Current Voices of Diversity & Inclusion

Since the inception of this blog, I have sought to share the experiences and insights of several leading voices of Diversity & Inclusion in the arts. This week, I’m sharing key points from each of the interviews I have conducted for Arts & Culture Connections with John Haworth, recently retired from the National American Indian Museum; Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art(The MET); Nai-Ni Chen, founder of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and Michael Robertson, arts manager, consultant and facilitator, who served as the Managing Director at The Lark for 11 years.

 Sandra Jackson-Dumont: Some people are baffled by the “process” of audience development—they think it’s either really simple and requires zero resources, research and training, or they confuse it with marketing. Audience development is relationship-building supported by marketing, etc. It’s much more than getting people to attend exhibitions. It’s about making meaningful connections to what matters to individuals. One by-product of audience development is attendance.

At The MET, this engagement helps us better shape inclusive experiences based on concrete input, rather than making assumptions about what people want or need. Everyone wants to feel welcome when they cross the threshold of what may have been perceived to be an “exclusive” institution. Our mission is to go beyond the welcome. We want to meet people where they are, and when I say, “where they are,” I mean that in the broadest sense of the phrase. We want to move beyond opening the doors; we want folks to know they have the keys.

Michael Robertson: 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 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.

 Sandra Jackson-Dumont: This may require that we change the way we conduct our business—how we behave, how we communicate with others, assessing the look and feel of our institutions—which is both an opportunity and challenge. To be effective in the work of diversity and inclusion, I believe it’s important that we engage in the process as if we’re studying to get a degree. In other words, this requires that the staff be equipped, educated, prepared and experienced in diversity, bias awareness and inclusion work. It should be clear that unconscious bias is real and microaggressions can manifest in various forms and take on a range of appearances.

Nai-Ni Chen: As a society, we are so used to labeling people and putting them in a box or sticking them in a category. So, people automatically expected only traditional Chinese dance (when I first began my company). I spoke with presenters about that. One asked me: “Are you traditional or modern?” And I said, “Both!” But he didn’t believe it was possible for us to perform both. We had to prove ourselves again and again.

For the audience, open talk is also very valuable—it creates and promotes understanding of not just the dancers onstage, but also helps create a deeper understanding of another culture. The more you know about the culture, the deeper you’re able to see into the work. It’s no longer just “pretty movements;” people are able to connect to what is being expressed through the dance.

 John Haworth: We now know that we can’t do all of the work, but we can be a field leader. We can foster professional development, train archivists and preservationists; support community engagement, and continue to ensure that our programs accurately represent multi-generational, cultural traditions…

Michael Robertson: 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 …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.

John Haworth: We also must continue to plan for the future. It’s essential that all cultural institutions create opportunities at the neighborhood level. Does this mean that the major cultural institutions are somehow incentivized to do more and do better in terms of diversity and inclusion? If so, what does that look like? And what about diversity and inclusion as it relates to staff recruitment and employment opportunities? How do these organizations develop relationships with all the diverse communities they need to serve, especially given the changing demographics of our city or our nation? There are many viable options—partnerships with neighboring companies or diverse cultural institutions; targeted media buys or publications of materials; diverse vendor contracts so that inclusion includes economic support of the communities that are potential patrons.

 Sandra Jackson-Dumont: There is no end date for diversity, bias-awareness and inclusion work. If an organization is to ensure equitable access and opportunities for everyone, the work should be a part of the DNA of the entire organization. The pairing of access with opportunity is key to this. It’s one thing to have access to education and it’s another thing to have opportunities to put the knowledge and skills you’ve gained into action. Access with no opportunity is frustrating and problematic at best.

 Michael Robertson: 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.

 Nai-Ni Chen: When we look at the future, we want to ensure that our work continues to impact future generations. Take for example Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, which was first created in 1960. Nearly 60 years later, generation after generation continues to find the performance of Revelations deeply meaningful and inspirational. That is my fundamental goal—to create something that will not just satisfy the present but have value that will last into the future and affect the future generations.

John Haworth: As our nation continues to diversify, this issue will continue to be an ongoing and necessary dialogue that requires arts institutions to proactively engage with the communities they hope to serve.

Michael Robertson: 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.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont: I think it’s also important to remember that diversity and inclusion are more than attributes to be celebrated. To be effective, we must remain aware of and sensitive to why these programs need to be established in the first place.

Nai-Ni Chen: The reason I came to this country and decided to stay is because in the U.S. art is like a kaleidoscope. There are many colors of people contributing to its culture based on individual uniqueness, which is how a beautiful painting is created. We all can contribute to this beautiful painting and together create beautiful artwork and a beautiful world. Nothing is forever; in time, the U.S. will unite again.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: As you can see from these excerpts, there are many voices necessary to transform our society. Inclusion for people of color and diverse voices can be cultivated by all arts and cultural workers. I encourage everyone to have an open mind and heart and know that there are allies who are working hard to be the change.