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Of, By and For the People

As a nation of immigrants, much of the arts and culture offerings of interest to U.S. audiences have been based on the cultural heritage of their ancestral homelands. It is human nature to find comfort in what is familiar. In the last third of the 20th century, the expansion of the nonprofit arts and culture sector was fueled by the increasing appetite of white European descendants for Eurocentric arts experiences. With inexorable U.S. demographic changes on the horizon, these Eurocentric arts and cultural organizations are now struggling to find ways to serve many communities in which people of color will soon be in the majority.[1]

The major arts service organizations have devoted considerable energy to trying to motivate their members to develop diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. The League of American Orchestras has an extensive Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center and recently formed an audition preparatory partnership with the Sphinx Organization and the New World Symphony to increase diversity in American orchestras. A key focus of OPERA America’s recent annual conference was a forum on “Recognizing and Undoing Racism.” And, Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute is a multi-year effort to transform the national theatre field into a more equitable, inclusive and diverse community.

These are all laudable initiatives to help mainstream organizations serve more diverse audiences, by becoming more diverse and inclusive themselves. What is not clear, however, is whether these efforts can overcome the root cause of low participation rates among people of color in traditional arts and culture organizations. According to Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), “having the intention to be welcoming is not enough…If you want to be for everyone in your community…the most effective way to do that is to be representative of them and co-created by them.”[2]

While many mainstream arts and culture organizations have embraced initiatives to be more representative of their communities, very few have taken the leap to allow community participation in the creation process, except perhaps in the ghettoized sphere of community engagement activities. The authority and control for what happens on the mainstage still rests almost exclusively with professional artists, who may be disdainful of even the occasional involvement of untrained amateurs.  As in a real democracy, however, an arts organization’s stakeholders will feel real ownership only when they have meaningful power and influence.

At MAH, Nina Simon realized that the democratization of her arts organization – to be of, by and for the community it sought to serve – was not only the right thing to do, it was the only viable way to turn around its financial fortunes.  In the 7 years since Simon took over MAH, the annual operating budget has increased from $700K to $3M, the number of staff has increased from 7 to 32 and the number of annual visitors has increased from 17K to 140K.

The success of MAH’s micro-organizational efforts led Nina Simon to spearhead the launch of a nationwide OFBYFOR ALL initiative, the goal of which is “to engage 200 organizations serving 10 million community members by the end of 2020” by adopting new practices based on the belief that:

  • The more an organization is reflective OF its community, the more people feel represented.
  • The more programming is created BY the community, the more people feel ownership.
  • The more programming is FOR the community, the more everyone will want to participate.

To learn more about the OFBYFOR ALL initiative, check out the video of the launch announcement or use the free online organizational self-assessment tool.

[2] “Nina Simon: OFBYFOR ALL” from MuseumNext on Vimeo at 10:58, June, 2018.
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