One morning last September, the billionaires Ronald Perelman and Jerry Speyer strolled into Carnegie Hall, but not to hear Yo-Yo Ma play Bach or Deborah Voigt sing Strauss.
Instead, they sat among more than 40 of their colleagues with ties to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wildlife Conservation Society, among other organizations, listening as Tom Finkelpearl, the cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, talked about the sector’s lack of diversity.
The numbers tell a stark story. The American Museum of Natural History has never had an African-American president or board chairman. Neither has MoMA, the Whitney or the Met. In a city where more than two-thirds of residents identify as nonwhite, according to the 2010 census, 78 percent of the board members serving its cultural institutions are white. On the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the chairman, nine vice chairs and the treasurer are all white.
According to Mr. Finkelpearl, he didn’t want to steamroll anyone when he visited Carnegie Hall to discuss the issue.
During his talk, Mr. Finkelpearl, who was president of the Queens Museum before becoming cultural affairs chief in 2014, spoke of a city-commissioned study, then in the works from the nonprofit research firm Ithaka S&R, on the ethnic makeup of the various organizations’ staffs, audiences and boards.
“If you’ve been to board meetings, the problem is easy to see,” Mr. Finkelpearl said.
If the mood in the hall was occasionally uncomfortable, as two people in attendance described it, it may have had something to do with the fact that Mr. Finkelpearl was there on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, in his first two years in office, did not set foot in MoMA, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Opera.
Unlike his gala-hopping multibillionaire predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, Mr. de Blasio often seems out of his element among billionaires and society swans, and his absence from New York’s palaces of high culture has not gone unnoticed.
“Well, he should visit us more often,” said Marie-Josée Kravis, the president of the board at MoMA, who is married to Henry Kravis, a man ranked by Forbes as the 358th richest person in the world. “The best way to promote diversity is to get engaged. You can’t sit home and complain.”
Despite the apparent tension, a number of historically insular boards appear to be making some inroads where board diversity is concerned. Exhibit A? Carnegie Hall, which in June named Robert Smith, the 53-year-old African-American chief of Vista Equity Partners, as its new chairman.
What a difference eight months can make.
Board membership in New York has always been a rich person’s game.
In exchange for the social status and networking opportunities provided by the Met, MoMA, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, the bulk of trustees are expected to donate (or at least raise) hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
And until 1980, almost all of those who were on such boards were white.
Never mind that the African-American contralto Marian Anderson made her Carnegie Hall debut roughly 50 years earlier. Never mind that Arthur Mitchell joined New York City Ballet in the 1950s.
“There is an artistic history at these institutions that was sometimes way ahead of their philanthropic histories,” said Gordon Davis, who in 1978 became the city’s first African-American parks commissioner, under Mayor Edward I. Koch.
That was when things began to shift. “Very slowly,” said Darren Walker, the second African-American president of the Ford Foundation, after Franklin Thomas, whose tenure ran from 1979 to 1996.
In 1980, Mr. Davis, now a partner at Venable, co-founded the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that manages the park in a partnership with the city. In its first year, there were seven nonwhite trustees on its board of 29, a ratio nearly unheard-of for such organizations.
Still, the floodgates did not open: As recently as 2004, MoMA, Carnegie Hall and the American Museum of Natural History had one black trustee each.
This was when things began to speed up, as a new generation of African-American business executives began deploying their considerable financial resources toward organizations that had looked about as integrated as a night at the opera, circa 1883.
Most of these glass-ceiling breakers were born around the final days of segregation. Many went to Harvard for business or law degrees and raised money for Barack Obama.
“African-Americans do not have a long tradition of wealth like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts or Whitneys,” said Faye Wattleton, one of more than a dozen black board members of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “We still are not at parity by any means. But there is an emerging class of significant wealth in the African-American community that is now in great demand.”
A member of that class is Ray McGuire, the global head of corporate and investment banking at Citi. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, by his social-worker mother, he went to Harvard College in 1975, then continued to business and law school there, completing his studies in 1984.
“Three colleges, three degrees,” said Mr. McGuire, who then went to New York, where he held jobs at a series of big firms and achieved business and philanthropic successes that amplified each other.
