Here’s to the next 10 years of Bite the Big Apple: An Interview with Fotis Kapetopolous

  In April of this year, I wrote a blog about the program Bite the Big Apple (BTBA), an international, joint venture between my company, Walker International Communications Group, based in New York, and Kape Communications Pty Ltd, based in Melbourne, Australia. We just concluded our 10th tour of New York by Australian arts administrators. Participants flew close to 10,000 miles(!) and endured a 12-15-hour time difference to spend one week learning from their New York counterparts about how dialogue and cultural diversity in the arts can be utilized as a viable mechanism for defying bigotry, defusing intolerance and cultivating broader audiences for their organizations.

Following the conclusion of the 2017 tour earlier this month (October), Kape Communications Pty Ltd Director and BTBA co-founder Fotis Kapetopolous and I sat down to celebrate our decade-long project and to review what we’ve learned.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: What are your memories of how the project began?

Fotis Kapetopolous: You invited me to Chicago in 2004 for a conference with the Arts and Business Council. I met you in New York before the Chicago conference, and you introduced me to a lot of great people. When I returned to Australia and shared my experience with my wife Chari, she said it might be good for Australian professionals to meet some of the people I had met. I thought that was an amazing idea. When you don’t know New York City or anyone there, you become a prisoner of Times Square, or you walk up and down 42nd Street. You may hit the museum mile, but that would be the extent of your understanding the city’s very rich cultural life.

We have a different type of diversity in Australia than America—50-percent of our population come from a non-English-speaking background—China, Pacific Islands and India. There are also more than 500 clans or groups of indigenous people, who make up about 3-percent. Imagine giving the arts community of Australia the opportunity to meet someone like you, who opens doors to interesting cultural opportunities and energizing arts leaders. That was the original idea. Underlying that concept was the fact that you are a professional in audience development and absolutely passionate about the proposition that nonprofit arts organizations in Australia, a nation with large populations of immigrants and indigenous people, should develop a genuine understanding and commitment to reaching out to diverse audiences.

This also was my core belief. I say this not just because of my empathy for social justice, but also as a son of an immigrant. I have experienced the pain of exclusion in Australia; my father was subjected to social injustice. When my mom was alive, she attended the theater out of curiosity, but was never invited to fully participate in the arts. She never saw the stories of our community on stage. This exclusion is something that happened to all immigrant communities.

I have devoted my life to this issue. I could do this work with banks and corporations to further culturally diversify Australia, but I stuck with the arts because I feel the arts are the last and most important bastion to break down barriers.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Why did you think that Australia was “ripe” for Bite the Big Apple?

Australians actually profess to be very aware of diversity, but they have not been successful in diversifying the audiences of our cultural institutions. And you can’t have a diverse audience unless you diversify the staff; a staff that proactively engages in and actively looks to diversify the audience. Otherwise, you just repeat the pattern of having people of color on stage for elite white audiences to view. That’s why I proposed our business alliance 10 years ago.

Over the past 10 years, BTBA has worked with 150 representatives from all the six states of Australia; a cross-section that includes tremendous cultural and geographic diversity. With the exception of this year, we also have had participation in this program every year from representatives of Australia’s indigenous people. Other organizations do a different type of diversity work. They tend to talk about diversifying stages and gallery spaces. But we focus on the audience. I believe this is an urgent need that is not only good for society, but also impacts the bottom line of every arts organization.

Of course, there is also a need for diversifying the stage—the casts and production staff—similar to what Victoria Bailey of the Theatre Development Fund advocates, as well as Rachel Reiner of the Broadway League. And that is happening more and more. But to keep the doors of the theaters open, the diversity of the audiences is key—not just based on race, but also geography and class.

The work we were doing in our respective countries brought you and I together—we focus on the audience not the stage. What BTBA does is unique; I don’t think there is another program like this anywhere in the world.

Donna: What type of feedback have you received from the alumni of BTBA?

Fotis: We did experience birthing pains with the first BTBA. Following the first one, I saw one of the participants back in Australia and he said, “I’m not sure what that was.” But then I saw him again three months later and he said of his BTBA experience, “It’s changed my life; it’s changed my position.” And now, I continuously get that feedback–BTBA is a life changing experience. It changes people’s lives and one hopes that it permeates everything they do. Not just arts organizations but also their everyday lives. I want them to go back home and when someone says something that misrepresents diversity initiatives, they have the confidence and courage to correct that person.

I would say a substantial number of the key arts organizations in Australia have had a connection to or interaction with BTBA, including the National Gallery of Victoria; major regional art centers, theater companies, and many other key arts organizations—small, medium and large. I should underscore your specific impact in Australia permeates the field of the audience development work we have pioneered there. You have travelled and spoken to groups in Australia four times, creating momentum for incredible diversification of the arts. Your book also is a core requirement in many arts administration programs in Australia. The participants carried back to Australia what they learned while attending BTBA, and earnestly made efforts to incorporate those ideas. Now our work has become part of the everyday thread of funded arts organizations in Australia. We grew because of the continuous fine-tuning we did, as well as because of the uniqueness of our respective experiences. We’ve had a positive impact in Australia; things are changing. But there is still a lot of work left to do be done.

Donna: For 10 years, we have impacted close to 150 Australian arts administrators. What do you think the next 10 years will look like?

Fotis: We trained a lot of people in audience development and now it’s up to the alumni and many others to continue this effort. I see myself as a bit of an aging warrior. The will to fight is still there, but in a different way. I need to now think of industries that link themselves together.  I am headed to Athens with Australian native and former New York Performance Space 122 Artistic Director Vallejo Gantner. We’re going to see how cultural industries can help revitalize a city in crisis. It’s already happened in New York in 2008 and in Melbourne in 1993. I want to look at the compendium of industries that make our lives what they are—not just the arts, cafés, breweries, fashion designers, elected officials and urban developers. Those things that come together to give life to a city and its people are called cultural industries, and I believe these social entrepreneurs and enterprises, which include arts institutions, need to come together to put an economic stake in the ground. For example, at the Brooklyn Museum, they discussed moving their coffeehouse from the back of the building to the front, inviting people in without their having to feel compelled to go to an exhibition. This is another way that the arts institutions can permeate society and begin to build a connection.  So our ultimate goal is to look at the social and economic impact that creative industries can have on our society, particularly in New York.

Donna: What’s next for Fotis?                 

Fotis: I want to spend some time in Greece and Asia and study deeply. Next year, I’ll come to New York alone (not that I don’t love the people with whom I travel here). I will work with you; see events; seek to understand what’s happening; interview people and see how they’re processing what’s going on. I’m also going to pursue a PhD. I am reflecting upon the 10 years of notes that I’ve been compiling since the inception of BTBA, which will become the backbone of my dissertation. I also will continue writing and doing administrative work. As I get older, I’ve become more thoughtful. I look at this next phase as a continuous process. I can be in it or watch it, learning everything anew.