What Will It Take to Foster Change?

The fervor of the U.S. midterm election has finally died down. However, the one thing that has not changed as the result of the millions of ballots cast is our nation’s deep class, racial, social and cultural divisions. As a matter of fact, according to a report compiled by the FBI, hate crime in America has had its biggest spike since September 11, 2001.

As leaders of arts and culture institutions, I believe we have the responsibility to foster change. We have the responsibility to utilize our resources to provide opportunities for engagement; for insight and understanding; for listening and dialogue, and for shedding light on our collective fate as human beings. I believe we hold the key to creating a society that both welcomes and embraces diversity, inclusion and equity, as a necessity for living fully.

Ultimately, the mission before us, should we choose to accept it, is a multifaced imperative, essential not only for the sustainability of our arts and cultural institutions, but also for the future of our nation. Please ask yourself: What is the current state of diversity, equity and inclusion in my arts landscape? What will it take to change or improve it? What responsibility am I willing to take to make it happen? What role will my institution play in ensuring that our audiences are reflective of today’s diverse society?

I believe taking on this mission requires the conviction and commitment of visionary leadership; planning, execution and follow-up; the establishment of specific target demographics; the building of effective and mutually beneficial community partnerships; consistent and ongoing communication, and programming that resonates with the target demographic. Based on my more than three decades of experience, I’d like to briefly elaborate on each of these points.

The seeds of my expertise were first planted in response to a request from Dance Theatre of Harlem’s co-founder Arthur Mitchell for me to develop an African American audience for ballet. I took what I learned from working with Mr. Mitchell and shared my expertise with the Public Theater in response to Artistic Director George C. Wolfe’s request to help his institution build a connection with audiences that looked like patrons standing on a subway stop to the Apollo Theater. And I was able to pioneer a successful department solely focused on Community Engagement at the request of New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s President and CEO John Schreiber. It was the conviction of the leadership that created the opportunities for me to translate that vision into action.

Visionary Leadership

It is the role of the Artistic and/or Executive Director to shape the vision of his/her institution for diversity, equity and inclusion; imbed that vision into the culture of the organization, and shepherd it to life. The more specific the vision, the more likely the staff and board can get behind it and collectively move forward to achieve the goals. The breadth and scope of the vision and the ability to articulate that vision should not be bound by size of the organization, or the limits of its budget. Sometimes outside help is required. Visionary leaders surround themselves with the expertise necessary for translating their vision into audience development programs that will not only open doors to diverse groups of people, but also help them achieve their social and fiscal goals.

Planning, execution and follow-up

Audience development is a multifaceted program that requires planning, execution and follow-up. The initiation of this effort, along with commitment to see it through is as important as numbers. But to get to the numbers requires setting objectives, benchmarks, reviewing outcomes, listening to feedback and establishing next steps.

Keep in mind, not everyone has the experience, facility, capacity or desire to do this work. Open dialogue will be essential through all of the phases. Most important, this process requires patience and tenacity.

 Establishing your target demographics

It would be wonderful if we could all throw open the doors of our institutions or facilities and our diverse audience would just show up. Marketing 101: Know who you want to reach and why. Do the research. Don’t prejudge based on something you’ve seen or heard. Every target demographic is unique and specific to your locale Find out what they’re seeking from their culture institutions (don’t forget, you’re competing with streaming videos and mega gaming consoles) or hire someone to help you.

Build effective and mutually beneficial community partnerships

The benefits of meaningful relationships, equitable partnerships and cultural/community Ambassadors are limitless. These relationships also are more valuable than just ticket sales. They are necessary for responding to today’s changing society and securing access to culture for future audiences. Last week’s blog highlighted a few arts organizations that are proactively building partnerships and bridges to new audiences.

Please keep in mind that in the 21st century there is no rational excuse for conscious or unconscious exclusion of diverse audiences, It is a inexcusable conflict of interest and an affront to the purpose of the arts experience.


Use all your platforms to broadcast and narrate efforts that may be of interest to your target demographic—newsletters, social media or websites. Make sure the images you include are as diverse as the groups you are hoping to reach. Also look for inclusion in hyperlocal media such as church bulletins or corporate newsletters.

Programming that resonates with your target audience

Take a leap of faith and listen to what the community wants to see. Align their input with the mission of your organization and consider presenting showcases, talks, films or workshops that illuminate their recommendations, but still support the main schedule for the season.

You’ll find more details in my forthcoming book, Champions for the Arts.

In the interim, as we wind down 2018 and begin to establish goals, targets and objectives for 2019, I hope you will keep in mind the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

With eyes wide open and hearts leading the way, let’s continue our efforts to do what it takes to open doors and extend invitations to the diverse audiences of our respective communities.