Tackling the Complex Issues Faced by Immigrant Artists

Photo Credit – Andrew Chiang

Last week, I participated in a very important forum about key issues that should be considered by arts organizations when they prepare for, promote and engage the immigrant community—the artists as well as the potential audience.

The forum was part of the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals/New York City (APAP/NYC) Conference—an annual gathering of more than 3,500 people from 49 of the 50 U.S. states and more than 29 countries for five days of professional development, showcases and thought-provoking dialogues.

This amazing panel included Andrew Chiang, Executive Director of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Co, New York and New Jersey; Emmy Carter, Booking Director for the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Meklit Hadero, Musician, Singer and Chief of Programs at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California; David Chavez, World Music and Festival Curation/Special Events, Department of Cultural Affairs in Chicago, Illinois, and Ellen Kodadek, Artistic and Executive Director, Flushing Town Hall, NYC.

We discussed several aspects of the complex issues that immigrant artists face, including the expectations of presenters; the challenges that emerge when ethnicity is the determining factor for hiring performers, and navigating expectations so that immigrant artists are not exclusively relegated to ethnic work and have the space to choose the work they would like to perform.

We also discussed audience cultivation. The first question presenters usually ask is, “Who is the target audience?” In most cases, they will want to target an “ethnic audience” to fulfill their audience diversity agendas. But most often, immigrant artists are seeking exposure to different audiences. They already have constituency and already have a connection to the local immigrant or ethnic communities. The goal in coming to the United States is broader exposure and the opportunity to perform before new audiences and different communities.

The challenge for both the immigrant artists and the presenter is how to wrestle with these seemingly opposing goals. Among the other questions for consideration: What is the value in engaging these targeted communities? Does it make it a “better show” if the immigrant artists’ community is present?

I encouraged the presenters to consider ways to welcome immigrant artists who may be performing at their venues:

Prepare for them by seeking support from a local college to make it a class project to help welcome the immigrant artists.

Find community leaders or organizations to help support and welcome the artists.

Look into restaurants that might have representative foods and host a welcoming event there.

The issue of immigrant artists also was recently the focus of a DanceNYC research report titled “Advancing Immigrants. Dance. Arts,” as part of its ongoing efforts to foster the inclusion, integration and human rights of immigrants in the New York City area.

Across every issue area—funding, access to resources, education and mentorship, audience development and community engagement—the immigrant workforce participating in the study articulated a need for sustained support and investment. The report underscored the importance of intentional inclusion of immigrant artists, culture workers and audiences of every level. The findings also suggested key opportunities for the dance community; called for the investing in immigrant artists, audiences, and cultural workers and demanded expressly, equitably, and continuously including immigrant rights among diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Specific recommendations included:

Building dance education programs for immigrant students.

Engaging immigrant audiences and audiences for immigrant artists organizations and programs.

Growing and nurturing the careers of immigrant artists and cultural workers.

Showcasing dance artistry that illuminates the immigrant experience.

Both the APAP Conference forum and the DanceNYC report reaffirm that the needs of the immigrant community—its artists, cultural workers and potential audiences—must be considered when creating access to the arts, if we truly want equity and inclusion. This requires commitment, conviction and action.

As always, let me know what you think by leaving your comments below or sending me an email: donna@donnawalkerkuhne.com

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