Award-winning arts marketing consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne calls the process of engaging audiences “a journey of life.” Throughout her career of 35-plus years, she has relied on deep sincerity and understanding of the diversity of cultures, religions, lifestyles, race and ethnicities as keys to creating new audiences for the 21st century.
In her roles as Founding President of Walker International Communications Group and an international lecturer and author, Walker-Kuhne has gained unique insights into the challenges of initiating conversations and building meaningful partnerships with diverse constituents. This comes at a time when arts organizations are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural landscape and shifting demographics – evidenced by the growth of Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American populations and the rising consumerism of Generation Y.
Walker-Kuhne’s journey to creating a new audience begins with communication and ends with commitment. In her popular workshops, conducted in cities throughout the U.S. and abroad, she describes how even limited staff resources can be mustered in a concerted effort to promote diversity. Volunteer ambassadors and advisory councils can be empowered to advocate an institution or event. Activating social media, mobile platforms and digital marketing helps to spread the word.
At the same time, activities and special events that relate organically to the engagement are employed, such as meet-and-greets with artists, panel discussions, films, or an alignment with an arts education program. Essential ways to establish a presence in the community run the gamut from distributing collateral at a festival to staging performance excerpts in a local library.
To illustrate, Walker-Kuhne’s impactful engagement campaigns for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Mother’s Day weekend performances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center begin months in advance. Some of the initiatives include free liturgical dance workshops for students, a pre-curtain performance in the lobby by a local dance troupe, and opportunities to meet the Ailey dancers in person and online. The volunteer Faith-Based Advisory Committee steps in to raise the visibility of the dance company – and especially its gospel-inspired, iconic work, Revelations – among area congregations. The Mother’s Day scheduling presents other advantages: brunch specials in NJPAC’s restaurant and a gift marketplace in the lobby.
Walker-Kuhne, who is the author of the bestselling Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture and Community (Theater Communications Group, 2005) and now Champions for the Arts: Lessons and Successful Strategies for Engaging Diverse Audiences, calls such alliances a win-win. Not only do partnerships result in spike in ticket sales, but they reap long-term relationships with stakeholders in the community. Outside venues can fulfill their diversity initiatives by hosting outreach events, and the mutual experience resonates in a robust way.
While ticket sales are the principal metric for determining return on investment, Walker-Kuhne explains that success also translates into attracting new multicultural patrons of the arts, positive buzz in the vicinity, and group outings planned around theatergoing, such as dining out. Creating a climate of diversity can be accomplished by even the smallest of organizations, with minimal budgets, as long as visionary leadership is coupled with smart translators.
As Senior Advisor for Community Engagement at NJPAC, Walker-Kuhne has developed programs and best practices for courting audiences in and around Newark, a richly multiethnic city with a 53.5% African-American population and 29.5% Hispanic population (2000 U.S. Census). More than a hundred arts partners have engaged with NJPAC in significant ways, such as public libraries, university alumni clubs, art galleries, schools, tourism groups, and community centers.
Changing the cultural lens is one of the biggest challenges confronting arts organizations. In the U.S., institutions major and minor are committed to making diversity part of their identity. No longer are their perceptions black and white, young and old; a convergence of cultures has transcended race and class to make way for a new playing arena.
AN ARCHITECT OF AUDIENCES
Since 1984, Donna Walker-Kuhne‘s Walker International Communications Group (WICG) has raised more than $20 million in earned income promoting the arts to multicultural communities. Her success in developing arts audiences began two years previously at the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn, where she was instrumental in building audiences for national dance and jazz showcases.
Over the past decade, Donna Walker-Kuhne has traveled to more than 400 U.S. cities and five continents to share her views on community engagement. Her marketing consultation services have been provided to arts organizations, performing and visual artists, dance companies, theaters and non-profit groups around the globe.
- During her nine-year tenure with Dance Theatre of Harlem, she devised Audience Development Ambassadorships among African-American tastemakers in more than 25 cities. This ensured robust attendance at performances of this acclaimed company, no matter where it toured.
- Her “Ambassador” model for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater galvanized cultural leaders in Atlanta and Chicago and translated interest into participation. Ticket sales for the company’s national tour exceeded goal through the implementation of promotional campaigns and activation of “Ailey Ambassadors” within the Black community. For the past nine years in Atlanta, proud Ailey Ambassadors have distributed fliers, tapped into local clubs to foster group sales, and promoted the dance company from churches to neighborhood centers.
For Donna Walker-Kuhne, there’s no place like New York.
- In partnership with Kape Communications of Melbourne, Australia, WICG produces the week-long Bite the Big Apple! New York Arts & Cultural Management Tours, which allow Australian arts professionals to learn about audience development in the heart of New York City.
- The innovative new program Impact Broadway was developed by WICG with financial support from New York City’s Theater Subdistrict Council. This socially- and technologically-driven initiative to build audiences serves African-American and Latino students throughout the five boroughs. Students are grounded in the history of contributions made by people of color to the art of theater. In three years, Impact Broadway introduced more than 1,500 students to live theater on and off Broadway.
- To connect African-American audiences with New York City Opera’s production of Margaret Garner (Richard Danielpour, composer; Toni Morrison, librettist), WICG held meet-and-greets in targeted neighborhoods. Key cultural citizens were given the opportunity to discuss this story of slavery, based on Morrison’s novel Beloved, with cast members. Through deeper engagement with African-American media and strategic advertising, attendance by African Americans spiked to 37%; currently, the average attendance of African Americans at opera in the U.S. is less than 1%.
- WICG generated $5 million for the Broadway run of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk by embracing high school and college-age students through educational initiatives and promotions. Twenty-three cities on the national tour were engaged by WICG, ensuring sold-out performances in nearly every city.
- The Broadway production of Stick Fly was launched with the selection of 30 women who were influencers in their communities and represented a targeted demographic of potential ticket buyers. When combined with aggressive group sales, attendance by the African-American community averaged 70%.
- The Lenox – the first luxury cooperative in Harlem – retained Walker-Kuhne as Publicity and Marketing Director. Every unit was sold as the result of a massive campaign to attract wealthy African Americans to the revitalization of Harlem.