MAKING MEANINGFUL CONNECTIONS

Organizations that are successfully engaging diverse participants have made an explicit, sustained and organization-wide commitment to change, regardless of whether special funding is available.

INTRODUCTION

Despite concerted efforts, entrenched patterns of participation have resisted significant change. As the National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent survey of arts participation shows, the majority of people who attend “benchmark arts activities” are white and upper-income. In 2008, three times as many white people attended classical music concerts as did African Americans, for example, and there was a similar stratification by income — only 8% of people with incomes between $40,000 and $50,000 attended classical music concerts that year, while more than 22% of people with incomes greater than $150,000 attended.

Few leaders of “benchmark” institutions are happy with these figures, and most want to see a more diverse range of people among their participants. Similarly, smaller and more community-based cultural organizations — which serve populations that are ethnically diverse and mostly moderate- to lower-income — would like to appeal to a broader demographic and face challenges in doing so. Therefore, participant diversification is not only the concern of “benchmark” institutions, but also the work of groups that are rooted in demographically specific communities.

Whatever their past efforts to diversify participants, many arts leaders are coming to understand that program, marketing and social media strategies are not the only pieces required to solve the long-term engagement puzzle. There is growing awareness that achieving lasting engagement by participants who reflect our changing demographics involves broader organizational change.

This report offers key organizational characteristics for cultural institutions that are genuinely engaging participants who reflect their communities’ changing demographics. Organizations that are successfully engaging diverse participants have made an explicit, sustained and organization-wide commitment to change, regardless of whether special funding is available. This commitment manifests itself in ways that both cut across the entire organization, and are expressed in specific components of their work. These include:

MISSION: Organizations committed to diversifying participants incorporate this intention in their missions. They regularly review their mission statements in the context of their evolving community, and have articulated a clear, compelling and relevant purpose that is evident in all aspects of their work.

LEADERSHIP: These organizations have strong leaders who sustain focus on arts engagement, and who are comfortable with risk and failure. They have staffs and boards that reflect communities they wish to serve, and explicit structures by which to solicit and use community input. They include a critical mass of internal leaders [who] have links to and expertise with the populations the organization wants to engage more deeply. At the same time, the organization does not expect any one person to speak for an entire demographic group.

CULTURAL COMPETENCE: These shifts can be achieved only by examining assumptions, overcoming biases, dealing with people’s fear of difference and implementing explicit plans for change. Leaders build trust in a better future by acknowledging what they don’t know, treating differing views with respect, and sustaining internal and external conversations about the many dimensions of diversity and inclusion, including very difficult subjects such as racism, sexism, homophobia and economic inequality. Such leaders have led their organizations to conduct cultural competency assessments, create specific inclusion plans and sustain an ongoing, multilingual conversation about diversity and inclusion.

The core commitments are made real through a set of qualities seen in specific areas of organizational practice common to arts groups effectively engaging new and diverse participants:

  • Clients

  • PROJECT

  • WHAT WE DID

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Despite concerted efforts, entrenched patterns of participation have resisted significant change. As the National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent survey of arts participation shows, the majority of people who attend “benchmark arts activities” are white and upper-income. In 2008, three times as many white people attended classical music concerts as did African Americans, for example, and there was a similar stratification by income — only 8% of people with incomes between $40,000 and $50,000 attended classical music concerts that year, while more than 22% of people with incomes greater than $150,000 attended.

Few leaders of “benchmark” institutions are happy with these figures, and most want to see a more diverse range of people among their participants. Similarly, smaller and more community-based cultural organizations — which serve populations that are ethnically diverse and mostly moderate- to lower-income — would like to appeal to a broader demographic and face challenges in doing so. Therefore, participant diversification is not only the concern of “benchmark” institutions, but also the work of groups that are rooted in demographically specific communities.

Whatever their past efforts to diversify participants, many arts leaders are coming to understand that program, marketing and social media strategies are not the only pieces required to solve the long-term engagement puzzle. There is growing awareness that achieving lasting engagement by participants who reflect our changing demographics involves broader organizational change.

This report offers key organizational characteristics for cultural institutions that are genuinely engaging participants who reflect their communities’ changing demographics. Organizations that are successfully engaging diverse participants have made an explicit, sustained and organization-wide commitment to change, regardless of whether special funding is available. This commitment manifests itself in ways that both cut across the entire organization, and are expressed in specific components of their work. These include:

MISSION: Organizations committed to diversifying participants incorporate this intention in their missions. They regularly review their mission statements in the context of their evolving community, and have articulated a clear, compelling and relevant purpose that is evident in all aspects of their work.

LEADERSHIP: These organizations have strong leaders who sustain focus on arts engagement, and who are comfortable with risk and failure. They have staffs and boards that reflect communities they wish to serve, and explicit structures by which to solicit and use community input. They include a critical mass of internal leaders [who] have links to and expertise with the populations the organization wants to engage more deeply. At the same time, the organization does not expect any one person to speak for an entire demographic group.

