Champion of the Arts: Ginny Louloudes Working to Advance DE&I in New York’s Theatre World

Photo credit courtesy of Ginny Louloudes

I recently had the opportunity to interview Virginia (Ginny) Louloudes for Arts & Culture Connections. Ginny is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./New York), which is the service and advocacy organization for New York City’s 400-plus nonprofit theatres.

I met Ginny more than 20 years ago and was immediately impressed with her commitment to serve the theatre community of New York with the best possible resources, making available her real estate expertise and providing technical support for small, New York theatres. Recently, A.R.T./New York has been focusing its lens on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I), launching a program that it hopes will expand opportunities for women and people of color in all facets of the theatre world, including on the Boards of Directors. It has been challenging, but Ginny continues to advance this effort internally with her staff, with her Board and other A.R.T./New York members. Ginny shared with me the history and efforts involved with the program:

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts and at A.R.T./New York?

Ginny Louloudes: I started tap dancing lessons when I was in the first grade. It was my parents’ solution to my then-undiagnosed ADHD.

I went to a high school with a great musical theater program and was dancing and eventually choreographing. I continued to do this in college, even though I went to a school with no theatre program to ensure I wouldn’t try to become an artist!

Just when I left college the arts management graduate programs began, so I entered one and focused on Marketing and Development. I worked in regional theatre and then got my first Off-Broadway job at Manhattan Theater Club and then the Roundabout Theatre Company. I joined A.R.T./New York in 1991.

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the field of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) within your organization’s membership?

Ginny: When former Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl of the New York Department of Cultural Affairs released the study that showed that theatre was the second least diverse field of the arts, I knew we had to do better. Many funders were encouraging diversity beyond the staff and stage to the board level. And yet, no one ever explained how they were able to diversify their boards.

I initially attempted to reach out to Chief Diversity Officers at corporations where there were foundations. I was encouraged to reach out to the head of a foundation for a referral but was told that their Chief Diversity Officer was too busy to speak with me.

I finally secured a meeting for our Nominating Committee Chair, Linda Herring of Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and me with Cynthia Bowman, who was the Head of Diversity for Bank of America. Cynthia was fantastic! She asked us if we had a Diversity Statement (we did not); whether we had a Diversity Narrative or Diversity Plan (no, we did not!). I realized then that we had our work cut out for us.

Donna: How was the diversity initiative at A.R.T./New York developed?

Ginny: Originally, our plan was that the program would focus on boards. However, when I began working with Alicin Williamson of the Raben Group on our grant proposal, she recommended that we shift our initial focus from boards to the diversification of staffs, stages, in the front of the house and backstage.

We received a multi-year grant from the Katherine S. and Axel G. Rosin Fund of the Scherman Foundation for the program that we titled Diversifying Our Organizations. The program, which began last year, was set up to provide a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) cohort for member organizations interested in building capacity to diversify their organizations: from their staff to their audiences and board members. We noted that the program’s success required the participation of two staff members with leadership and decision-making power. It was important to me that staff leadership and boards be the participants in this program, so that we could ensure that change would move from the aspirational to the practical and that there would be buy-in from the boards on day one.

Donna: What was the structure of the program?

Ginny: With Alicin’s help and with input from the A.R.T./New York’s programs team we created a course outline. The program was developed as a cohort-learning or group-learning experience, which is very helpful for this type of experience.

We created six, three-hour sessions that took place one evening a month with staff and board members. The curricula started with “Implicit Bias.” It also included “Making the Case for Diversity;” “Crafting Job Descriptions That Will Attract Candidates of Color,” and “Attracting Candidates of Color to Boards.” At the end of the cohort, the theatres were tasked with drafting and sharing their Diversity Plans. A.R.T./New York was in the first cohort, and I am working with our staff to finalize the draft of the Diversity Plan, which we will present to the board.

The final element of the program is a board “speed-dating” event where the participating cohorts will pitch their organizations to candidates of color. Also, the Raben Group conducted an environmental scan of theatre artists, audiences and board members to help us better understand barriers to access, inclusion and equity. They are finalizing the report with a case study which they hope to release soon.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?

Ginny: To be honest, I initially approached the work based upon my own personal inquiry and the needs of A.R.T./New York and so many of our members. I was so blessed to have the Raben Group team with me from the very beginning and they truly influenced my thinking about our work. The Raben Group works on these issues across the country and the depth and wealth of their experiences cannot be understated. I had/have a LOT to learn; and the Raben Group team and my staff helped to guide me.

There were some uncomfortable conversations. And through this work, I learned that those of us who come from privilege (and particularly those who are of my generation, i.e. Baby Boomers) have so much work to do. That work only begins the moment you are willing to take a look at your staff, your season, the artists and/or board and try to look at it from the position of someone who has not always had access.

I remember at our second session someone realized that they were now looking at television commercials and TV shows differently; realizing how many white faces and voices dominated.

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

Ginny: This work really takes time. We’ve struggled mightily with how to cover so much information in six sessions.

Having board members in all the sessions made sensitive conversations about class and board culture difficult. So, we made a change for the third and fourth cohorts, reducing the number of workshops for the board so that we can maximize opportunities for staff sharing.

The greatest challenge we’ve identified is that we are trying to address systemic problems that have developed over decades. For example, because so many of our members perform for predominantly white audiences, the pool for potential board members is shallow. The Raben Group team can and did create opportunities for introductions. But moving forward, we realized that board members should come from the audience. So that creates new opportunities and challenges to expand our audiences.

Donna: What are the trends you see in DE&I and who do you think is doing it successfully?

Ginny: The focus on DE&I by N.Y. Department of Cultural Affairs and by foundations has really ignited a conversation that is going on throughout the field—ranging from Rachel Chavkin’s Tony Awards acceptance speech to the plays I have seen this season and the different ways in which colleagues are engaging in artist and staff outreach.

I hesitate to cite specific examples because I think theatres should define their own success. However, I think Soho Rep is one example of a company that is doing this well. Soho Rep has for years cultivated relationships with artists of color and they have been very intentional about diversifying their staff and board. They have invited artists of color to join their board and these artists participate in staff interviews, galas and fundraising appeals. In other words, they play a meaningful role in all aspects of the company.

When artists see themselves on your stages, they are more likely to recommend their friends for jobs at your company. And when your board sees work by artists of color, they experience new ways of looking at the world.

Donna: Thank you, Ginny, for your conviction of the necessity of your program, Diversifying Our Organizations, on behalf of A.R.T./New York. I applaud your executive leadership team for recognizing the importance of this effort and for the investment of time and resources to break down the barriers to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in New York’s theatrical community. We look forward to hearing about the results of the cohorts.

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