I woke up the morning of November 9th and immediately tried to return to an anxiety dream, which seemed preferable to reality at that moment. But I had things to do and people to interview, for that Wednesday marked the beginning of a round of interviews for San Francisco Shakespeare Festival with Asian American community members about arts participation and feeling welcome. Initially thinking, “How am I going to muster the energy to lead these conversations about anything other than the state of the union today,” I ended the day feeling more encouraged, and definitely more thoughtful.
Even if we believe the arts are for everyone, the perception that they aren’t is very real and strongly influences how and if people choose to participate. For a long time, the arts sector has suffered from a stigma of elitism — that the arts are for wealthy white people — yet has struggled to fully understand the underlying issues and address them intentionally. How do we tackle this perception of elitism when it comes to our institutions? What does it mean to create a sense of welcome and comfort for any person who might be interested in attending our programs?
Below are some things I’ve learned over the past few years:
1) People always come first. The first in-person interaction audience members have when they come on-site — how they are greeted and by whom — can set the tone for the entire experience, as well as the long-term perception of the organization. Small negative interactions — box office staff who don’t make eye contact, security guards who give the evil eye, greeters who barely greet — can adversely affect how welcome a visitor feels. Conversely, a strong positive first impression can last a lifetime.
2) The design and layout of the venue speaks volumes. Outside events are more open, relaxed, and family-friendly and tend to be inherently more welcoming than indoor events. Outdoor events and installations are also often free, and therefore remove barriers of access associated with cost. Events in light-filled indoor spaces (e.g., lobby spaces with floor to ceiling windows) can reproduce the feeling of openness from the outdoors. However, venues that are more modern in design, perhaps more angular, metallic, concrete, or sleek, can be compelling to some but cold, off-putting, or overly formal to others.
3) Wayfinding and orderliness contribute to ease of access. “Making it so that it is easy for people to be there” is a key component to creating a welcoming environment, according to one community member I interviewed. Ensuring that every aspect of the event, from ticketing to signage to educational materials, facilitates a setting where everyone is at ease. When audiences know how to navigate a space from the moment they arrive, even if it is just about being able to find the restrooms, they enjoy a greater sense of comfort and have more room to fully enjoy the arts experience itself.
4) Translating materials is a signal for English and non-English speakers alike. Consistently incorporating bilingual or multilingual signage, programs, and website content is not just about effective communication. It is also a signal to all, including those who are fluent and comfortable with English, that the organization recognizes and celebrates the diversity in its communities and strives for inclusivity.
5) Food brings people together. Food is a cultural activity. As a universal sign of celebration and community across cultures, the act of breaking bread together can also serve as an entry point to even more substantive cross-cultural exchange. Providing food also makes it easier for families to participate in an event, as they don’t need to worry about scheduling around meal times.
6) Programming matters. Audience research tells us time and time again that the artist, program, and subject matter are the most influential factors in deciding whether or not to attend. Most of us are drawn to work that we can relate to or has some relevance to our lives. For example, Shakespeare’s work may be something that most Americans have been exposed to, but this may not be the case for all. A lack of connection to the material can be a huge barrier to participation; it is the basis for lack of interest in the work itself. Arts organizations who are most successful at diversifying their audiences find ways to make their work relevant to those they aim to attract.
7) No group is monolithic; diversity is complex and multi-layered. When arts groups initiate audience development strategies targeting specific populations, it can be easy to lose sight of the diversity within a particular demographic segment. Geographic, ethnic, and generational differences can all influence individuals’ values, tastes, and decision-making when it comes to the arts. In recent weeks, for example, I have gained a greater appreciation for the ethnic and linguistic diversity within our local Chinese and South Asian populations and have realized how much more there is to learn. Ignoring the cultural diversity within a seemingly monolithic population can significantly limit an organization’s success in attracting new audiences.
Of course, this is a complex subject that deserves more time and space for discussion than we have here. For example, some issues that I’m not addressing include the diversification of staffs and boards and the lack of funding and support for existing organizations that serve and celebrate communities of color. But I hope this may serve as a conversation starter for arts administrators interested in creating a more welcoming space for all.
If we want our audiences, and yes, our institutions, to be representative of the beautiful diversity of this country –- to be of the people, by the people, and for the people — we need to figure out how to ask questions, engage in conversations, and help community members of all backgrounds feel that they belong. If we believe that the arts are for everyone, then encouraging this greater sense of welcome and belonging should be our goal. Like political parties seeking to build bigger tents to combat the rising tide of division and fear on a national scale, it is arguably more urgent than ever for arts organizations to be places of welcome for all.