5 Questions to Vanessa Rose (President, American Composers Forum)

The American Composers Forum began in 1973 as a University of Minnesota student club, formalising into the Minnesota Composers Forum two years later. Over time, the organisation expanded its reach, becoming the American Composers Forum in 1996, and widening its scope to fund commissioning projects, contests, residencies, and education programmes, as well as facilitating networking and professional development events for its members nationwide. In late 2018, the ACF appointed Vanessa Rose as its President and CEO.

On September 7, 2019, the ACF will host a Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum in Saint Paul, Minnesota supported by an investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Panelists include composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Dameun Strange, Nicole Mitchell, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and ACF Board Chair Anne LeBaron. The forum is free and open to the public and will be livestreamed on the ACF Facebook page.

For more information about the convening, visit

From the outset, I’d like to acknowledge that it may seem strange to have a white person interview another white person about issues of racial equity in classical music. I do think that it’s important for white people to engage in conversations about racial inequity, though I’m ambivalent about whether we should lead those conversations. How have you gone about setting up the racial diversity initiative, especially with the ACF staff being nearly all white?

First, thanks for this opportunity–and thank you for starting with this question. I agree with you. But here’s what I’ve learned: this is a white people problem. For too long, we’ve relied on non-white people to speak up, teach us, and make themselves vulnerable so that we have some understanding of the world through their respective lenses. As a white person leading a historically white-centric institution, I need to do more than create and cultivate opportunities for artists, I need to connect with and encourage my white colleagues to make ourselves vulnerable, talk about the uncomfortable topics, and engage in deep listening and learning.

To be clear, I want non-white artists to have the platform and space to tell their own stories, write their own music, and be recognized on a greater scale than our organizations have done in the past. And decisions about increasing diversity and decreasing whiteness should always be made by a diverse group. My aspiration for ACF is that we foster awareness and understanding so that any artist can walk into an opportunity with expectations of fairness and respect.  

Our goal for the convening is to engage with artists as well as other artistic leaders in our ecosystem and build community for these conversations. ACF’s network exists across musical styles, forms, and disciplines, and I’m hopeful we can facilitate connection among various corners of our field through the focus of music being created today. If we are talking about how your musical organization reflects your diverse community and remains relevant, how can that NOT include a composer?

Importantly, it is the composers–or music creators–who have helped sculpt and who will lead these discussions. We have much more to learn, understand, and change, too.

Nicole Mitchell--Photo by Lauren Deutsch

Nicole Mitchell–Photo by Lauren Deutsch

There seems to be increasing awareness among white liberal Americans of how entrenched the systems of racism and racial bias are in every facet of contemporary American society. Given the deep roots of racism in this country, what strategies does the ACF have to drive systemic changes in classical music so that ALAANA people are fairly represented in both artistic and administrative careers?

I recently read a fascinating piece by Tema Okun outlining the characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizations (which I highly recommend!). Among the telling–and shocking–tenets is the sense of urgency. Racism is a problem centuries old that extends beyond our industry and is embedded in the construct of our country. Change will need to be incremental, thoughtful, and strategic. This is complicated work–but we are also not alone.

To more directly answer your question: I’m still in my first year leading the ACF and learning about our history and our present to inform our future. And I recognize that our actions beyond this convening–and others–will matter more than the conversations themselves. At this point, I continue to see ACF as a facilitator for American composers (expanding who and how we do that): providing meaningful support to creative artists for development of their work, their careers, and their individual journeys. In addition, I hope we can provide the tools and connections to the presenters, educators, programmers, media platforms, and public forums who recognize that the work and art of living composers is essential to their relevance as a business and their value to their defined community. To do this, we need to look at the larger context of everything we do and why. That isn’t possible if you do not have diversity at the table. We are actively looking at steps we can take this year to reduce the overrepresentation of whiteness in our organization–not just on the periphery level. but throughout our systems, practices, and decision-making–as we create a larger strategy. I do anticipate that the three areas of focus for the Racial Equity & Inclusion Forum will be the pivotal areas where we can have meaningful impact (see below).

