An Interview with Dr. Ed Holmes: Providing Arts Opportunities for All People

PHOTO CREDIT Courtesy of Overture Center

This week’s Champion of the Arts is Edward S. Holmes, Ph.D., who recently was promoted to the position of Senior Vice President of Equity and Inclusion at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin.

A native of Washington, D.C., Dr. Holmes moved to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, where he completed his undergraduate degrees in English and Political Science; a Masters of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. His 40-year career in the Madison community has focused primarily on the implementation of creative, community-based educational programs and creating inclusive, engaging, academically successful public schools. He also established the Ebony Expressions Cultural Awareness Project, which received local, regional and congressional recognition for its innovation and dedication to the development of the talents of African-American youth and the education of the broader community about the richness and significance of African-American culture.

Dr. Holmes’s numerous awards include the Milken Educator of the Year and the state of Wisconsin’s first-ever Martin Luther King Heritage Award in 1989.

I first met Ed two years ago at the Overture Center. He had just accepted the position of Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and I was brought in to assess the new initiatives being developed and to make recommendations. I was impressed with Ed’s passion, thoughtfulness and readiness to listen. We remained in touch and continued to dialogue about ideas, plans and initiatives.

Ed’s experience as an educator, community leader, founder of an arts organization, an eternal learner, and a passionate advocate of the arts makes him the perfect choice for the Senior Vice President Position to lead this expanded effort at the Overture Center. Of the promotion, Overture’s President and CEO Sandra Gajic said, “His new role expands his responsibilities to implement programs that not only shine light on the issues but also uses the visual and performing arts as a bridge to understanding and communications.”

I believe the Overture Center’s board of directors and executive management team has set a very high bar for the performing arts industry by elevating to Senior Vice President the position that directly addresses the need for diversity, equity, inclusion and access to the arts by multicultural audiences. It is my hope that their example of foresight and innovation will soon be mirrored in many other hallowed halls of our cultural and arts institutions.

In the interim, I am honored to have had the opportunity to interview Ed for Arts & Culture Connections, not too long after his promotion was made public:

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

Ed Holmes: My work in the arts has humble beginnings. Early on, I was affected by my participation in the arts. I still have strong memories of being cast as a tree in my kindergarten class play. I also was singing in the church choir. I guess I was typecast early on. My experience with the choir and touring with them to Europe had a profound impact on me and I passed this passion on to a group I founded—Ebony Expressions Cultural Awareness Project, a community-based theater program. I was writer, director, producer and costume maker and I did it for 25 years—up until 2008. The program offered articulation exercises, improvisation and relaxation exercises. Through creative and performance art, we promoted the significance and value of African-American culture, including the tackling of stereotypes and misunderstandings. We did traditional shows like “Purlie Victorious,” and we created original shows around topics we felt were important. There was nothing for young people in the community in the performing arts, so I filled this void based on my experience. Once you become the founder, writer, director and lighting designer, you thoroughly understand all levels of theater, and that’s the benefit of doing community theater.

Donna: How did you become involved with Overture?

Ed: It was coincidental for sure. I was the Principal at the largest high school in Madison, Wisconsin, and I retired after 38 years of being an educator and doing community work. After retirement, I was consulting with the school system and was still actively involved in performances and commercial theater. I was asked to help with a presentation for Juneteenth. While recruiting kids to participate, I spoke with a colleague who suggested I consider applying for the newly-created position of Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Overture Center for the Arts. This was also the first of its kind in Madison and that was exciting to me. I called a staff person who encouraged me to apply. The application was due that very day. That was in 2016 and I believe it was divine intervention. I had no intention of looking for a job; certainly not full-time work. But it was meant to be. Once you have a career of service, and you get a call, you must respond. I saw it as a continuation of what I had been doing my entire adult life.

I was the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Overture Center for two-and-a-half years doing a lot of legwork and breaking down barriers. My goal was to change the perception of it as a venue just for a select few to a place able to invite and welcome a diverse community to come and take part in our many events. In my new position as Senior Vice President of Equity and Innovation, I see it as affording me both more authority and more responsibility to put initiatives in place.

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the field of developing multicultural audiences?

Ed: It’s important to build trust and let people know that our initiatives comes from an authentic place and, of course, the desire to have a broader audience experience the arts. I started with building community partnerships; identifying people who had organizational power, constituents and a patron base. However, what really has been important to me is that the people I invite as guests have a full experience.

