October 25, 2020 — I am pleased to share with the readers of Arts & Cultural Connections the results of our three-year journey with Staten Island Arts (SIA) and its Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation Initiative.
The initiative was launched in 2017 during a time when the NYC Department of City Planning projected that the borough’s population would grow and diversify as the result of a new influx of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Mexico.
Those changing demographics fueled Elizabeth’s vision to unite Staten Island’s arts landscape, and she and her team set out to build a solid, multicultural foundation that could incorporate the needs and interests of all of the borough’s residents. She also wanted to be sure to reach out to that segment of the community that is not “arts-inclined” or engaged with local cultural resources.
This initiative was not a knee-jerk response to the lack of diverse arts patrons or infrastructure but, rather, the result of Elizabeth’s long-term observation of and concerns about what was missing for a growing and diversifying population of residents, as well as an effort to transform the cultural landscape.
It took her nine months after our first conversation to get funding for the initiative, which was made possible by grants from the New York Community Trust, the Staten Island Foundation, and the Altman Foundation. The financial incentives also were important because this work requires both participants and consultants to make time for meeting, planning, strategizing, and counseling. I appreciated the ongoing support that consistently responded to requests for additional resources in order to sustain these efforts.
Ten local arts organizations participated in the Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation Initiative, which was led by my company, sharing more than $300-thousand in funding. Training included learning to better market their work; how to build strong relationships with both existing and new constituents, and how to bolster efforts to welcome new audiences.
Through a series of workshops and one-on-one consultations, participants learned different tools for approaching Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (EDI&A) and how to utilize social media to build diverse partnerships.
Several of the participating organizations began building programming that was more inclusive and diverse. A couple of the organizations utilized their grants for internal EDI&A training to ensure that their staff had a basic understanding of how to foster a culture of diversity.
Not all of the participating organizations responded the same way. When it came to unpacking what it means to do EDI&A work or tackling issues of racial equity, some organizations felt they already were engaging diverse audiences through programming. But the truth is real EDI&A work also includes staffing and developing inclusive strategies for hiring and, for some organizations, that is still a mountain to climb.
In the final report, which is titled “Creating Racial Equity in New York City’s Most Segregated Borough,” Elizabeth shares concerns that I believe many arts organizations face, but struggle to articulate:
“The Staten Island Arts staff recognized the need to address the problem, and it was a challenge we felt motivated to take on. But we were also (to be honest) nervous and scared. Very real issues—limited staff capacity, a lack of familiarity with community engagement practices, insufficient marketing support—would need to be addressed before the island’s cultural organizations could be equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to make diversity a reality. However, we also knew that many of those issues have historically been used as excuses to gloss over racism and segregation, both within our own organization and others. A lot of work and support would be needed to create authentic relationships and partnerships and transform the landscape….”
After developing the concept, securing the buy-in from key stakeholders, and rolling up their sleeves to help local organizations do EDI&A work, SIA is now well-positioned within the local arts community for its constituents to see the value of this project. The fact that the program was implemented borough-wide has the potential to positively impact communities of color and their sense of being welcomed participants with the arts community. And we’ve seen several organizations recognize that change is necessary and make the commitment to develop programs and create pipelines for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access.
I believe making the time to review the report will be beneficial for all arts organizations and cultural institutions, as well as for individual artists. Without solid EDI initiatives, there can be no true access. It’s imperative that we remember that the future of the arts is riding on it.
I would like to know what you think. Please share your thoughts below.