Photo by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera (Facebook Photo)
Marcia Sells — a native of Cincinnati and a former dancer who became an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and the dean of students at Harvard Law School — has been hired as the first chief diversity officer of the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts institution in the United States, according to an announcement by Metropolitan Opera.
Sells is the daughter of the late Mamie Earl Sells, who was a Cincinnati Herald columnist who was committed to young people, promoting programs that encouraged them to expand and improve their personal lives and career opportunities. A YMCA of Greater Cincinnati scholarship in her name is dedicated to her memory, honoring her loyalty and service to the community through her volunteer work in the arts, education, racial justice programs and social services. Personally dedicated to the YWCA during the last decade of her life, Mrs. Sells played a leadership role in developing the Career Women of Achievement event and served as board member, vice president of membership and overall friend to the YWCA. Robin Mandjes said she and Marcia Sells became friends at Carmel Presbyterian Church, which Marcia attended when she was growing up in Cincinnati.
According to information released by the opera company, Sells comes to the Met from Harvard Law School, where, as dean of students since 2015, she has led her team in the creation and implementation of a wide range of diversity programs. Previously, she’s held important positions at Columbia University, the NBA, Reuters, and the Dance Theater of Harlem, where she began her career as a dancer. Sells, who has a law degree from Columbia, once served as an assistant district attorney for the state of NewYork.
At the Met, Sells will join the senior management team, reporting to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. As part of the senior management team, she will be responsible for developing new diversity initiatives and enhancing existing programs. The Met’s Human Resources department will be under her direction, and she will have a broad mandate to work across the entire institution from administrative staff to union employees to the Met board of directors.
“At a time when social justice rightly demands that we address the inequities of our art form, I’m pleased that we have chosen the ideal candidate in Marcia for implementing long overdue and necessary change,” said Gelb, in announcing Sells’ appointment. “We need to create artistic and administrative pathways for people of color to achieve equity among our artists and artisans and for all of our employees and members of our board.”
Sells will assume her duties in late February.
“I am thrilled to be joining the Met’s very talented team, which is clearly committed to dismantling racial inequalities within the institution,” Sells said. “I look forward to expanding the work that the Met has embarked on to create a more inclusive workplace that values the diversity of its staff and the audiences it serves. As someone who started out as a dancer, it feels like a wonderful homecoming to return to a performing arts organization, especially one that is determined to elevate all voices and identities.”
One of Sells’ first responsibilities will be to put into place a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plan, which will place these essential principles at the heart of the Met’s hiring, artistic planning, and audience-engagement initiatives. While overseeing the Human Resources team, she will lead the work of identifying systemic and structural inequities across the company. She will also be working closely with the marketing and development teams to help broaden the base of the Met’s audience and donors.
Before arriving at Harvard, Sells served as both associate dean in the School of the Arts for Outreach & Education and associate vice president, Program Development and Initiatives, for the office of Government and Community Affairs at Columbia University. She has held a variety of progressively responsible positions in academia, the private sector, and public service, including as educational consultant for Dance Theatre of Harlem; vice president of Employee and Organizational Development for Reuters America; vice president of Organizational Development & Human Resources and vice president Player Education and Development for the National Basketball Association; dean of students at Columbia University School of Law; and assistant district attorney trying rape and child abuse cases for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. Predating her career as a lawyer and in academia, she began her life in New York City as a dancer working for the late Arthur Mitchell, in the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She performed in many ballets with the company and in “Dance in America,” as well as on stages around the world. She has been awarded the “Woman of Power and Influence” Award from the National Organization of Women, the Columbia Black Law Students Distinguished Alumna award, and was Convocation speaker at her alma mater, Barnard College.
Sells’ hiring by the Met builds on recent efforts the company has made to address issues of diversity, including an ongoing partnership with Peoplmovr, a creative agency specializing in involvement with a core focus in anti-racism and equity; collaborations with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; an in-house exhibition, Black Voices at the Met, a history of African American artists on the Met stage; and the programming of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which will have its Met premiere on opening night of the 2021–22 season, the first opera by an African American composer in Met history. It is directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who will become the first Black director to lead a production on the Met’s main stage. It also named three composers of color — Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson — to its commissioning program.
Sells’ appointment, which the Met announced in January, is something of a corrective to the company’s nearly 140-year history and a response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020. It’s also a conscious step toward inclusivity by a major player in an industry in which some Black singers, including Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, have found stardom, but diversity has lagged in orchestras, staff and leadership.
But to make broader changes at the Met, an institution with a long payroll and a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the Met is turning to Sells.
As a note, in recent years, the Cincinnati Opera also has made diversity and inclusion a priority in is operations and presentations.