Are We Doing Enough? Part 2
More Tough Questions We Get Asked About Engagement Practices and Programming in the Arts
Our new series exploring tough questions about engagement practices and programming in the arts continues with five more responses from our grantee-partners. If you missed our first story, start here:
Are We Doing Enough? Part 1
Tough Questions We Get Asked About Engagement Practices and Programming in the Arts
— Ted Russell, The James Irvine Foundation
6. What purpose do these “engagement events” serve if people don’t then start showing up at the museum?
Kelly McKinley & Lori Fogarty, Oakland Museum of California
View Kelly and Lori’s response, and see some highlights below.
“One thing we’ve noticed, that we’re struggling with, is that a lot of people thought they already were at the museum.”
“You have to think less about your facility and more about your city.”
“It takes a long time to invest in these outreach efforts to begin to see some shifts. We’re starting to see those shifts now in our numbers, the neighborhoods who are coming to our free days, but also to our paid days.”
7. What’s the value of offering free programming and how do you make it sustainable?
Public programming is about delivering meaningful arts experiences. Those experiences have intrinsic value, regardless of their price point. How do we know that a program is meaningful and is hitting all the right buttons? Ask the people themselves. They may report that they learned or experienced something new about the arts (aesthetic growth), valued the opportunity to be with others who are different to or similar as them (bridging/bonding), or proud that this cultural happening is occurring in their city (civic pride).
How is a free program sustainable? Simply put — through economics. You must find a way to pay for it which could involve re-allocating and re-prioritizing internal resources to make room for it. Aside from the typical non-profit funding sources, the free program itself can be monetized as a potential income source. When you know you have a “hit” on your hands, start selling tickets as quickly as possible.
8. If we (only) give audiences what they want, will they miss out on what (we think) they need?
Heather Rigby, Ford Theatres
Our programming model at the Ford, in which we partner with local producers and arts organizations, allows us to source our season from local communities and present arts experiences that are relevant to a broad cross-section of Los Angeles. The Ford Theatres is a cultural resource for the entire County of Los Angeles; the region is so big and its population so diverse that we can’t assume to know what audiences “need.” We rely on those partners to be interpreters, intermediators, and connectors to local communities and we cultivate audiences together.
Through this model, we program an incredibly diverse season of events and support the work of emerging producers and culture makers without worrying about alienating a core audience that is culturally homogenous or genre-focused- we just don’t have one!
Every night at the Ford is different in terms of what is performed on stage and who walks through the gates. Our challenge is generating an audience that supports our mission and values and comes back to see multiple shows. This is a major goal of ours as we position ourselves to reopen after some major construction. We’re thinking about ways to articulate the connections and themes that unify our season, and translate them into messages that resonate with people about what the Ford stands for. For us, it’s more about the question “how do we find the audiences that need what our season offers?” I think the answer lies in continuing to generate community with and through our producing partners and all of our efforts are aligned toward that effort. We’ll see how it comes together in 2016!
9. Should every performance or visit to our space offer an opportunity for engagement?
Nina Simon, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
Depends on your definition of engagement. If you define engagement as “a feeling of genuine involvement,” then yes. If you define engagement as painting, or talking to strangers, or singing in the choir, then no.
You can engage intellectually. Socially. Creatively. Loudly. Quietly. The goal for any arts organization should be to offer the range of engagement experiences that is appropriate to their community, their mission, and their art form. And the wider the range you offer, the more, and more diverse, people might feel a genuine connection.
Emily Mahon, Bowers Museum
Listen to audio of Emily’s response above, see some of the highlights below.
“By definition museums exist to engage.”
“From the moment visitors walk through the door or into a courtyard, look at the museum building or park their car, the museum is engaging the public visually and environmentally in a way that they are not engaged in their normal setting.”
“But the opportunity for engagement must be an elegant fit, not forced for the sake of engagement but toward a meaningful end.”
10. Are culturally and racially-specific arts organizations negatively affected when mainstream arts organizations offer diverse programming?
Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana
Changing demographics coupled with the desire for mainstream or traditional arts organizations to better connect with their communities, results in the need for more relevant, diverse programming. We’d neversuggest that traditional arts organizations are negatively affected by the existence of organizations grounded in specific racial, ethnic or cultural communities, so is the question itself already biased? There are ways to think about the relationship between culturally-specific and mainstream arts organizations as part of an ecosystem where everyone can benefit if equity is the goal.
It’s all about the Benjamins. Not really, but this a good place to start. As the executive director of MACLA, a contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience that incubates new art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation, we are often asked to partner with mainstream arts organizations when they want to offer diverse programs. We’ve had successful partnerships with these organizations that can bring significant financial resources to the table. Funds for us to pay artists ten thousand dollars to create new work, and cover our staff time to implement the project. By recognizing the value of labor — both our staff and our artists, the world becomes more equitable. But this act is often the exception rather than the norm.
The trend where mainstream arts organizations attract larger dollars is a problematic cycle for organizations rooted in diverse communities. Holly Sidford’s work is a call to action for funders to invest their resources in a more inclusive and equitable manner. If we want organizations like MACLA to grow and develop, funders need to cut a bigger slice of the philanthropic pie to invest in infrastructure and to combat the historic undercapitalization that small and mid-size arts organizations emerging from diverse communities face.
