Marcia Sells – a former dancer who served as assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and dean of Harvard Law School – was hired as the first chief diversity officer for the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts institution in the United States.
Her appointment, announced by the Met on Monday, corrects the company’s nearly 140-year history and is in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the 2020 assassination of George Floyd. It’s also a conscious step toward inclusivity by being a major player in an industry where some black singers, including Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, have made fame but the diversity of orchestras, staff, and leaders have lagged.
Cultural institutions across the country have been making changes since last summer as the Black Lives Matter movement scrutinized racial inequalities in virtually every corner of the art world. The Met was no exception: the company announced plans to open next season with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” his first opera by a black composer, directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, the first Blacks Become Director directs a production on the main stage at the Met. Three color composers – Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson – have also been commissioned.
However, to make bigger changes to the Met, an institution with a long payroll and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Met turns to Ms. Sells. As a member of the senior management team, she will report to Peter Gelb, the general manager. The Human Resources Department will be brought under her direction and her remit will be broad: the Met as a whole, including the Board of Directors.
“Sometimes terrible events like the murder of George Floyd catalyze people and they realize that this is something we have to do – at the Met and in the arts,” Ms. Sells said in an interview about her plans to make the Met more inclusive create a company that values the diversity of its employees and the audience it serves.
Mr. Yellow described Ms. Sells as an “ideal” candidate. “As well as having a track record of success, she also has knowledge of the performing arts as she was involved in it,” he said in an interview. “And she loves opera, which is definitely a plus.”
Ms. Sells began dancing at the age of 4 in Cincinnati, an artful city where she found herself both on stage and in the audience of the famous Music Hall, and where she saw a young Kathleen Battle sing as a student at University of Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music.
“It was part of my childhood experiencing art,” she said.
She later joined Arthur Mitchell’s company, the Dance Theater of Harlem, and then stayed in New York to attend Barnard College and Columbia Law School. Ms. Sells described herself as “an affirmative action baby” and said that both as a dancer and a law student she encountered open and insidious racism that made her unwelcome.
For example, Ms. Sells recalled a judge in the mid-1980s who told her that witnesses would have to wait outside the courtroom. She said that she was actually an assistant prosecutor, and he replied, “Wow, things have changed.”
Diversity was at the forefront of her work as an administrator – among others in Columbia, the NBA and finally in Harvard Law, where she has been dean of students since 2015. Your mandate at the Met won’t be too far removed from that of Harvard, another institute that is often perceived as an elite to the point of exclusivity.
“It’s not just that you want to get it right,” said Ms. Sells. “There are many eyes on you, but it is a great opportunity to lead the way and learn from other organizations that don’t have such big names, are not so well known and help shed light on their work and on them . “
She plans to start at the Met in late February. Her early roles include devising a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan that can be implemented in terms of recruitment, artistic planning, and engagement. She will also investigate structural inequalities at the Met and work with the marketing and development departments to expand the company’s audience and donor base.
The Met has been closed since last March because of the pandemic, and most of its workers have been on leave without pay since April. It faces a major labor dispute with its unions and more than $ 150 million in lost revenue from the theater closure. However, Mr Gelb said the company hopes to get support for foundation expenses from foundations.
What these costs are will become clearer when Ms. Sells starts her new job. She said she was ready and motivated by the company’s recent realization “how structurally or historically the Met has not felt welcomed by people of color” and the multiple opportunities for change.
“I really believe,” said Ms. Sells, “that this is the moment of the Met.”