The first places he became a trustee were the International Center of Photography and the New Museum. In 1994, he was elected to the board of the Whitney, where he said he never felt like a token, despite being the board’s only African-American.
“I always thought it was an assessment of my ability to add value,” he said.
In addition to becoming friends with longtime Whitney patrons, the business titans Leonard Lauder and Thomas Lee, Mr. McGuire got to know a young curator named Thelma Golden, who is black and had interned at the Studio Museum in Harlem while she was a student at Smith College.
“She was who introduced me to collecting art,” Mr. McGuire said.
He was later asked to join the boards of the New York Public Library, Lincoln Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, hosted chats with political figures ranging from Bill Bratton to Mr. Obama, and amassed one of the most significant collections of African-American art in the country, which Ms. Golden advised him on.
Today Ms. Golden is the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, where Mr. McGuire is chairman of the board.
Diversifying the leadership positions at the big cultural institutions south of Harlem has proved more elusive.
“For many years, I said: ‘This just doesn’t go. We serve a population,’” said Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA, who is white and has helped lead efforts to make its board look more like New York. It wasn’t a popular opinion.
In the last decade, MoMA has gone from having one black trustee to having five, though some — particularly those who come not from banking but from the arts or academia — talk of their experiences on the board almost as if they are Prep for Prep students at a ritzy private school, apart from the Park Avenue kids.
In June, MoMA hosted its annual Party in the Garden fund-raiser, where two of the three artists honored — Mark Bradford and Huma Bhabha — are black and Pakistani, respectively. But Khalil Gibran Muhammad, an African-American trustee recruited to the board in 2015 by its chairman, Mr. Speyer, said he couldn’t pay for a $2,500 ticket on an academic’s salary.
“It looked lovely,” he said. “I saw pictures.”
On one hand, Dr. Muhammad, a professor of history at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who formerly ran the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said he is pleased that MoMA is having what he called a “very real and very frank conversation about the whiteness of its collections, both internationally and in terms of having African-Americans represented.”
On the other, he worries about the focus on board diversity there and elsewhere obscuring the issue of what happens when a small group of wealthy patrons controls a large cultural nonprofit.
“I have not borne witness almost anywhere to people saying, ‘This is not how things should be,’” Dr. Muhammad said.
Since joining the MoMA board in 2012, A C Hudgins, a black collector of African-American art, has flown on private planes in the company of fellow trustees, something he had never done before. He has invited trustees to his house for dinner, only to find himself amused and slightly disturbed when they told him how nice it was to clear their own plates afterward, as they had in their youths.
“I’m Negro rich, not MoMA rich,” Mr. Hudgins said, laughing. “If you look at the billionaires that keep coming onto this board, it’s mind-boggling. Just mind-boggling.”
But Mr. Hudgins has clearly added value to the museum. The museum on West 53rd Street now includes a trove of pieces by African-Americans that he donated, including works by Senga Nengudi, Henry Taylor and David Hammons.
Last year, Mr. Hudgins helped recruit another black trustee, Edith Cooper (Harvard College, 1984), the global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs.
Mr. Hudgins and his wife, Thelma, have grown close to Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis, who in recent years have added works by nonwhite artists like Mark Bradford, Kevin Beasley and Oscar Murillo to the walls of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the $51 billion private equity firm founded by Mr. Kravis and his partners.
And when Ms. Kravis met Mr. Murillo, it was Mr. Hudgins who introduced them.
“AC’s really been an energizing force at MoMA,” Ms. Kravis said. “He’s a terrific addition.”
How does she respond to Dr. Muhammad’s concerns that too much power is in the hands of the benevolent rich?
“Khalil is right,” she said. “We are a private institution. We don’t get any operating revenue from government, and it’s expensive to operate, so we have to be sensitive to our financial needs. But we have three million visitors a year, and they’re not all wealthy people. I’ve often said, we have to be an agora, not a temple.”
In addition to his work as head of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker is a vice chairman at New York City Ballet. A former investment banker and professor of urban development, he has a deep understanding of the interplay between the new class of African-American cultural heavyweights and the city’s elite institutions, as both an observer and participant (if often an ambivalent one).