My first time at the Overture Center (before I joined the staff) was to see The Lion King. I sat in the balcony. Actually, I was seated so far away I couldn’t connect to the performance. I decided that I did not want my guests to have that same experience. I wanted them to enjoy the costumes, the set design, as well as the dancers. So, my objective was to put people in the orchestra seats so that they could really experience the work. We are building the next generation of patrons and theatergoers, and I want them to have an equitable experience that motivates them to want to continue to enjoy live theater and live performances.

For the touring production of DRUMLine Live, we did an outreach program engaging 300 young people. Our program included educational materials about drumlines at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBCUs), and we provided food. We had a local drumline in Madison open for the national touring production. It was a great experience!

When Ballet Folklórico de México came to the Overture Center, I received letters and telephone requests for tickets. Usually, I do the outreach, but this time people were calling me, which is great. Once you cross that bridge, then you have turned the corner. When the prospective audience makes the call, it comes from a different place and that was really important to me. The Overture Center’s Latino Advisory group also did promotions on social media. More than 500 people came to the event in response to the social media and the Overture Center’s promotions.

I also was deeply aware of the sensitivity the Latino community has had about coming out to the Overture Center. There are serious issues in our community with immigration officials going to people’s workplaces and taking them in to custody, and people, consequently, being afraid to leave their homes. But we felt it was important for us to connect with the Latino community, and from the response, the community felt that the Overture Center was a safe place to come together and enjoy the arts. It was a wonderful performance and a wonderful event. It felt like a family reunion.

Donna: How do you approach your work?

Ed: The approach is to be intentional, collaborative and thoughtful about the work and consider multiple perspectives and numerous creative ways to engage diverse audiences. My previous theater experience of producing shows for 25 years; understanding audiences and creating the best possible stage performances does help to inform the strategies I employ at the Overture Center. However, I can’t advance or grow this work alone.

In the beginning, I did attempt to work in isolation. But I learned quickly that I had to engage resources within the community in order to create opportunities for diverse audiences to come to the Overture Center. I could not achieve our objectives by working in that way. I always have to find or create a way to engage people within our target communities with expertise, and responsibility, who can help us expand our outreach and achieve mutual goals of providing access to the arts to Madison’s multicultural community. This also requires that we examine what the interests are of our target communities and see what we aren’t providing.

Donna: What are the challenges and how are they addressed?

Ed: My biggest challenge is sustainability; looking at structures and building a framework that creates equity and inclusion. An institutional framework has to be put in place so that the work of creating access to the arts to multicultural audiences can continue. I don’t know if this is possible, but it’s a goal.

An example of changing cultural barriers at the Overture Center is our volunteer base. We have 500 volunteers, but there are only three people of color on the volunteer usher board. The reason this exists is because there is a decades-old infrastructure that created an imbalance in the system. This has to be deconstructed. At the same time, when you can bring in diverse volunteers, it must be an equitable and welcoming experience.

Donna: What do you intend to accomplish in this new position and how will you measure success?

Ed: Our aim is to create equity with high levels of engagement that is bias-free. While equity is the why and what, innovation is the how: the plan is to be intentional about utilizing new ideas, creative thoughts, new imaginations and methods to create better solutions. I look forward to shining an even brighter light on how the arts and the Overture Center can change the narrative of equity, diversity, and inclusion in Madison.

In the interim, success is measured by small victories; it’s an incremental process. You take the big wins, but you also must be intentional about what a victory is and what it looks like. For example, we have an internship program through my department of Diversity and Inclusion that provides an opportunity to multicultural youth interested in pursuing a career in the arts. We need a cadre of people who are interested in arts administration and arts careers and during the internship, they learn what skills are needed to succeed.

The first intern we brought on is now a member of the Overture Center’s staff. In this instance, small victories would be the creation of a pipeline of young people to put out in the universe as arts administrators, with the skills and tools necessary to be able to move into key roles. The biggest obstacle for me in fulfilling this goal is that a lot of young people with diverse backgrounds are not aware of careers in the arts. So, this summer we are innovating—we’re starting a new career exploration program in 12 high schools and 24 middle schools, which will give them an opportunity to be exposed to the Overture Arts Center.

This is challenging work—you have to be dedicated; you have to be passionate. I learned from the best—thank you, Donna Walker-Kuhne—that it’s about having the passion to make sure people have the opportunity to be a part of this extraordinary experience, and the willingness to work hard to achieve this goal.

Our society is changing so much. We live in a globalized marketplace; we’re experiencing a significant increase in diversity within our communities. We must provide arts opportunities that meet the needs of all the people.

Donna: Thank you so much, Ed, for sharing your vision for your new venture at the Overture Center. I wish you much success with this bold an innovative endeavor!