Responding to the concerns of many of our grantees about how to effectively build more diversity and inclusion into their audience development efforts, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation retained cultural audience diversity expert Donna Walker-Kuhne (pictured above) to help us assess the needs and begin to develop strategies on how to tackle this challenge.

In late July, Donna spent two packed days in Denver, meeting one-on-one with a group of larger institutions and holding several focus groups with about 15 participants each. She also reviewed existing data, like the Imagine 2020 cultural plan and its supporting research, to familiarize herself with our community.

The goal was to elicit honest dialogue about the barriers and successes of engaging diverse audiences. She also wanted to understand the distinction between heritage-based organizations and “mainstream” cultural organizations. In general the dialogue was honest, passionate, and constructive. Frustrations were expressed, but also enthusiasm about working on this issue both as individual organizations and as a collective cultural community.

I think we all recognize – the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation included – that this can be difficult work. It can sometimes be uncomfortable, it can take us out of our comfort zone, and to do it right sometimes requires significant institutional change.

So what did we learn?

  1. Develop a common understanding and language. Even talking about “diversity” as the catch-all phrase for this work can be a challenge. It includes recognizing that personal, cultural and institutionalized discrimination creates and sustains privileges for some while creating and sustaining disadvantages for others.
  2. Do much work on staff recruitment and development. Participants very much want to achieve these goals but struggle with insufficient staff capacity, as well as lack of commitment from executive leadership and/or the board. Even with those organizations large enough to have dedicated “diversity” or “outreach” staff, those staff feel isolated and not fully supported institutionally.
  3. Related to the above, change organizational culture. This is not just about checking off a box on a to-do list by assigning a staff-member to the task of building diverse audiences. The entire enterprise must be directed towards the desire to serve the full spectrum of the population in our community. All components of the organization must see themselves as part of this work.
  4. Develop long term partnerships. There was a strong sense that groups wanted to tackle this work as part of a learning community, and not as individual – often isolated – organizations. How do we foster those partnerships, communicate widely what is being learned, and look at strategies that are working (or not working)?
  5. Move away from what has amounted to segregated diversity. Many larger groups, thanks to mandated SCFD Free days, are able to attract on these days a very different demographic make-up that is more economically and racially diverse than the general audience. And while these can make the overall attendance numbers look good, not enough has been achieved in terms of embracing diverse communities as part of the core audience and ensuring they are participating in all programs. Conversely, we must find ways to encourage more white audiences to embrace and attend organizations outside of their identified culture/race – it is a two-way street.

Where do we go from here?

Donna’s findings and more detailed recommendations have been shared back with all the participating organizations, and the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation is now determining its next steps. There may be some community-wide efforts where we can be the catalyst and convener, such as regular meetings of those cultural staff charged with this work within their organizations. Can we help educate arts groups about the importance of this work, as well as gather valuable data on progress, by building relevant questions into our grant application and final report forms, and incorporating progress on this front as part of the grant review process? Might we target some dedicated funding to this work?

We have mixed feelings about directing a portion of our limited funds directly to this work, because while diversity work struggles from lack of resources, we cannot alone fill the need and this work, frankly, needs to be prioritized and integrated into every cultural organization’s goals and strategies.

It should not be done “only” if you secure a special grant to do it.