Symphony leading locally, nationally

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is world-renowned for many things. But now it is aiming for prominence in what is arguably its most important endeavor.

In the wake of the pandemic and the George Floyd killing that has reset America’s race and equity conversations, the CSO has led the nation in both ramping up its 2019 diversity goals and achieving them, as compared to most of its peers.

Dianne Rosenberg

“The Cincinnati Symphony has been the leader putting into action some of the aspirational goals of our field,” said Douglas Hagerman, board chair of the League of American Orchestras and former board chair of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

In March 2021, the CSO was among the first two top orchestras in America to hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer, a role filled by Oxford native Harold Brown. Now, as many as five major orchestras have followed suit. This August, the CSO reported that one of its signature programs aimed at getting under-represented musicians hired in full-time roles by major orchestras, had achieved its highest level of success.

But more change is on the horizon for Cincinnati’s largest arts organization and board.

“We’ve made some great progress at CSO, but still have lots of work to do on our DE&I plan,” said Rob McDonald, chair of the CSO board for the last three years.

He’s been working closely on transitioning execution of the symphony’s DE&I work with chair-elect Dianne Rosenberg, whose term is now beginning.

“Our challenges are really growing pains,” Rosenberg said. “In the context of how orchestras everywhere are changing, we are at the forefront.”

The CSO’s goals are ambitious. The organization wants to double under-represented audiences to 8% by 2025. It hopes to achieve 14% BIPOC representation at CSO auditions by 2025. It had set a board diversity goal of 20% Black/Latinx members by 2025, a goal already exceeded thanks to Melanie Chavez’s leadership of the nominating committee. Black/LatinX membership on the board is at 33%, double 2015’s 16%. Members under 40 are at 28% vs. none in 2015.

Every meeting of the organization’s 49-member board – purposefully smaller than the previous 60-member board – includes a focus on a 10-point DE&I strategy, said Charla Weiss, executive committee member and leader of the symphony’s DE&I committee.

“Our vision is to be the most relevant orchestra in America,” said Weiss. “But this is not just about the board. This is about the entire ensemble. COVID did us a favor in pushing us into electronic delivery. But status quo is not good enough. I want to constantly be identifying what voices are missing.”

A longtime arts supporter in Cincinnati by virtue of her role as one of the highest-ranking Procter & Gamble Co. executives, CSO executive committee member Melanie Healey agreed to join the board three years ago because she saw progress in its diversity work – even before the crisis of 2020. She said the only impatience she has about CSO, led by CEO Jonathan Martin, is that it doesn’t get enough credit nationally for what’s been accomplished.

“This is a journey, I know,” Healey said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. But the level of commitment by the board and the passion Jonathan has for this, we will achieve the goal of being the leading orchestra in this area.”

A long-time DE&I professional, executive committee member Gerron McKnight knew he was in the right place during his orientation in 2019 when every presentation included diversity strategies.

“The CSO is a catalyst for bringing people together in the Greater Cincinnati community,” said McKnight. “We’re showing the power of an organization like ours, in a city with a history of segregation, what the power of being intentional can do for a community.”

Executive committee member Anne Mulder said the change in the board’s diversity during her tenure has been significant. But what excites her the most is the effort to broaden the audience with new music and neighborhood concerts.

“This kind of change is a big challenge,” she said. “But our leadership is committed to this. I give Rob (McDonald) a lot of credit for supporting this change.”

Dianne Rosenberg has been a community leader for decades. It’s prophetic that her term as CSO board chair is only beginning now, as it will benefit from a change in her thinking that resulted from her participation in a Racial Equity Institute two-day workshop in 2018.

“It changed me as a person,” she said. “I feel fortunate that I can serve and help lead this organization at this time. Our DE&I work is one of the most important parts, if not the most important part. We have a lot on our plate to do. We are in a place as an orchestra that is enviable. We should honor our past, but we must use the momentum we have to address these important issues going forward.

“DE&I is not about the numbers,” she said. “It is not looking at our board and saying we have the right mix. It is much deeper. It is essential, not an option, for the organization and for the community.”


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