Part II: On the Path to Transforming the Landscape of the Arts; An Interview with Michael Robertson

This is Part II of my interview with Michael Robertson, an arts manager, artist advocate, organizational consultant and facilitator dedicated to fostering conversations, supporting training, and promoting systemic change locally, regionally, and nationally around issues of equity, access, and inclusion.

Michael served as the Managing Director of The Lark for 11 years, where he oversaw finance, fundraising, human resources, strategic planning, and co-led equity, access, and inclusion planning, policy, and training. Representing The Lark, Michael was an inaugural member of the artEquity/Theatre Communications Group Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. He is currently working on a study for the New World Foundation, exploring the intersection of theater and social change.

My company was retained by The Lark’s Play Development Center several years ago to work with Michael, the theater’s staff and leadership to craft a plan and strategy to build a culture of diversity and inclusion within the theater. Since then, Michael and I have stayed in touch and I have witnessed his development and emergence as an intentional arts administrator who has made it his mission to change the landscape of the arts. In Part I of the interview, Michael shared the importance of transforming the theater’s social justice values into action through the creation of an EAI (Equity, Access & Inclusion) plan. In this portion of the interview, Michael further elaborates on the theater’s years-long process of embracing, cultivating and executing its plan and subsequent programs.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you overcome the obstacles to implementing the theater’s EAI (Equity, Access & Inclusion) Plan?

Michael Robertson: Certain actions became priorities. Oftentimes, folks say that money is a challenge in this work. But I think our organizational budget shows the truth of our priorities. While certain things did not require money, such as the brown bag conversations, there were parts of the process that required we reallocate funds. We also shared our intentions with the world and hoped to gain attention for them.

Anna Kull was determined to change the unpaid internship program into a paid apprenticeship program. We just made it happen—we reprioritized other programs. Initially, we committed $20,000 for the program. Now it’s up to $37,000, with plans to grow to grow it to $55,000+ per year. It’s a moral imperative to not have people work for free. A lot of the employees in entry-level positions at The Lark came through that internship program. If the apprenticeship program is diversified, there would be an overall diverse candidate pool of young people—more people of color—who could work a part-time job and a receive a stipend from The Lark.

Most recently, we partnered with The Apothetae, which was founded by Gregg Mozgala, to uplift voices and stories about the disabled experience. With Gregg, we designed a program and promoted it via our website. We also stated to funders, “We don’t have the money but we feel this is important.” As Gregg would say, “We threw up a flare” and the money came, although we said we would do it no matter what. Making that statement to the world made us accountable. And working with The Apothetae also made us accountable.

I encourage theaters to start somewhere. Put $2,000 in your budget and bring in someone from another organization who is doing this work to talk and work with your staff. The budget tells the real story of the organization—if there’s no money in the budget for equity, access and inclusion issues, that is the statement you’re making to the public. Start with something; you will quickly see the rewards, and you will understand the need for allocating the resources to make it happen. Shoot up a flare. Be bold. It was so important to us.

Donna: What are you most proud of in terms of The Lark’s efforts to fulfill the mission for equity, access and inclusion?

Michael: I am most proud that every single staff (12 people) member and the five paid apprentices are fully on board with the work—Equity, Access & Inclusion. There’s something about getting an entire team on board. It’s not about everyone being perfect; it’s about people being game to engage. Equity, Access & Inclusion are The Lark’s core values – it impacts everything that is done. It has resulted in providing people with different ways to see themselves in the process and understand the moral imperative for the work.

Donna: What do you see is needed in the field to advance diversity and inclusion in the arts?

Michael: We are in an interesting time where the arts can help people understand the fear, anger and hatred around us. If anyone is dedicated to serving the community, they need to become a social justice organization (as Carmen so frequently says) and state their values in terms of community. All of our organizations can be bolder in saying that the arts can affect change. And we will continue to evaluate and reflect on the state of our own organization; to make it more welcoming. People have to take action and dismantle systems that may be causing arts organizations not to be welcoming or accessible to other people.

Donna What’s next in the field?

 Michael: I am super excited. It’s about coalition-building. Lots of groups are looking at creating coalitions, such as groups of theaters of color. There is the Twins City (MN) Theater of Color Coalition and nationally, The Black Theater Commons. People are coming together across organizations to review systematic ways to change the field, such as Theatre Puget Sound cohort in Seattle, a free program that brings up-and-coming, diverse local artists together for a summer of professional training and development. I see a growing trend in theater-training programs around the country that are creating deeper ways to dig into these issues with faculty and students, making sure that a strong, anti-racist or anti-oppression analysis is part of the training for our next generation so that they can question existing systems and rebuild what’s not working. We also must help existing organizations self-reflect and change old practices that are exclusionary. At the same time, we need to support new ways of creating and sharing art that is more reflective of a broader array of traditions and cultures from across the globe.

In addition to arts organizations and training programs, it’s exciting that philanthropy is doing a lot more work in this area. Theaters of color, some of which have engaging audiences of color for 50 years, have received disproportionately less money from philanthropy. I’m not pointing a finger, but rather I am acknowledging an historic inequity. Now that we are aware, let’s figure out together how to work to correct it. Organizations, such as Grantsmakers in the Arts (GIA), are pioneering change. GIA recently updated the Racial Equity and Social Justice Manifesto posted on its website. The revised manifesto recognizes “racism as one of the most pressing issues of our time,” and notes that meaningful progress on advancing racial equity will have a significant and “positive impact on challenging other forms of discrimination-based injustices.” GIA also announced it will increase arts funding for African-, Latino/a-, Asian-, Arab- and Native-American artists, arts organizations, children and adults.

It’s important to remember that this work takes time; the culture of change is slow. Changing hearts and minds doesn’t occur after one performance; one hire, or one partnership. You can’t build relationships overnight. It takes patience and leadership. Still, motivation is there and ongoing because this is a moral imperative. It’s about people’s lives.

Donna: Thank you again, Michael, for sharing your experience with my Arts & Culture Connections Blog audience. Your work at The Lark is a great example of the importance of commitment by the entire arts organization and intention (action, learning and processing) in order for diversity and inclusion programs to have a positive impact on both the theater and the community, and become “ground zero” for social change.