“The boards of all these organizations are receiving contradictory messages,” Mr. Walker said. “On one hand, they’re being told, ‘You have to raise more private money.’ On the other, they’re being told, ‘You need to diversify and elect people who may or may not be able to raise that money.’”
It was a balmy Sunday afternoon, and Mr. Walker, 56, was sitting in the lobby of the Hilton hotel on East 42nd Street, a location he selected because the nearby Ford Foundation’s environmentally conscious air-conditioning had been turned off for the day.
“If there were more public money, there would be more public subsidy,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s less public money. We don’t want ticket prices to go up. So where is this money going to come from?”
The problem has become more apparent as these organizations steer hundreds of millions of dollars toward capital improvements. “The capacity to give is becoming the sole criteria for membership,” he said. “And it does a tremendous disservice to these organizations.”
In 1992, when Mr. Walker joined New York City Ballet as its second African-American trustee while working in investment banking for the United Bank of Switzerland, he was something of an outsider.
“There was one black person on the board,” he said. “And he had stopped coming to meetings.”
Yet Mr. Walker, who now oversees a half-billion dollars a year in grant money to nonprofit institutions from his Ford Foundation perch, grew close to a number of his white colleagues at the ballet.
“That’s where I met Agnes Gund,” he said. “That’s where I met Anne Bass.”
Mr. Walker recently helped the organization’s chairman, Jay Fishman, recruit prominent African-Americans like Debra Martin Chase (Harvard Law, 1981), a film producer who has worked with Denzel Washington; and Ursula Burns, the departing chief executive officer of Xerox.
“We went from one to five,” he said of New York City Ballet’s board. “And we went from one to five only because there was a commitment from the chairman and the leadership to increase diversity.”
Today, Mr. Walker travels the globe with his supply of Oxford shirts and pocket squares, giving speeches about economic inequality and providing advice (if not always money) to seemingly everyone willing to fill out a 501(c)(3).
In 2014, Debra Lee, the African-American C.E.O. of BET Networks (Harvard Law, 1980), was offered the president of the board position at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. When she vacillated, Mr. Walker took her to dinner at SD26 in the Flatiron district.
“He didn’t twist my arm too much,” Ms. Lee said. “But he said, ‘You need to do this.’”
Mr. Walker even communicates with Ms. Lee, Ms. Burns, Mr. McGuire and Ms. Chase on an email chain of prominent black philanthropists (“the blutocrats!” Mr. Walker joked) that includes Kenneth Chenault, the chief executive of American Express, and Dr. Tony Coles, a Met trustee and biotech entrepreneur who in 2013 sold his company, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, for $10 billion.
Years ago, while on the board of Newtown Friends School, in Newtown, Pa., which his children attended, Dr. Coles heard a proverb: “‘Wealth or wisdom is usually the requirement,’” he said, “‘and if you happen to have both, even better.’”
By the spring of 2015, a number of the city’s other cultural institutions were showing signs that they were making a conscious decision to diversify their boards. The Metropolitan Museum of Art appointed three new trustees to the board, two of whom were nonwhite. On Lafayette Street, at the Public Theater, it was four out of five.
“This was no accident,” said Mr. Davis, a longtime Public Theater board member who credited Arielle Tepper Madover, the nonprofit’s chairwoman since 2013, for making its board was more in sync with its championing of nonwhite playwrights and performers.
When Patrick Bradford, the first black partner at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, announced his plans to leave the Public Theater board, he suggested another prominent African-American replace him: Timothy Wilkins, who works in mergers and acquisitions at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, who had served on the Public Theater’s Partners Program.
“I always enjoyed the theater, but what really impressed me was the multiracial, multiethnic casting,” Mr. Wilkins said.
Does the makeup of the board mirror what he has seen on the theater’s stages?
“Not yet,” he said, laughing. “But it does feel like there’s a commitment to progress.”
In January of this year, results of Mr. Finkelpearl’s diversity study were released. Amid 41 pages of graphs and tables, the Ithaka analysis demonstrated that the higher the endowment of an organization, the lower its number of black and Hispanic board members and senior staff members. At Carnegie Hall, whose board was less than 20 percent nonwhite, all 10 of its officers were white, though six trustees are black.
