Opera Idaho Aida

Michelle Johnson, left, starred in Opera Idaho's production of Verdi's Aida.

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Soon after the police killing of George Floyd in late May, a group of Boise-based artists and arts organizations began to examine race in the arts scene in the City of Trees. By Sept. 9, that coalition had swelled to 39 people and groups and publicly released a shared pledge: the Boise Arts, Culture & History Anti-Racism Statement.

"This really is just the beginning, and I hope it will take everyone by storm," said signee and photographer Angie Smith.

The statement outlines a strategy to rapidly and permanently increase the visibility and influence of Black people, and ultimately BIPOC, in the visual and performing arts. The order is tall—Boise is a predominantly white city in a predominantly white state—but in light of current events and a mandate for social justice, it's an order organizers and signatories say must be made. 

Signatories so far include organizations like Boise Philharmonic, KIN, Radio Boise, Story Story Night, Treefort Music Fest and the Idaho Botanical Garden, as well as individuals like musician Leta Harris Neustaedter, writer Heidi Kraay, choreographer and dancer Daniel Ojeda, and musician Grant Olsen. As signers of the statement, they have agreed to do the following:

  • Involve Black people in creating artistic content and programming
  • Actively recruit and hire Black people for leadership positions
  • Establish internal anti-racist policies
  • Show understanding of the communities served by arts organizations
  • Provide professional, Black-led anti-racism training
  • Adopt and practice anti-racist principles

At first blush, there's a problem with with the above bullet points. Recruitment, internal policies and the provision of training to employees suggest a one-size-fits-all approach that is more suitable for larger groups than individual artists, but caveats have been made to turn solo signatories into protectors of the paradigm, holding other artists and organizations accountable to the principles of the statement while undertaking anti-racist action of their own.

For solo artists like Smith, who recently nabbed a cover of The New York Times Magazine and is known locally for exhibitions like Stronger Shines the Light and 19 Love Storiessigning will mean being a team player by boosting the signals of other artists' and orgs' anti-racism efforts, even as she extends a career of photographic projects that have so far spotlighted Idaho's refugees and people impacted by COVID-19. She was part of a small working group that crafted the statement, and said smaller groups and lone artists like her can help keep other signatories on track. 

The end goal is a feedback loop in which tentpole groups wrap Black artists and managers into their folds and make corresponding shifts to their programming, while others produce Black-oriented and anti-racist content and ensure other signatories don't renege. The impetus may have come from the arts organizations themselves, but Smith said the statement and its mechanism for change may end up shifting audiences' values.

"When we look at the types of exhibitions we want to attend ... we need to begin to look at the structures of our organizations that are putting on these shows," she said. "That diversification needs to be happening within the foundation of these nonprofit organizations."

Getting not just agreement, but enthusiasm from the arts community at large was a challenge. Even in the drafting process, Smith and others maintained a back-and-forth with other interested parties to ensure every person and organization was enthusiastic about the final product. Some organizations participated in the process but did not ultimately sign the statement, though several have issued anti-racism proclamations or formed anti-racist policies of their own.

"One of the things that torpedoes a lot of anti-racism efforts is people get told what to do without buy-in for it," said musician and activist Leta Harris Neustaedter, who helped shepherd the project in a number of capacities.

Close readers will notice that the statement does not mention "BIPOC," and is specifically oriented toward the Black experience with Boise arts organizations. It's no accident that the document is explicit in its support of Black artists and arts administrators. Frustrated with some of the criticism she has received in regards to the statement, particularly of the lack of involvement of Black people in crafting it, Neustaedter said it's important to better weave Black people into the fabric of Boise's arts scene, no matter who ultimately leads that charge. The idea of issuing a statement came from The Morrison Center and John Michael Schert of JMS & Company and Treefort Music Fest, but Neustaedter said that part of her own involvement was to ensure that white-led organizations engaged in difficult conversations about race during the formation of the coalition and its statement of purpose. 

"The intent here was to focus on the most marginalized. By doing that, everybody's lifted," she told Boise Weekly. "All groups of color benefit when Black people are focused on." 

For at least some of the signatories, the Boise-based anti-racism efforts have taken place concurrently with their partner organizations elsewhere. That was the case for Opera Idaho. Opera Idaho is in partnership with Opera America, which has released its own statement affirming the Black Lives Matter movement and has engaged its members in combating racism. Such efforts include mentorship programs paving the way for Black arts managers to enter the highest echelons of opera organizations and workshops on "inherited repertoire" in the classical arts. Executive Director Mark Junkert said a major area of improvement is literally behind the scenes.

"We have had quite a large percentage of singing artists who have been people of color over the last 12 years, but we have not had a stage director and we have not had one Black conductor," he said. "I'll actively now look in those areas. One of the suggestions is that we involve members of the Black community in programming, and that's where you involve a director, a stage director."

Those are inward-facing changes; but in the case of Opera Idaho, the most outward-facing facet of the nonprofit—the shows it stages—has been subject to social justice considerations for more than a decade, according to Junkert. Many of the themes that are stock elements of classical opera, particularly the mistreatment of women, rape and suicide, are far more sensitive topics today than when those works were first staged. In recent seasons, Opera Idaho has increasingly relied on contemporary operas and a more diverse cast of performers. This season, in addition to standby operas like Carmen and Macbeth, it will also stage An American Dream, which tackles German-Jewish immigration and Japanese internment during WWII; and All is Calm, about the famous Christmas Truce of WWI. Last year it put on a death row opera, Dead Man Walking; and its production of Verdi's Aida put Black singers, including soprano Michelle Johnson, in starring roles. 

Clearly there's plenty of- and stage space for- newer, more woke operas, ballets and symphonies, but don't suck in your breath waiting for them to supplant the Capital-C-Canon: The Nutcracker will likely continue to be the big bread-winner for Ballet Idaho, and Junkert said opera-goers still lean toward the classics. Squaring that circle, he said, is the "ultimate challenge." It's a challenge not shared by all signatories, but with time and cooperation, Boise's artists and arts organizations can get there together.

"I think people should check back with us in a year and see what we've done," Junkert said. "One of the interesting aspects of this statement is the attempt to hold ourselves accountable to each other. ... I hope we do that for each other."

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