Artist Luca Melchior's outdoor presentation at ACF's downtown St. Paul (MN) series

Artist Luca Melchior’s outdoor presentation at ACF’s downtown St. Paul (MN) series

The Forum aims to address three specific areas: 1) inclusive programming and the context of presenting the music of non-white artists, 2) the process of seeking out and engaging non-white composers/creative musicians, and 3) refreshing the selection criteria to represent relevance and impact. In addition to identifying and being inclusive of composers of colour, what do you think our industry can do to see large organisations like major venues, orchestras, opera companies, and university music departments hire and promote people of colour?

While the circumstances may be different, I see all the organization types that you mentioned as sharing the same ecosystem with us. Too often I think we operate in silos in our field, and of course the need for greater equity is not limited to the arts, higher education, or the nonprofit sector. And while there are clearly business and legal cases for ensuring more equitable practices, change is slow. Really it comes down to leadership and governance. Consider this recent op-ed piece by Ford Foundation President Darren Walker about diversity in museums.

The three areas of focus for the convening are specific ways I believe ACF can help affect change working with artists, leaders, and partners within our ecosystem. We can’t stop at hiring and promoting diverse individuals, though. Equity–not equality–and the fairness of our ongoing systems and practices is necessary to ensure they want to stay.

How can our industry identify and amplify the work of composers of colour without tokenising the composers?

That’s a great question and the heart of what we’ll address at the convening along with some tangible next steps. We hope to promote greater emphasis on the impact of music and break down the silos in and around the Western European classical genre: creating more equity for diverse composers, reducing the overrepresentation of whiteness inside organizations, and providing relevant and compelling musical experiences for audiences.

We see composers as storytellers and even change agents. If the industry considers the larger context of working with a living artist through real collaboration and connection, it won’t be tokenism. Engage audiences, musicians, stakeholders, and community members with the person; integrate the composer and their music into activities outside the concert hall in addition to dedicating time and investment to the performance of their music. The February Black History Month concert is not enough. Nor is a festival dedicated to women. To be truly equitable, we need to recognize those who have been historically excluded and include them in our mainstage seasons or galleries as valued artists among others.  

Another great resource is this article by Jerome Foundation senior program officer Eleanor Savage, which outlines some of the pushback often heard in arts institutions and why that perpetuates racism. Garrett McQueen hosts a fantastic podcast, too. (They are both participating in our convening.)

Afro Yaqui Music Collective's Mirror Butterfly album, recently released on ACF's innova label

Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s Mirror Butterfly album, recently released on ACF’s innova label

There was some controversy around the announcement of the ACF’s 2019 MN Varsity showcase composers, who are all young men (and almost all white). How does the ACF plan to address intersectionality (where composers may identify with more than one historically marginalised group) in its programmes?

We’ve had quite a lot of conversations about addressing racial equity over other (many) inequities in our field. I have only just begun studying Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality concept on the effects of different forms of discrimination that combine, overlap, or intersect for women and non-binary people of color, and it is striking. (If readers want to know more about the concept directly from her, I encourage watching her TED talk.) While our initial focus is on racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, we strive to include as many marginalized identities within the racial frame as possible (including but not limited to gender identity, socio-economic status, LGBTQIA, and age). As we proceed through our work and learning this year, we will expand our focus to gender inequity for white women and white non-binary artists. (Acknowledging intersectionality, we see women of color included in the racial equity frame.)

Currently, ACF directs or partners with organizations on nearly 40 programs. Minnesota Varsity is run by Minnesota Public Radio Classical, and we partner with them on the composer track. We are working with all our partners (who are considering their own needed changes) to reflect the equity practices we aim to implement. We are exploring the language used to attract participants, the rubric to determine selection, and representation on panels, for example, to ensure that this platform offers recognition to historically-marginalized voices in Minnesota.

Accountability matters, too, and I welcome productive feedback and recommendations as we work together to make a more equitable environment for all artists.