Leverage relationships. Coming from a community based organization that doesn’t have a “deep pocket” board of directors or personal network, opening doors is another way that mainstream organizations can support diverse organizations. One of our partners invited me to a major fundraising event as their guest, without worrying about me “poaching” donors. Here, I was able to network, exchange business cards and meet new people who might have an interest in my organization’s work. I was also able to see what a more complex fundraising machine looks like in practice and walk away with new ideas for our next event. Another partner invited MACLA to lunch with one of their supporters. Several years later, we have formed a relationship with this funder and now receive support. And our mainstream partner still receives support from this funder. MACLA in turn, often shares knowledge of our funders and even grant applications with our mainstream arts partners. If we operate from a position of abundance than scarcity, social and intellectual capital can translate to financial capital.
Omni Channel opportunity. When larger organizations pursue diverse programs, it amplifies the message. They often have more marketing dollars and a broader reach. When they partner with organizations like MACLA it can raise the visibility of the artists that we work with and our organization if it is done equitably. Looking to the private sector, big brands can help to introduce and build a market. Take the work of Tristan Walker, formerly entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz and founder and CEO ofWalker & Co.
Walker’s Bevel shaving brand focuses on those with coarse, curly hair to make health and beauty simpler for people of color. As a start-up, Bevel’s recent partnership with Target is brilliant. It brings an increased brand awareness for their product and company. Target becomes the gateway drug to Bevel. In arts, we often shy away from bringing our programs to a mass market. I question this logic. In an age where we want to be more relevant to more people, partnerships that can help diverse arts organizations reach a mass market can work to our advantage.
Authentic programming is key. Mainstream arts organizations can gain “street credibility” by partnering with community-based arts partners when they offer diverse programs. Unfortunately, in many mainstream arts organizations senior team members lack cultural competency. Diverse arts organizations are deeply connected to their community. They are bilingual. They know who is doing important work. Their finger is on the pulse of what is important. It is in their DNA. A curator at a major museum once shared that “if you want to know who you’ll see at the museum in five to ten years, you should be watching what is happening at MACLA now.” While I see a future where artists coming from diverse communities don’t need to wait a decade for their museum show, this sentiment validates the important role of community-based organizations in nurturing and advocating for equity.
There are no easy conclusions to this question. It is complicated. There are tons of examples where partnerships between mainstream arts organizations and culturally-specific arts organizations have gone awry. Let’s not be Pollyannaish about the impact of institutional racism and historic undercapitalization of arts organizations grounded in diverse communities.
If we want to increase opportunity for all Californians, the arts are a vehicle. To do this right, we need both mainstream and culturally specific organizations embracing equity and diverse programs.
Tierra Allen, Lisa Evans, & Rebecca Novick, California Shakespeare Theater
Vu Le, author of the always astute “Non-profits with Balls,” called out “trickle-down engagement” in the field last year: This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.
So what are the obligations of an historically white institution receiving significant funding to engage with communities of color? Can we take these funds and not be part of the “trickle-down” problem? How do we operate ethically and interrupt longstanding funding inequities?
This conversation seems related to best practices for white people trying to engage as allies in the struggle for racial justice. As white allies — and similarly, as Cal Shakes, a historically white arts institution — we need to:
- Listen to and learn from people of color: As an organization with a predominantly white board, staff, and audience, we must begin by listening to the communities we’re trying to engage — including empowering artists and staff of color to critique existing programming and lead new programs.
- Share our resources: When funders are hesitant to invest in organizations already rooted in communities of color (usually due to small budgets or lack of institutional support), it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves this work unfunded. We must find ways to share resources with these artists and organizations. When we ask them to contribute to our work, we need to pay them: a substantial portion of our budget goes to supporting artists, staff time at collaborating organizations, residency participants, and artist-led projects.
- Take up less space: When we do share resources with a community-based project, or co-present work with culturally specific groups, we need to make sure we don’t receive outsized credit that renders our collaborators invisible. When we’re invited to represent this work publicly, we should extend those invitations to our collaborators on the frontlines of the work and allow them to speak for themselves.
- Examine who’s at the table, what the table is, and how invitations happen: Don’t come to potential partnerships with all the answers (or even all the questions). If we alone are deciding whom we invite to collaborate and what the focus and structure of that collaboration is, we’re dictating too much of the work. We need to be a platform for diverse ways of working, rather than setting a table where we control the menu and the guest list.
- Understand our privilege and work to change the system we are benefiting from: Our access to funding opportunities grants a standing with funders and donors that we should use to promote the work of community-based organizations and artists of color. We must also call out our peer institutions when we observe problematic practices: a key part of this work is engaging internally and nationally in efforts around diversity, inclusion and equity in the field.
How do you respond to tough questions in your own engagement work?
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This is the second in a series of stories on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engage with their communities, and become more resilient organizations.
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☞ Special thanks to the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts grantee-partners: Bowers Museum, California Shakespeare Theater, Cornerstone Theater Company, Ford Theatres, MACLA, Oakland Museum, Pacific Symphony, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, The Music Center, and YBCA.
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Continue to part 3: