A New Cultural Diversity Network Emerges on Staten Island

Photo Credit: Staten Island Arts

This coming week, a new cultural diversity network will be forged on New York’s Staten Island. Spearheaded by Staten Island Arts’ Executive Director Elizabeth Bennett, close to 40 arts representatives will join forces to launch the Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation Initiative. The goals of this initiative include training to: enable cultural organizations (from emerging to established) to better market their work; build strong relationships with both existing and new constituents, and bolster efforts to welcome new audiences.

This initiative is being launched at a time when the NYC Department of City Planning projects that the borough’s population will grow by four percent over the next three years. Among the new residents are an influx of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Mexico. These changing demographics fueled Elizabeth Bennett’s vision to unite the arts landscape of Staten Island by building a solid, multicultural foundation that incorporates the needs and interests of all the residents.

Elizabeth first called me nine months ago to discuss how to bridge Staten Island’s thriving large and small arts organizations and the diverse audiences of the community. I was intrigued by the rich cultural diversity she described; the non-white and white immigrants slowly altering the landscape of Staten Island’s long-time and entrenched white citizens. I believe the process of exploring how to present art to diverse communities is a courageous and bold step towards helping everyone understand our common humanity.

After sharing some insights, Elizabeth told me, “When I get a grant, I will call you back.”  True to her word, I received a call that the Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation Initiative was being funded by grants from the New York Community Trust, the Staten Island Foundation, and the Altman Foundation.

About the initiative, Elizabeth says: “This growth presents an exciting new chapter for Staten Island’s cultural community to not just reach out to a different ethnic demographic but also to capture residents who are not arts-inclined or engaged with local cultural resources.”

To prepare for the this week’s launch of the initiative, Elizabeth and I mapped out plans for identifying the participants and the resources and training my team would provide—community engagement, marketing, and digital marketing. I will be joined in this endeavor by Richard Pelzer, II,  the Associate Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations at Walker International Communications Group, Inc., and Toni Hendrix of The Hendrix Group.

What’s the key to building a network that cultivates, builds and welcomes diverse audiences? There are three critical steps. Number one is intention. Intention is more than goal-setting. It’s the acknowledgement of the essential role that arts play in enriching and enhancing our quality of life, and in helping us recognize our common humanity. It’s the determination to build the bridge and create equal access. It’s important to ensure that the executive leadership team (staff and board) of the arts organization have the same intention and are committed to the goals. Second, it’s important to honestly assess your infrastructure to determine exactly what you can do well. This assessment should include a realistic timetable and built-in measurements of success so that you will be able to accurately gauge the effectiveness of whatever campaign you create. Be sure to pull together a solid team to plan and execute the initiative. This team should consist of both staff and representatives of the communities you hope to engage.  Based on the Third and most critical, you must raise the money to support the effort. Building new audiences cannot be done for free; it requires a substantive budget for developing the campaign and the marketing materials, as well as the budget for creating programming that is enticing to the diverse audiences you are attempting to reach.

The most important component of this endeavor at Staten Island Arts is that there is time—22 months to plan, build, execute and evaluate success.  I applaud Elizabeth’s vision and commitment to do it right. Staten Island Arts will be developing a strong, multicultural network that will serve the organization and the community for years to come.

I’m excited to once again be traveling to another island (I wrote about my trip to Australia last week) to launch a new audience development campaign. But this time, I don’t need a passport! I will blog about our progress from time to time because I believe it’s important to share the process of audience engagement from the field, which affords us all an empowering opportunity for learning, growth and development of this essential component of the arts.