(R)Ev-ifesto: Donna Walker-Kuhne

by Donna Walker-Kuhne

in Audience & Community Engagement

Leadership towards creating a culture of diversity and the global connection

I think in any endeavor, you begin with the framework and the leadership. The breadth and scope of the vision and the ability to articulate the vision is not bound by the size of the organization. My clients include Alvin Ailey, The Apollo, The Louis Armstrong Historic Museum as well as small theater and dance companies.

What I find is that the constant for all is the ability of the artistic and executive director to shape the vision, articulate it and imbed into the culture of the organization.

Everyone has to be a stakeholder, there has to be sincere, concerted effort and dialogue to help each staff person understand their role in creating a culture of diversity.

I experienced this with Arthur Mitchell at DTH and George Wolfe at The Public Theater and now with John Schreiber and Dave Rodriguez at NJPAC.  Visionary leadership smart enough to surround themselves with translators.  I experienced this with Westchester Arts Council and Kenilworth Historic Museum both very small organizations that have made a point of creating a culture of diversity as part of their mission.

I believe that the vision for any arts organization today must include the commitment to diversify audiences in all the relevant delineations.  We are not limited to race, ethnicity but to also think about lass, geography, age and lifestyle.

Culture of diversity starts with our senior managers and board diversity.  We need to have a plan to develop candidates and identity managers. It’s okay to approach a colleague and say,’ I need to meet more people like you, can you help me’? Sincerity and integrity is the key.

Cultural diversity has a global connection.  At some point these conversations will converge to develop a global level of consciousness and effort that will bridge cultural differences with the arts as the playground creating a foundation for mutual respect and understanding.

I have had their privilege to travel around the world to participate in discussions and teach strategies based on diversity in the arts.  This is what I see:

Australia – after two visits speaking to their arts administrators, I created a multicultural arts tour for Australian arts administrators ink New York called Bite the Big Apple.  For one week, a group of 15 Australians visit museums, performing and educational institutions to learn how they can better engage their immigrant and aboriginal communities to be arts audiences.  We begin their week in Harlem which is a crossroads of cultural and economic diversity.  This program, I’m told serves as a model for learning that is reviewed, discussed and shared in their respective institutions.

Moscow – I presented  a series of lectures to theater directors and college students.  The theater directors, many who have worked for 30-40 years still functioned in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.  This made it difficult for them to embrace new concepts. The students on the other hand were excited and eager to try something new. They love social media and want to create relationships with diverse communities.  The young arts administrators were not bound by history, they were informed but not a prisoner.

Berlin – I speak with the graduate students in a pre designed audience development program.  They are so vibrant, interested and ready to activate strategies.  This same class comes to NY annually visiting our cultural institutions including the boroughs.

Toronto – The arts community is engaged in educating themselves about how best to speak to their broad immigrant demographic as well as young audiences.  They have workshops and continued dialogues to explore and activate this topic.

What is important in these instances is the leadership and vision to expand the thinking and go to sources to help figure out creating diversity within their own institutions.  And the US is perceived as a model of diversity!  Interesting!

In the United States, there are numerous efforts being conducted in the large cultural institutions and smaller ones who are committed to engaging diversity as part of their identity.  It is not a separate production, it is the production.  I find there is a consistent interest to engage communities but this intent is often hampered by lack of resources which are not limited to financial, but also staff and staff understanding as to how to approach this effort.

So where is the movement?  One key area is arts education.  This represents a tremendous opportunity to expand diversity organically.  But there is a disconnect in many instances from marketing.  The children, young adults and even parents are treated almost as if there are in another institution.  Here is an opportunity for internal collaboration that can help achieve the goal.

What do I call this synergy of leadership and culture of diversity?

THREADING.  When the key strategists and artists collaborate, the mission of embracing community becomes so much easier.  And this is what the leadership helps to accomplish – to create one thread that carries forth the mission of building a culture of diversity.

Donna Walker-Kuhne has been acknowledged by the Arts and Business Council as one of the world’s foremost experts on developing multicultural audiences for the arts. Since 1984, she has been president of Walker International Communications Group, conducting seminars and workshops across the globe while providing marketing consultation services to arts organizations and numerous nonprofit groups. Her clients have ranged from the Apollo Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Broadway shows to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She is currently Vice President of Marketing for New Jersey Performing Arts Center. She is
Founder of Walker International Communications Group, a boutique marketing, press and audience development consulting agency. From 1993 through 2002, she served as the Director of Marketing and Audience Development Activities that positively affected thousands of children, students and adults in multicultural communities. Prior to that, she served as the Director of Marketing for the Dance Theatre of Harlem (1984-93), where she developed the highly successful public relations and marketing campaign for their unprecedented tour of Johannesburg, South Africa. Ms. Walker-Kuhne has won numerous grants and awards for her work and is the author of Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to Arts, Culture, and Community (2005), a top-selling, recognized resource for nonprofit arts marketers, producers and students. She lectures on the topic of multiculturism in the arts internationally including Berlin, Australia, Canada and Russia. Her work has raised over $13 million for arts organizations and continues to focus on the growth of diverse audiences for the arts in the 21st century.