Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser: Offering Insights on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Photo Credit – Symphony Nova Scotia

This past week, I participated as one of the keynote speakers and workshop leaders at the Orchestras Canada’s annual conference “Designing the 21st Century Orchestra,” which was held in Ottawa. Organized by Orchestras Canada’s Executive Director Katherine Carleton, the conference participants representing orchestras seeking ways to grow their audiences; expand their relationships with Indigenous artists and communities; diversify their musical performances, and appeal to young audiences.

I was particularly impressed by a presentation given by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, who is chairperson of Orchestra Canada’s Equity Committee. One of the very few Black conductors of symphony orchestras worldwide, he currently serves as Artist in Residence and Community Ambassador at the Symphony Nova Scotia. Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser also is a classically trained pianist and celloist and a cousin of the Grammy award-winning producer James Poyser.

Mr. Bartholomew-Poysner opened the conference with a presentation about the “Re-Sounding the Orchestra” Report, a research project commissioned by Orchestra Canada that explored inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility relationships between Canadian orchestras and Indigenous artists, other artists of color, and people with diverse abilities.

He also talked about a framework for assessing an organization’s community engagement efforts, which he titled “Perfect 5th for Diversity.” Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser raised some key points that I think are important and relevant for all arts organizations and cultural institutions to consider when seeking to expand access to the arts.

Who is playing? He urged orchestra leaders to challenge both their conscious and unconscious biases when recruiting musicians and staff. Citing the example of the Sphinx Organization, which Arts & Culture Connections has previously featured, Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser highlighted the organization’s establishment of the National Alliance of Audition Support, in collaboration with the League of American Orchestras and the New World Symphony to provide financial support to Black and Latinx musicians attending auditions.

Who is being played? Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser envisions the orchestra of the future presenting both beloved classics and music representing diverse styles, traditions and communities. He has been pioneering this effort throughout Canada, including the conducting of “Soul Legends,” featuring music from Isaac Hayes to Marvin Gaye performed by Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and “Let’s Dance,” featuring performances by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra of music ranging from Tchaikovsky to hip-hop.

 Who is listening? He urged conference attendees to use a broader framework to evaluate access to performances, including ticket prices, programming and marketing that appeals to a diverse range of audiences.

Who is deciding? Not only does Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser recommend expanding the ranks of arts leadership and staff in terms of diversity, he also recommends soliciting diverse perspectives to help facilitate the organization’s decision-making process.

 How is this being done? He urged classical music organizations to think about ways to collaborate; collaborate in a way that nurtures and gives power to voices outside of the orchestra’s traditional hierarchy.

The follow-up questions and comments included:

How do we approach building diverse audiences without causing unintentional harm?

Orchestras are a learned culture and how does this long-held belief align with the community given diverse cultures and expectations of behavior?

What is the relationship between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

In the quest to have a multicultural audience, is the excellence of the art diminished?

Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser’s answers were non-prescriptive. He emphasized the importance of each orchestra having honest discussions, including seeking feedback from outside voices, in order to find their own answers. Based on this framework, as well as key points I made during my presentation, I was able to assist participants during my three-hour workshop with the beginning stages of designing a community engagement plan.

One thing I have learned from my more than 30 years of experience working with arts and cultural organizations is that sometimes organizations are afraid of making mistakes and need a framework and permission to get started. If your organization is stuck launching its community engagement efforts, Mr. Bartholomew-Poyser’s questions provide a great framework for first steps. And you can consider this blogpost official permission to begin right away.

I urge you to share your comments, thoughts and experiences with me: