Donna Walker-Kuhne on ABC’s
Here and Now – August 11th, 2019 – Harlem Week
Donna Walker-Kuhne Receives LPTW’s First Rachel
Crothers Leadership Award
Marketer and Audience Developer Donna Walker-Kuhne received the first Rachel Crothers Leadership Award on June 27, presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women at an inaugural luncheon at Sardi’s, hosted by André DeShields.
Pop singer and Broadway star LaChanze (currently Off-Broadway in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES) performed “Feeling Good,” accompanied by Marco Pagula on piano. An award-winning marketing consultant, Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group, a boutique marketing, press and audience development agency. She is recognized as one of the country’s foremost experts in audience development and she and her team specialize in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press and promotional events.The leadership award is named in honor of playwright Rachel Crothers, (SUSAN AND GOD; THE THREE OF US) who was a champion of women’s rights before women could vote. She worked to help those serving on the front during World War I and II and founded an organization that later went on to become the American Theatre Wing, which partners with the Broadway League, to present the annual Tony Awards, honoring Broadway’s best each season.
The League of Professional Theatre Women will present the newly established Crothers leadership award to a theater woman “who has distinguished herself in exemplary service and sacrifice for a common cause-a cause which leaves our society and the world a little better than the way we found it.”
“We are very excited by the opportunity the League has now to award a theater woman who brings her gifts and talents to bear in addressing a national or local cause or issue affecting our fellow citizens and everyday Americans,” said Yvette Heyliger, co-vice president of programming at LPTW.The award was presented by Playwright Rehana Lew Mirza (BARRIERS). In addition, Marvin Lowe, a soloist with the Harlem Gospel Singers, presented “Siyahamba,” a South African welcome song, and longtime LPTW member Zoe Coralink Kaplan and DeShields reminded the crowd that Crothers made famous the quote about a woman’s place being in the house — and the Senate!
Walker-Kuhne expressed her appreciation by acknowledging and thanking her mentors who taught her along the way and opened doors. Among them were famed director George C Wolfe and Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who in 1985, while touring around the country, asked the question. “Where are the Black people?”
“That questioned launched my career in audience development and community engagement,” Walker-Kuhne said. Walker-Kuhne said she loves teaching and providing tools and support for the next generation of arts administrators. She challenged those coming up to “shake up society and revitalize the whole world. Create a winning life and through your art, inspire the world, inspire all of us to be our best. Advance like young lions-be ferocious, tenacious, innovative and warm-hearted.”DeSheilds, currently starring on Broadway in HADESTOWN, entertained the luncheon attendees with political comments, prayers and some of his popular snippets of advice:
“Don’t give up, in or over. Stay on the path until you win,” he said.
For more information of the League of Professional Theatre Women, visit theatrewomen.org.
GUEST BLOG by Donna Walker-Kuhne: Diversity on
Broadway: An Insider’s Perspective
Why is diversity important on Broadway? I believe that many in the field want to see equity, diversity, and inclusion. But they aren’t sure how to implement it, or don’t know the steps to take. I asked my colleague, Jim Joseph, the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, for his thoughts on trends in diversity and inclusion as well as tactics for growth.
Jim said: “I recently spoke at the 2018 TEDxBroadway, and I proposed a version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” named after the late Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The “Rooney Rule” mandates that NFL teams interview at least one qualified candidate of color for every available head coaching job. This broadens and increases the pool of candidates and exposes the owners to a wider circle of qualified people.
We have to acknowledge that folks know who they know; they hire who they know. But hopefully, this idea could systematically help break those barriers down. There isn’t a governing body for Broadway like the NFL. The Broadway League is a trade organization for the Broadway theater industry. However, that should not prevent the Broadway gatekeepers from adopting the spirit of the “Rooney Rule” during their hiring processes.
Clearly, Jim has presented a case for mentorship, developing and executing equitable hiring practices, and providing opportunities for diverse candidates to excel.
How do we build diverse audiences?
Let’s take notes from the film Black Panther. What has deeply impressed me about this film, is how communities around the country have been mobilizing experiences to engage with this film.
Inspired by trailers more than a year before the film was released and online information that helped give potential viewers a window through which to view “art-in-the-making,” the community created its own programs based on its desire to support and engage.
In addition, Black celebrities, athletic teams and Ellen DeGeneres joined the #BlackPantherChallenge and purchased screenings in major cities to ensure that Black community youth did not have the barrier of the ticket price (as $25 in major cities) as an obstacle to seeing the film.
We start with the product – who is the play for and who will it inspire? Director Ryan Coolger started with a vision. In an interview, he said he was “Making the film to inspire the next generation the way he was inspired when he read his first Black Panther comic book, especially because he still lived in a world where there weren’t many heroes who looked like him.”
This film’s blockbuster status was the result of a community-building process; a journey that began with the first inklings of the film’s existence. This foresight led to the curating of audience experiences that were further enhanced by attending the screening. In other words, the audience felt kinship, ownership, and connection before the film opened. This process required vision, desire, time and an investment in building the film’s eventual audience. In the realm of theater, what is the vision we can hold for the communities we seek to engage?
The product needs to tell/show the “perspective audiences’” story in a positive, bold, and dynamic way. That may require the enlistment of new writers who can share stories that encompass the past, present, and future. Like the Black Panther screenplay, stories that project and promote respect, dignity and love resonate the deepest and garner the widest audiences. That also may require enlisting the input of emerging artists (taking a chance on the future Ryan Cooglers and Joe Robert Coles) and taking a risk on a new vision of theater.
And then you engage the community. As early as possible, you share the creative process behind the work: the reason for the project’s genesis, and the people involved, including those working behind the scenes. I have read at least 50 articles about the cast and the creative team behind Black Panther. There have been countless videos, links on social media (including a Facebook Fan Page that currently has more than three-quarters of a million followers), as well as numerous articles in a wide variety of print and online publications.
Broadway has the capacity to do the same. It’s not about having a Marvel-like marketing budget and promoting ticket sales. It’s more important to look at the psychographics of building communities and engaging them from the perspective of creating value by wanting to connect, respect, honor, touch and transform their lives.
Donna Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group (WICG), a boutique marketing, press and audience development consulting agency. Her team specializes in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press and promotional events. They have over 45 years of experience executing successful marketing and audience development campaigns for Broadway productions and cultural arts organizations with sales over $22MM. Donna is acknowledged as the nation’s foremost expert in Audience Development by the Arts &Business Council and has devoted her professional career to increasing access to the arts. Her company has developed a brand reputation among performing arts patrons of exposing them to high-quality productions and unique experiences in a way that exceeds audience members and clients’ expectations alike.
Her current client roster includes major cultural and performing arts organizations such as: Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Apollo Theater, as well as the Broadway productions of The Lion King, Aladdin and Once on This Island. She is currently Senior Advisor, Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center charged with developing and deepening relationships with targeted communities through partnerships and special events.
Broadway productions include: A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington; A Trip To Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson; HUGHIE starring Forest Whitaker; Porgy and Bess featuring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis; A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Blair Underwood; Alicia Keys’Stick Fly; Hairspray; Ragtime; Ann starring Holland Taylor; Thurgood starring Laurence Fishburne, Driving Miss Daisy featuring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, August Wilson’s Radio Golf; Caroline, or Change; Time Stands Still featuring Laura Linney, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, etc.
Off Broadway, WICG has worked with Playwrights Horizons, Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Second Stage Theatre, New York Fringe Festival, National Black Theatre, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company as well as arts organizations such as Dance Theater of Harlem, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities and WNYC Radio. She provides consulting services to numerous arts organizations throughout the country and worldwide including Australia, Berlin, Moscow, Sochi, Edinburgh, and Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Donna Walker-Kuhne is the recipient of over 40 awards acknowledging her distinguished service in the field of audience development and serves on several Boards of Directors. She is an adjunct professor of over 20 years at New York University and also teaches at Bank Street College. Her first book, Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to Arts, Culture and Community, was published in 2005. Ms. Walker-Kuhne is a volunteer with the SGI-USA, a worldwide peace organization serving as Vice Director for New York.
SILive.com January 30, 2018
Led by “community engagement expert” Donna Walker-Kuhne and her team from Walker International Communications Group, “Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation” was put in place to create “greater levels of diversity, racial equity and inclusion.” BTW: You can apply for grants only if you’re …
As part of OC’s National Conference, in Ottawa this June 11-14, we will be welcoming Donna Walker-Kuhne as one of our keynote speakers. Donna is currently Senior Advisor of Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre (NJPAC). Started four years ago by Donna, the NJPAC community engagement department is small (with a staff of three), but is seeing some stunning results. With over 200 events, and some 30,000 people through their doors each year, the NJPAC is actively working to bring the arts to a more diverse audience, and engaging them in many different ways.
Successfully engaging community
Early in their community engagement work, Donna and her department decided to more extensively activate the advisory council of community members already in place at NJPAC to help guide their work. “We have an amazing advisory council that creates events that they find are of interest to their community, that introduce the arts, engage people in the arts, and educate people about the arts,” she says. The joint work of the community engagement department and the advisory council has changed the way that the NJPAC operates. “It’s had significant impact, not just in the audiences, but also in the opportunities we can present to our corporate funders. Because we are able to give them a footprint in the community, they are allocating additional dollars, and in certain instances exclusively funding our department.”
It can be challenging to measure the impact of this work on communities. Donna spoke about measuring success at NJPAC through the actions of their partner community organizations and associations. “Buying a ticket is not one of our measurements. We are not a sales entity,” she says. Rather, they look at how deeply they are engaging with the organizations they serve, on something of a ‘ladder of engagement’ that shows different kinds of interactions with NJPAC events:
- Attending free events
- Promoting NJPAC events (taking fliers, sending e-blasts, helping NJPAC reach people that they might not otherwise be able to)
- Bringing groups to events
- Volunteering at events
Once organizations are doing three of these four things, they are described as engaged partners, and tracking these is a key measure of success. NJPAC currently has 122 engaged partners.
Audience Development and Community Engagement
How has this work changed over time? “It’s an evolution. I’ve been involved in this work since 1982,” Donna says. “At that time we didn’t have any terminology for the lack of diversity in audiences, but there was a conversation.” It took a while for organizations to move on what they heard. In the 1990s, people started using the term audience development, and some foundations started putting funds towards this. Over time, audience development became to be seen as a term more concerned with sales, i.e. developing an audience to purchase tickets. The term community engagement represented the next step. “First we have to cultivate the community to be interested in what we’re doing,” Donna says.
While the terminology has changed, the desire to become more deeply engaged with our communities is still strongly felt in orchestras and arts organizations. However, building this work into long-term plans is challenging. We need to allocate time and money from within our organization to make it happen. “It has to be a priority,” Donna says. “It has to be something that the board and senior leadership have embraced.” It’s important to have ways to measure success, and to be cultivating connections that last longer than one particular project or staff member. It’s not easy work, but it opens up our orchestras to all kinds of interesting, rewarding and long-lasting relationships with our communities.
At our National Conference, Donna will be giving a keynote address and leading a workshop that will explore best practices in the field of community engagement, present success metrics for these programs, and look at how to build and expand multicultural arts audiences.
Erik Gensler: Donna, thank you so much for being here.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: My pleasure.
Erik Gensler: You tell a story about when you were a kid and your mom took you to see the Bolshoi Ballet. And you were the only African American family in the audience. But nonetheless, you wanted to be a dancer. Can you talk about that experience?
Donna Walker-Kuhne: Certainly. Till this day, my mom is 94, I have no idea why she thought we should go, but she’s always been the kind visionary that her daughters belonged in the best environment, so the Bolshoi Ballet had come to Chicago, we were sitting there and I was completely memorized. Maya Plisetskaya was the reigning ballerina at the time, and I just said, “I’m gonna be a ballerina. This is it. This is all I wanna do.” I was five. I started taking dance classes and ballet and then, moving into African dance and then being invited to join an African dance company. But the seed was planted there.
Erik Gensler: And then you alternately ended up going to law school.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: Well. In the 70s, I didn’t know any dances that made money performing, and poverty was of no interest to me.
Erik Gensler: (laughs)
Donna Walker-Kuhne: So I thought I should get a career, and in high school, one of the a- local attorneys came on career day, and I thought, “This is a way I can accomplish my goal.” My goals have always been to change the world. So I thought, “If I become a lawyer, I can do this and maybe still dance a little bit.” I don’t know. But, I danced all through law school. I went to Howard University Law School and was able to, still take my classes every morning at 7:00 a.m. and I performed in the talent shows. I choreographed with Georgetown Law School, so I kept it very much alive, even doing those difficult classes.
Erik Gensler: You tell a story that once you had a career as a lawyer, you spent your lunch breaks from court at a local art center.
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Harlem Friend Donna Walker-Kuhne Honored
Sunday, June 12th was the Tony Award viewing party hosted by BLACK 2 BROADWAY. During dinner and festivities Impact Broadway Co-Founder, Donna Walker-Kuhne was honored with the Vanguard award for her incredible career and role in the arts.
HW knows first hand that Ms. Walker-Kuhne has been a tireless supporter and promoter of the arts in-and-out of Harlem and deserves all the accolades that she has received and more.
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