January 2, 2022— Happy New Year!
By the end of 2021, the lights were flickering back on Broadway, museum doors were open, and dance performances and concerts were being held all over the country, despite still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the vaccine mandates and capacity restrictions, arts-lovers would not be deterred from the pleasure and pure joy of experiencing the arts live and in-person.
At the same time, we returned to a new landscape—one that was redefined by the ongoing public health crisis, as well as by ongoing efforts to uproot the effects of systemic racial and social injustice in the arts. We all learned last year that there is no such thing as “business as usual.” To get our audiences back and ensure that they return to a safe environment required that we not only make changes in our facilities, but also in how we treat people.
This became even clearer to me when I attended the Cecilia Chorus of New York’s Carnegie Hall performance of the “Ballad of the Brown King,” a Christmas cantata by African-American composer, pianist and teacher Margaret Bonds, and the libretto written by the renowned African-American poet Langston Hughes. The cantata, which first premiered in 1954, tells the nativity story with an emphasis on King Balthazar. He was one of the Three Wise Men, who has been described as African or dark-skinned. He presented the baby Jesus with the gift of Myrrh.
The cantata was a special event with great historic significance. The work of Ms. Bonds, who died in 1972 at the age of 59, was finally receiving long-overdue recognition and making its Carnegie Hall premiere. Given this significance, my company was retained to engage the African-American community and to invite them to attend the performance. As my staff and I stood in front of the theater, I could not help but to notice the respectful and gracious behavior of the diverse House staff. They basically looked for anyone who was African-American; inquired whether they were with our group, and then escorted them over to our area to receive their tickets. In one instance, they successfully assisted a woman’s flustered search for her vaccine card and then escorted her inside to her seat.
The House staff also seemed to display a sense of pride in their outreach efforts to the scores of African-American guests attending the performance. It was both exciting and heart-warming. Due to this attentive treatment, many of our group—some of whom were at Carnegie Hall for the first time—entered the famed venue smiling, long before hearing the first note.
I do not know whether the staff was instructed to do this or if they regularly assisted all patrons in this manner. Nonetheless it was wonderful to witness the effects of their behavior. I immediately thought, “This is what welcoming looks like.” And our arts organizations and cultural institutions need to do more of it.
Consequently, I am determined that in addition to expanding my efforts to train arts leaders in the importance of Equity, Diversity, Access & Inclusion, that 2022 also will be the year that the arts extend the hand of welcome and model belonging.
What steps does an arts organization or cultural institution need to take to make this culture shift? I believe it begins with internal discussions and the creation of an internal sense of welcome and belonging for the entire staff. This entails not only valuing and respecting everyone who works for the organization or institution, but also making it possible for their ideas to be valued, heard, acknowledged, and discussed. By creating an internal culture of welcome and belonging for the staff, it gives them ownership and the responsibility to ensure that those sentiments permeate every aspect of the operation.
The second step is to build the organization’s strategic plans around building a culture that welcomes and models belonging to audiences; especially audiences of color, or audiences from any marginalized community. What does welcome look like when you’re dealing with audiences? I believe it requires a shift in our attitude about our audiences and ongoing discussions that help all the staff become comfortable with the process.
I believe this is “mission-driven” work to help people fully experience the inspiring, hopeful, and encouraging aspects of what our arts organizations and cultural institutions have to offer. To extend the hand of welcome and model belonging involves sincere and thoughtful actions that require we:
- Value the dignity of all people.
- Have a sense of pride in the venue and its mission.
- Greet everyone with a smile.
- Make eye contact.
- Be attentive.
- Make small talk about the program/production/event.
- Offer assistance.
- Troubleshoot when necessary.
- Do your best to ensure everyone has an enjoyable time.
Many years ago, right before I began working as the audience development and marketing director at the Public Theater in New York City, I had a dream about attending a party. It was held in The Public’s brightly lit lobby, and in attendance were people from all different walks of life; from neighborhoods throughout New York City, as well as from all over the world. They spoke many different languages, but their common bond was joyous laughter and the sharing of a good time. This dream became the basis of my first book, An Invitation to the Party. It also remains the motivation for my work, to which I have devoted close to 40 years developing, cultivating and building bridges of understanding, based on the arts, between people of different races, cultures, faiths, ages, gender identities, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and social and economic status.
More than ever, as the New Year begins, I believe we each need to renew our resolve to ensure that every aspect of our audience’s experience and engagement with our arts organizations and cultural institutions extends a hand of welcome and models belonging.
As always, I want to know what you think? What does welcome and belonging look like to you? Do you have an experience? I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below. And I wish you and your loved ones a safe, happy and healthy 2022!