CULTURAL COMPETENCE: These shifts can be achieved only by examining assumptions, overcoming biases, dealing with people’s fear of difference and implementing explicit plans for change. Leaders build trust in a better future by acknowledging what they don’t know, treating differing views with respect, and sustaining internal and external conversations about the many dimensions of diversity and inclusion, including very difficult subjects such as racism, sexism, homophobia and economic inequality. Such leaders have led their organizations to conduct cultural competency assessments, create specific inclusion plans and sustain an ongoing, multilingual conversation about diversity and inclusion.

The core commitments are made real through a set of qualities seen in specific areas of organizational practice common to arts groups effectively engaging new and diverse participants:

  • Clients

  • PROJECT

  • WHAT WE DID

The Work

Spatial cues can signify to people that they belong or don’t belong in a place, and often these cues are invisible to the “in-group” and glaring to “outsiders.” Organizations that are serious about inclusion make an effort to understand how they are perceived by those who are not currently attending, and affirmatively create more welcoming and inclusive physical environments for various populations.

Organizations successfully engaging diverse participants recognize that all ethnic communities have rich cultural histories, and that there are many organizations and artists in these communities already providing cultural programming for neighborhood residents. They find ways to explore options for partnership, collaboration or aligned effort with community leaders in ways that will be mutually beneficial. They share power and compensate partners adequately for their contributions to joint projects.

Truly engaging new populations isn’t about programming something different to get “them” in the door with the hope of enticing “them” to attend regular programming. Organizations doing this work successfully shift their programming portfolio to include artistic work that is created by and speaks to diverse participants — people from different ethnic or racial communities, young people, low-income people and other groups — and they sustain these shifts over time.

Organizations doing this work successfully are analytical; they measure their progress toward their goals, and they seek continuous improvement in their efforts.

Many organizations have been encouraged to undertake arts engagement [by] funders. For the relationships with diverse participants to be long-lasting, however, the work must be consistent and sustained, and therefore it must be integrated into the organization’s business model. This means budgeting to fully integrate this work into ongoing operations, and recognizing that there will be a learning curve requiring heavier investment in the beginning. It also means coming to terms with the fact that some current stakeholders, including funders and current audiences, may not agree with the changes and even pull away from the organization. In addition, some new participants may be price-sensitive, or may not have a tradition of donating to nonprofit cultural institutions. Organizations that are successfully diversifying their participants have committed fully for mission-related reasons, not expedient financial ones, and have accounted for these implications explicitly in their business model and long-term financial projections.

Spatial cues can signify to people that they belong or don’t belong in a place, and often these cues are invisible to the “in-group” and glaring to “outsiders.” Organizations that are serious about inclusion make an effort to understand how they are perceived by those who are not currently attending, and affirmatively create more welcoming and inclusive physical environments for various populations.

Organizations successfully engaging diverse participants recognize that all ethnic communities have rich cultural histories, and that there are many organizations and artists in these communities already providing cultural programming for neighborhood residents. They find ways to explore options for partnership, collaboration or aligned effort with community leaders in ways that will be mutually beneficial. They share power and compensate partners adequately for their contributions to joint projects.

Truly engaging new populations isn’t about programming something different to get “them” in the door with the hope of enticing “them” to attend regular programming. Organizations doing this work successfully shift their programming portfolio to include artistic work that is created by and speaks to diverse participants — people from different ethnic or racial communities, young people, low-income people and other groups — and they sustain these shifts over time.

Organizations doing this work successfully are analytical; they measure their progress toward their goals, and they seek continuous improvement in their efforts.

Many organizations have been encouraged to undertake arts engagement [by] funders. For the relationships with diverse participants to be long-lasting, however, the work must be consistent and sustained, and therefore it must be integrated into the organization’s business model. This means budgeting to fully integrate this work into ongoing operations, and recognizing that there will be a learning curve requiring heavier investment in the beginning. It also means coming to terms with the fact that some current stakeholders, including funders and current audiences, may not agree with the changes and even pull away from the organization. In addition, some new participants may be price-sensitive, or may not have a tradition of donating to nonprofit cultural institutions. Organizations that are successfully diversifying their participants have committed fully for mission-related reasons, not expedient financial ones, and have accounted for these implications explicitly in their business model and long-term financial projections.

Conclusion

The challenges cultural organizations face in genuinely engaging diverse participants are many and they are real. We live in a society stratified by economic, cultural and educational differences, and in communities with long histories of social segregation. For half a century and more, the participants involved with most mid-sized and larger nonprofit cultural institutions have been predominantly Caucasian and upper income. Meanwhile, artists of color and cultural activists have created a rapidly growing number of arts organizations that serve the traditions and cultural interests of specific communities and lower-income neighborhoods. Re-mixing this divided picture and overcoming long-standing norms and expectations takes sustained effort. But recognizing a challenge is the first step to overcoming it.