One of the recent #newplay conversations focused on the questions of how we can create more diversity, both in our content, our playwright relationships, and in our audience.
Much of that conversation focused on the idea of “accessibility,” i.e. how we are not making theater “accessible” to minority groups through high ticket prices, or unfamiliar audience habits, or the difficulty of cultural minority playwrights to get access to the education or relationships that would help their work to get produced.
There was an assertion beneath this particular thread of the conversation that went un-spoken and was really bothering me. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then I read this New York Times article about the ways that art museums are diversifying their audiences and donor bases. Here’s a quote:
“The Birmingham museum has also courted the city’s growing Indian population over the last two years, thanks in part to Sanjay Singh, a professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s business school and an entrepreneur.
“The museum for the longest time has been trying to build an outreach program to the Indian community, and they have not been very successful,” Mr. Singh said. “I thought I could help.”
Mr. Singh pledged to raise $250,000 to support Indian programming, and the museum recently invited donors to that effort and their families to go behind the scenes for a peek at Indian sculptures that were being reinstalled. So far, about 20 families have contributed $1,000 each to support such programming.
That helped the museum plan a lecture on Indian culture, with performances by a local Indian dance troupe that Mr. Singh’s group identified. “That’s something we wouldn’t have known how to put together, and it is really enriching to our programming,” Ms. Andrews said.”
AHA. That’s what’s been bugging me. Some (definitely not all, let me be clear) of the recent “diversity in the theater” conversations have assumed that diverse audiences are of a specific socio-economic class that requires cheap tickets, social informality and cultural training to access our art form. It assumes that cultivating diverse audiences is expensive to do and will have to be underwritten by public funds because it is unlikely to pay for itself through new revenue sources (like donors, corporations or granting organizations with culturally specific agendas). It treats diversity like civic broccoli- nutritious, but a burden.
In fact, nearly ALL our conversations about new audience development include some mention of the idea that new audiences can’t afford or are unwilling to afford our art form unless we keep the ticket prices down and encourage them to arrive in jeans with a Bud Lite in their hand (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my drift).
It’s a fundamentally classist argument. Why do we assume that these coveted new audience groups can’t afford us (be they a culturally specific community, a young/hip community, or a Netflix-watching, Lady GaGa concert-going community)? Why do we assume that they don’t want to get dressed up or have an “upscale” experience? Why do we assume that wrapping our current programming with a pre- or post-show event (live music for the indie crowd, salsa dancing for the latino community,etc etc) will make our programming more culturally relevant to a group we have no relationship with?
What was incredibly refreshing about this museum article was that nowhere in the piece did any of the examples mention either
A. Creating a special cheap night for this new audience (with additional cultural “context” thrown in)
B. Putting up collateral material in culturally specific locations in order to draw in a “new” crowd to the existing offerings of the museum.
In fact, all of the examples specifically mention the whole new world of high-level donor participation that was opened up to the museum by engaging a culturally specific community. Okay let me be more blunt. They all talked about how much MONEY their culturally specific programming was drawing out of the Korean, or Indian, or African-American communities with whom they developed new relationships. They all also demonstrate that these new relationships were mutually beneficial, both financially and socially. They were filling a social need for a group who wanted a culturally relevant way to participate in their local arts institutions.
They were also a two-way street, with the new patron groups actively introducing new art, artists and cultural forms to the museum that proved beneficial to the curators and the overall museum audience.
And yes, there was an accessibility issue that these institutions were struggling with. But it wasn’t that a particular community couldn’t access the museum due to economic constraints. It was that the institution couldn’t access their targeted “new” community because of cultural and social restraints.
And many of these institutions describe having struggled with developing diverse audiences before this new breakthrough was developed. So, what did they suddenly get right?
And what can we learn (steal) from their success?
I see 5 key lessons to draw from our friends in the museum world:
1. Find an advocate from within the community. Someone who has both a love for your art form and established (preferably extensive) relationships within the community that you want to reach. Empower them to make introductions. Empower them to steer your choices of when and how you engage. Admit you don’t know the best way to tackle a specific community if you are not from that community. Ask questions. LEARN.
2. Meet them on their home turf. In the article, one museum connected first with the Korean consulate. The consulate invited them to parties and events where they had the opportunity to meet members of the community, learn about the cultural context, needs and concerns specific to that community. They didn’t just ask for a mailing list and send invitations to an event at the museum. They developed relationships first. On the community’s home turf.
3. Collaborate- both socially AND artistically. The Professor Singh example is especially pointed on this front. The events that were developed to serve his community were created out of an active artistic collaboration between the community and the museum- introducing artists that the museum would have otherwise been completely unfamiliar with. The flow of resources was two-way and had tangible benefits for both sides.
The conversation wasn’t “Here’s this programming we’ve created to serve your community.” It was “We’d like to create programming for your community. We have some ideas and we’d like to hear yours. Out of that, something cool could develop.”
4. Ask for support (and don’t assume they can’t afford it). In each case, an audience building exercise became a fundraising exercise (or vice versa) because the arts institution was not afraid to ask for the support of the community they were building a relationship with. They asked for introductions. They asked for invitations. They asked for checks. In some cases, the support started in party invitations and culminated in $2.5 mil endowments. In others, it generated new sources of artwork that would have been unavailable to the museum (and its audience) before.
5. Commit- over the long term. This is not about building a culturally specific audience for this season’s culturally specific show. This is asking how the institution as a whole can commit, over the long term, to a mutually beneficial relationship with a culturally specific audience. From season selection to lobby beverage selections.
And that means the organization’s whole culture changes. For good. No band-aids. No “diversity nights.” No separate invite list for the “black” show or the “indie” show or the “Asian” show that will be ignored until the next Lynn Nottage or Will Eno piece crosses our stages.
And remember: you are building a partnership with a community who may not share all the same values as you. In order for it to be mutually beneficial, your relationship will need to respect the values you don’t share as well as affirm the values that you DO share.
But then, that’s true of your relationship with ANY audience.
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