The new season is upon and I’m sure many community engagement managers out there spent the summer making plans for a variety of initiatives. Probably high on that list were “diversity initiatives”.
If you google “diversity”, the definition is “variety; a range of things.” Nowhere in there does it say “putting people of different skin tones into theater/concert hall/museum seats,” but in so many organizations, both in the arts world and non-arts world, that is what the definition means. And if we’re in fine and performing arts aka high-art organizations (and especially in many places in the South), “How can we diversify our audience” is code for “How can we get more non-White people to buy tickets”?
As I was immersed in my own program planning for the year, complete with “diversity initiatives” at the top of the list, Malesha Taylor‘s article published in February on HowlRound. In the article, Taylor outlines several takeaways from a contract position to promote and increase audience development. The article is short, but does a great job at bringing out several issues that arise when we discuss diversity initiatives.
Talk with any development, any community engagement specialist and they’ll likely tell you that their job is heavily dependent on relationships. The development director looking to pull in the five figure gift has likely been building a relationship and cultivating those donors for more than a few days. The community engagement director has been developing a relationship with the social service organization over several months to best determine how each other’s stakeholders would benefit from an upcoming exhibition. True engagement only comes from a relationship based in trust and equal rewards.
Taylor mentions that those relationships take time to develop. Producing a play during February with themes close to the African American community is fine; beginning to talk with that community in January is not. You may see a short term increase your demographics, but it’s likely not sustainable.
Inclusivity and Diversity should be topics that we discuss year round, not just before Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. If your organization is not quite at that level, take some small steps to get there.
- Recognize as a staff that diversity initiatives do not fall to one person. There is no one in your office who is “Manager of getting a wider variety of people to experience our art”. It’s everyone’s job and everyone has unique opportunities to move your organization closer to the goal.
- Realize that diversity is not just about skin color. This is one of the most obvious categories, but read back through that definition above. Diversity is a variety. So, diversity includes age, socio-economic status, gender, education levels, geographic boundaries, ability, and a whole host of other categories. Maybe your organization’s biggest obstacle is not skin-color, but that you only pull patrons from one county or only pull patrons mostly from a high level of education.
- Start talking with your board about diversity and inclusivity. Boards want our audiences to be diverse, but often our boards aren’t diverse. Encourage your board chair or governing committee to include a variety of people on the board. Adding people to the board who don’t look like or come from the same background as other members can help staff to cultivate relationships with different communities. Similar to point number 1, diversity is not just the staff’s responsibility. The board plays an important role too.
- Don’t be discouraged. Diversifying audiences and true audience engagement is a difficult area to tackle and one that will not be resolved in a single season. There are many combinations of factors that go into why a particular community is not participating in your programs and you won’t figure out and solve those over night. Be patient. Listen. Keep taking small steps. Even in June and November.
Looking for more resources? Americans for the Arts is a good place to start. HowlRound and Clyde Fitch Report are two of my favorites for consistently publishing thought-provoking articles.