I’m going to venture out onto some thin ice for the next few posts to talk about minority participation in the performing arts. Next month I’ll speak to the challenges facing producing organizations coming from minority communities. But this month I’d like to address the efforts of mainstream organizations and facilities to grow the minority component of their audience base.
The latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), published in September 2013 by the National Endowment for the Arts, is the most widely referenced source of information on performing arts audiences. Key to that is the fact that it is the sixth such survey since 1982, meaning we can look at trends over time.
Per this first chart, the basic headline from the new SPPA is that participation in various performing arts disciplines is low — and getting lower:
It is very hard to tease more specific information on minority participation out of the survey, but here is one chart showing how the decline in musical theater participation from 2008 to 2012 includes declines in all but African American groups.When we look at work coming from non-Western European traditions, like jazz, the participation rates in minority communities is actually increasing — to the extent that the total participation is actually increasing.But then there are some bigger problems around how we measure participation. The recent Cultural Trends Journal included the article “Minding the Gap: Elucidating the Disconnect Between Arts Participation Metrics and Arts Engagement Within Immigrant Communities.” This piece points to the inadequacy of the SPPA in measuring minority and immigrant arts participation, due principally to the fact that many people participate in a range of arts activities that are not reported. In other words, we aren’t asking the right questions in order to get the full picture.
But even with only a partial view of immigrant and minority participation, there is much time and energy going into the challenge of increasing the diversity of performing arts audiences. The sector is trying to move from audiences that resemble a box of Q-Tips to audiences that looks more like boxes of crayons.
So there we were, in the offices of a major symphony orchestra in a large market, with the executive director and board chair suggesting that one of the key reasons they need a new, purpose-built, 2,000 seat hall is that they just hired a new conductor from South America, which they were certain would profoundly impact on their ability to attract a much larger Hispanic audience. Given that virtually all the population growth in that market was projected to come from Hispanics, surely, thought our colleagues, there would be a growing, enthusiastic audience for the symphony in a new home.
We approached that assertion the same way we tackle lots of our toughest questions: by talking to people in the field who’ve acted on these assumptions and lived through these experiences. The first thing we heard is that it is simplistic (and dangerous) to assume that a Latino leader from one country would attract audiences from other Hispanic countries.
Then we looked at Los Angeles to see if the much-heralded arrival of Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the Philharmonic, back in 2009, increased Latino audiences there. The answer was: not really. Despite the huge level of press and publicity associated with Dudamel’s arrival in LA, there has not been an appreciable increase in Philharmonic’s Hispanic audience. Coincidentally, we also heard that the same thing happened — well, didn’t happen — when Placido Domingo arrived in 2003 as general director of the Los Angeles Opera.
Same story in Nashville, where a new Nicaraguan-born conductor to the Symphony arrived in 2008. Giancarlo Guerrero’s appointment as music director was heavily promoted in the community, and though there has been steady growth in ticket sales, given his skills and dynamic style, there has been no appreciable growth in the Hispanic component of Symphony audiences.
One interesting view we heard is that Hispanic artistic leaders are more likely to impact contributed income than earned income. Having an important Hispanic artist able and willing to participate in one-on-one or small group fundraising events with Hispanic donors can create a stronger sense of pride and association with the organization, and thus motivate new giving.
All of this affirms for me the experience we learned some years ago from Mark Nerenhausen and Kelley Shanley, then at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts — how they cracked the Brazilian market in and around Florida’s Broward County. It wasn’t through the booking of Brazilian artists or entertainers. It was a multi-year effort to engage the Brazilian community in the life of the building: one-on-one meetings with leaders, group sessions in the neighborhoods, programming plans developed with key representatives and then promoted by and for the community. It was unquestionably hard work. But it paved the way to a new set of relationships and a strong sense of the building being relevant and responsive to a changing community.