"How do institutions and artists negotiate between sincere attempts at 'bridge-building' and creating productive 'multicultural' explorations without falling into the potential traps of audience pandering or cliché?"
Priorities, Values, and Responsibility
Years later, this values exercise is constantly on my mind. What do we say are our values? And do our actions prove or disprove them?
I believe that these questions are at the heart of how to negotiate the line between sincere “bridge-building” versus audience pandering and cliché. What are your values? What are the things you’re not willing to compromise? And how much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve them?
I think every institution should go through this exercise, and identify three real values without which the organization would cease to exist as it is. (I don’t believe sustainability or balanced budgets should be included—those are tools or outcomes, not values. But that’s just me.) So, at Woolly Mammoth, my current employer, those values might be shaking people out of their comfort zone, or furthering the art form by producing new American plays, or creating deep engagement and discourse in DC, through the active recruitment of new perspectives and non-theatergoing audiences.
If diversity is a priority or a value—make it a priority. Don’t just do a play. Program your season to reflect a multiplicity of voices. Convince people that your season reflects a plethora of different people—not just one ethnicity, or gender, or age group. Recruit boards and staff of color—and even more importantly, people who are committed to furthering a diversity agenda. Go into your community and talk to potential stakeholders. Reflect issues that are relevant to them. Reflect the times. Change the model.
I am inspired by the Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, in Singapore. A giant national performing arts center, their mission is to provide the arts to EVERYBODY. I remember seeing that mission statement emblazoned across their offices and smirking—in the way that naïve and overly-confident grad students are wont to do—at the fact that they were breaking the first rule of mission statements, the rule that you cannot be for everybody. But the Esplanade, well, walks the walk. Under the CEO are pods of dual-headed teams: an artistic leader, and a marketing leader. The artistic head curates theatre, movies, music, and fine art that reflects a multiplicity of different backgrounds, cultures, generations, and ethnicities, and the marketing head, well, markets it. But the marketing department also identifies Singaporean communities that are not being represented and brings them to artistic’s attention. They are not dictating what work to curate, simply that there is a community whose voice is not being heard. They work together to fulfill a community-centric mission statement.
Clearly, achieving genuine bridge-building is not easy. But if our president and first lady are to be believed, change is hard. And it takes commitment. That is the ONLY way to be sincere.
So, decide your priorities and work at them. If you’re not going to make diversity one of your top three values, you’re not going to further this particular conversation. Anything else may be perceived as pandering, so your time is better spent on that which you really do value. But ignore diversity at your peril: if you don’t make it a priority, you might find yourself sliding into irrelevance much more quickly than you think.