For more than 20 years, its chairman was Sanford I. Weill, the former chief executive of Citigroup, who pushed for significant capital-improvements projects — very much like those that Mr. Walker and others are concerned that boards are now overly focused on.
And they were controversial for other reasons as well: In 2007, he handed what ultimately became a $230 million renovation of the concert hall’s headquarters to the architect Natan Bibliowicz, who happened to be his son-in-law.
In February 2015, Carnegie Hall announced that the longtime trustee Ronald Perelman, a billionaire investor, would succeed Mr. Weill as chairman, with Mr. Weill taking the role of president.
Big change seemed somewhat unlikely, but Mr. Perelman had an interest in the diversity issue. For one, he is on the board of the Apollo Theater, with his close friend Richard Parsons, the African-American former C.E.O. of Time Warner. He is also friendly with Mayor de Blasio.
In July, around the same time Mr. Perelman recruited Mr. Walker to the board of Carnegie Hall, Mr. Perelman’s spokeswoman, Christine Taylor, went to lunch with Mr. Finkelpearl. There, they hatched a plan for the Carnegie Hall diversity symposium.
Then things went a little nuts at Carnegie Hall, when Mr. Perelman decided to really rattle the cage. He suspended the artistic director, Clive Gillinson, who had been managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra before joining Carnegie Hall.
In a letter later reprinted in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Perelman wrote that Mr. Gillinson had failed to act with appropriate transparency by repeatedly denying him access to the company’s financial records, among other things.
The board rushed to Mr. Gillinson’s defense. Mr. Perelman resigned. When Mr. Perelman showed up at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 19 for the diversity symposium led by Mr. Finkelpearl, he and Mr. Gillinson sat as far apart as possible.
As people sympathetic to Mr. Perelman tell it, the board was a boys club that avoided tension and disagreement, while it rubber-stamped projects with clear conflicts of interest, and ignored efforts to diversify the audience and programming.
As people sympathetic to Mr. Gillinson cast the story, Mr. Perelman quit after making a Barnum-like play to alter Carnegie Hall’s programming, reducing its focus on classical music and trying to sign R&B stars like Alicia Keys.
Ms. Taylor did not deny that Mr. Perelman hoped to update the offerings, but she framed it as part of a larger pro-diversity plan. “He didn’t suggest Alicia Keys to dumb Carnegie Hall down,” she said. “He did it to bring in new people who might patronize it in the future.”
Mercedes Bass took over as acting chairwoman with the aim that she would eventually assume the role in a long-term capacity, according to three board sources.
Lawyers were brought in to investigate Mr. Perelman’s claims and determined that Mr. Gillinson had acted in good faith. But that did not stop a number of its trustees that winter from voicing concern that Ms. Bass — a white Upper East Side socialite — may not be the person to carry Carnegie Hall into the future.
A better alternative, they argued, was Mr. Smith. For one, he had recently pledged $15 million to Carnegie Hall, as well as $50 million to Cornell Medical School.
He is also an African-American man with a love for classical music and sons named Hendrix (after Jimi) and Legend (after John), which positioned him to be a potential bridge between traditionalists and the more populist camp. The icing on the cake was that he had been recruited to the board in 2013 by Mr. Gillinson.
After the formal announcement, Mr. Walker praised Mr. Smith’s selection as “a transformational moment in the life of the city.” In a rare interview, even Mr. Perelman offered measured praise. “From my point of view, this is a step in the right direction,” he said. “I think he can have a fabulous effect, if he is allowed to.”
But Dr. Muhammad, the former director of the Schomburg center, cautioned against seeing Mr. Smith’s entry into New York cultural life as a sign that things will change in a meaningful way.
“White people are going to be wealthier on average, wealthier people are going to be in leadership positions more often, and in those positions they’re likely to be part of a network of people in the same social milieu,” Dr. Muhammad said. “There’ll continue to be people like Robert Smith, who happen to be African-American and do wonderful things, but there’s a giant wealth gap between blacks and whites, and it’s only widened in the wake of the great recession. Is this a sign of a trend that black people will be the heads of boards all over the country? I doubt it.”