New York Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda on Building Diverse Teams (Blog Post)
In the 1990s, Deborah Borda was one of the first women to head a major orchestra. Since then, she has become one of the most successful arts administrators in the country, leading several prominent orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, where she now is President and CEO.
Historically, orchestras have been male-dominated, both on the administrative and creative sides. Borda has dedicated her career to creating opportunities for women—most recently with Project 19. That series commemorates the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment by commissioning 19 new works by 19 composers—the largest women-only commissioning initiative in history.
Recently, Borda visited Catalyst offices and talked to Catalyst President and CEO Lorraine Hariton about overcoming gender bias and building more diverse and inclusive teams. Below are some highlights. Their conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Lorraine Hariton: How did you end up on the administrative side of the art world?
Deborah Borda: I was trained as a musician and never thought I would become involved in management. My focus had been on being a great violinist and violist. But when I was a student and went backstage at Tanglewood to watch the Boston Symphony rehearsals, I noticed some men dressed in proper business suits. They stood out because everyone else was wearing T-shirts. So I asked my friends, “Who are those guys?” And they said, “That’s management.” And that sounded like an interesting job—something I wanted to do. So I applied for a job in management at the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival and found my calling.
Hariton: The symphony orchestras in America were all-male until very recently. Today, there are six women running the top 20 orchestras. Women have had to face a lot of unconscious bias. What are your observations about unconscious bias in the symphony?
Borda: In the late 1960s, two African-American musicians auditioned for the orchestra, and neither of them got a callback. They went to the Human Rights Commission in New York, which charged the New York Philharmonic, then led by conductor Leonard Bernstein, with racial discrimination. While the lawsuit was not successful, it resulted in more orchestras adopting blind auditions—where audition candidates play behind a screen. The rationale was to be race-blind, but of course, the screen made auditions gender-blind too. This changed the face of American orchestras because women started winning auditions. Blind auditions radically changed the gender balance in US orchestras starting in the ’70s and continuing to this day.
Hariton: Women also are challenged by a relatively small pool of mentors and sponsors, something that Catalyst is actively working on with our Catalyst Women On Board™ program. What are your thoughts on sponsoring women, especially women of color, in this male-dominated industry?
Borda: An issue that concerns me is that there are very few Latino and African-American administrative leaders in the arts. I’m involved with an organization called Sphinx, based in Detroit, that promotes young musicians of color. They started a mentoring program for orchestra administrators because if you don’t change who’s making decisions in these spaces, then things are never going to change. I’m currently mentoring two people in this program. It’s a way for me to pay back. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we started a fellowship training program to help prepare musicians before they take an audition. National auditions are difficult and competitive—over 300 people apply for every position at major orchestras—and women benefit from having someone train them to succeed.
There also has been a lack of women serving in the roles of conductor and composer. We are addressing this by creating new pipelines. At the conductors’ competition in Paris this year, for which I am serving as president, we are inviting only women. The guys may feel left out. I understand that but look at how long the women were left out.
I also am leading Project 19, the New York Philharmonic’s multi-season initiative to commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote—though many women of color were denied the ability to exercise their right until many decades later. As part of the project, we have commissioned 19 new works by 19 women composers. It is the single largest women-only commissioning project in orchestral history.
Hariton: How will these initiatives make a difference?
Borda: If we have more women in leadership roles, we’ll have a broader talent pool and better music. If we have more women composing, we’re going to get better compositions, and we’re going to get compositions that speak to different audiences in different ways. We recently discovered that fewer than 3% of the pieces we’ve performed at the Symphony were composed by women. Now when we do our youth concerts, we are very mindful to have women conductors leading them. So when a little girl walks into a concert hall, they see a woman conducting the orchestra, and they never think, “I can’t do it.”