maximizing impact look like? Is it guiding the audience with your own expertise, or guiding the audience to others with expertise?

Where the ICD should go from here

There appear to be two ways in which the ICD can move forward.

If Deemer insists on remaining as leader, the program name should revert to the Composer Diversity Database, and its scope needs to be sharply narrowed to an opt-in, self-categorized database that discontinues controversial advocacy efforts such as their diversity “best practices.” However, if Deemer wants the Institute to continue to grow as an advocacy organization, he needs to more outwardly relinquish his role as the face of the ICD.

You see, the “Capital-I” Institute for Composer Diversity’s main problem is that it is not at all a “lowercase-i” institute, a disconnect between the perception generated by its name and the organization’s actual scope, which Deemer freely acknowledged in conversation. But the ICD can’t have it both ways—it can’t have the leeway of a passion project and the gravitas of an accredited organization.

In order to avoid further pitfalls, there are several principles that the ICD—and other organizations with diversity-oriented missions—should adhere to moving forward.

Aggregate, don’t dictate

Lean, volunteer-run organizations like ICD should operate as an aggregator of antiracist resources instead of an expert in antiracism practices. By doing so, the ICD in particular could simultaneously court less controversy and better serve programmers and composers.

To illustrate, ICD’s current “best practices” for diversity quotas in programming do not cite experts or any objective reasoning at all, making the resultant recommendations… head scratching. Why does “the Institute for Composer Diversity recommend that” a season of 50 orchestra works contain 15-25% works from underrepresented heritages? Why not 9% or 65%?

Sample Programming from June 2018-- Photo courtesy Rob Deemer, Founder of the Institute for Composer Diversity

Sample Programming from June 2018– Photo courtesy Rob Deemer, Founder of the Institute for Composer Diversity

Instead, imagine a centralized resource that linked to blog posts, newspaper and magazine essays, and other work that had already been done on the importance of diversity. Curating comes with its own challenges, but certainly carries more value than arbitrary statistics.

Community accountability

An organization that advocates against marginalization of composers must not inadvertently marginalize composers in its advocacy.

In the case of the ICD, Deemer shaped the organization to prioritize those who program music over those who compose it. For instance, the database and its volunteer army’s input model prioritized volume of composer choice over depth of composer profiles, a decision which understandably fed the perception by composers that they were cogs in the ICD machine; numbers to be touted in press releases, but not individuals.

The lesson is that advocacy organizations must build genuine relationships with composers. A FAQ page or a generalized apology PDF isn’t enough for people to feel heard—concerns must be proactively sought by organizations and then directly and explicitly addressed in public as much as possible. With the ICD, there is a feeling that no direct line to leadership exists, and that even when concerns are addressed privately with the organization’s official channels, they are ignored without explanation. Building regular public accountability of course requires time and resources, but it is not optional.

Photo by Swann Mongenot on Unsplash

Photo by Swann Mongenot on Unsplash

Another way organizations can ensure composers feel heard is to use their platform to amplify composer’s concerns. This can take the form of commissioning essays from composers on issues important to their careers, or giving composers an opportunity to directly address questions people are asking: How do you establish relationships with composers beyond using their music to fill a diversity quota? Should a group commission a Black composer to write a work about racism?

These topics deserve weight beyond an FAQ. Composers are more than capable of answering these questions cogently, and their input would dramatically increase the credibility and usefulness of any similar platform.

Leadership accountability

For diversity organizations to sustain over years and decades, those who lead them must be subject to clear accountability. Critics have made much about a white man leading a diversity initiative, but what gets lost is Deemer’s structural dominance over the ICD. Though he established three women of varying backgrounds as a “leadership team,” and by all accounts has sincerely consulted their advice, Deemer is ultimately their boss.

In a nonprofit, Deemer would at least have to answer to an established Board of Directors, but the ICD is not a 501(c)3. Thus, Deemer answers to no power other than public perception.

Having a white man lead a diversity initiative without accountability not only limits said initiative’s ceiling, but also increases the probability for harmful missteps. A white man having final say over what constitutes diversity success–to put it kindly–has significant limitations.

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Concluding Thoughts on BIPOC leadership

There is no question that classical music has faced the same challenges as so many other fields—too often have promising and talented artists been overlooked and excluded from “the canon” for their race, gender, and myriad other factors. A database can indeed help correct this imbalance, but if it operates without collaboration or accountability from the people it represents, it will do more harm than good. Even more importantly, a database designed to increase awareness and advocate for BIPOC artists must have BIPOC leadership.

In response to the claim that “a white man shouldn’t lead a diversity initiative,” many ask “why not?” Though the stage of racial justice is fraught with bad actors, there is some reasonable confusion among white allies about what actions qualify as harmful versus helpful, so I would like to offer one possible guideline.

Ultimately, people of privilege should advocate for and help build an antiracist society, but they do not get to dictate how the antiracist society is built. Recognizing that those affected by racism are best suited to design a world without racism isn’t just a moral principle, it’s an objective assessment. Chris Hayes recognized this. Regardless of which experts he consulted to write a book about Black Lives Matter, the final cut belonged to him: a white guy with white perspectives. Even if the book was successful, would it be helpful? Would it take space away from books from Black authors with less name recognition?

Similarly, the amount of good any initiative can accomplish often hinges upon its leader’s judgment and decision making—areas in which race becomes highly relevant in diversity advocacy.

Like many white people in positions of power, I think Dr. Rob Deemer operates with good intentions. But we cannot prioritize the good intentions of the privileged over their impact to the marginalized. Even the soundest structures of antiracism cannot be expected to endure if laid upon a foundation of white benevolence.

In the fight to build a more just world, we all have limitations, regardless of how well-intentioned, thoughtful, and competent our leadership might be. Part of effective leadership is acknowledging those limitations, even if it means admitting that somebody else may be better for the job.


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