Ditching Demographics: A Holistic Approach to Arts Engagement

This post is the second in a three-part Blogging Fellows series on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Read the full series.

Image: SF Mural Arts, Unity Among Diversity.
Image: SF Mural Arts, Unity Among Diversity.

Throughout the recent National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, a common thread winding its way through many, if not all, the Talk sessions was the issue of diversity.  From audience to staff, board to funders, we continue to be challenged by how to address racial and socioeconomic homogeneity in the arts — a field long associated with privilege and elitism.  Although there are many strategies focused on increasing diversity of audience participation within the arts, the vast majority are oriented around hardline demographics such as age and race. Rather than this approach, which could have the adverse effect of perpetuating a separation of diverse, identity-based groups into stereotyped boxes, a more holistic strategy is one that emphasizes open-ended, investigative, and authentic engagement.

A more holistic approach to arts engagement

What does open-ended engagement mean? It means that instead of saying, “We want to attract Latino/millennial/etc. audience members,” an arts organization takes the mindset of, “We want to attract audience members interested in thinking and talking about love/food/etc.” Whereas the former approach narrows the potential reach to a specific demographic, the latter is far more inclusive because it doesn’t originate from a prescribed notion of how a particular demographic would or “should” engage. It builds a framework to enable the arts to do what they do best: unleash myriad stories and possibilities that can flow from a single theme or idea.

Love, anger, disappointment, and happiness are themes that every human can identify with, regardless of the demographic check-box they’ve been deemed to fit into. The same goes for a broad topic like “food”: we all eat, yet what we eat and why we eat it varies widely. The possible opportunities for story sharing and deep, personal reflection within such universal themes indicate how engagement efforts aiming to align with a hardline demographic narrative may not always identify what is relevant to a particular community.

A holistic approach listens to the real and complex stories of an audience, rather than presenting an exhibition, performance, or workshop that makes assumptions about a single demographic thread or commonality. Rather than conveying an attitude of, “Here’s what we think interests you, based on the available demographic research,” (referring here to a Museum 2.0 post about assuming what people need from the arts) organizations who adopt a more holistic approach ask their communities: “Here’s an idea we’re exploring. Tell us what you think about it, and what has informed your opinion.” In this way, “audience” does not necessarily have to be limited to visitors physically in attendance at a program, event, or performance – it can also include the greater community of their family and friends whose voices and stories they carry with them.

Putting a holistic approach in practice

Admittedly, the language of an open-ended, holistic approach sounds a little laissez-faire: perhaps too much like a grand organizational cop-out boldly proclaiming, “if we build it, they will come.” The key is not only creating a space for diverse identities and experiences, but ensuring that those identities and experiences are truly valued and supported.

Take, for example, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). MAH’s philosophy (to paraphrase) is that the museum doesn’t create programming, so much as facilitate it. Local community members and organizations – individual artists, skaters and surfers, knitting circles, you name it – are the drivers of program content. By opening up the museum to the interests of the community (that is, the broad swath of cultures, ages, and religions that comprise the city of Santa Cruz), and enabling that community to share its stories and knowledge through art, MAH has become a space for audiences that can’t be anything but diverse. 

Rounding out a roster, or creating equitable exchange?

In sharing the idea for this post with the other members of the Blogging Fellowship cohort, Francesca McKenzie lent an interesting perspective, noting that there is something oddly post-colonial about attempts to bring in diverse audiences. It’s a stark observation that rings uncomfortably true.

More than just re-orienting these approaches to engagement, arts organizations need to think why they want to engage community members with identities and experiences outside of the “traditional” arts audience. Is an organization’s goal to simply reach various demographics in order to round out a roster, or is it to have equitable exchanges with their audience? As Kristen Engebretsen (@harvardancer) tweeted during this year’s National Arts Marketing Project Conference, “Diversity is a value to be maintained, not a problem to be solved.”

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I’m not writing to share a reinvent-the-wheel approach to the pressing issue of diversity within the arts and culture field. As evidenced by the organization highlighted above (just one among a growing group of institutions with a similar approach), orienting engagement around more holistic strategies is not particularly novel. So why include it in a blog focused on innovative practices?  While the idea itself isn’t revolutionary, talking about it – diversity – still is, to many leaders in the field (unfortunate as it is to admit). If the heated fishbowl at the final Summit talk and the energetic e-mail exchanges between the Blogging Fellows are any indication, there continues to be a strong desire and need for open dialogue.

Is “open-ended engagement” a perfect approach? Definitely not. So please, talk about that. Talk about what works. Talk about what doesn’t. Ask questions, listen, and make some moves. Dialogue is important, but do remember that we can debate and be critical as long as we want, but at the end of the day, even an imperfect attempt is still an attempt.

About
Alison Konecki graduated with a B.A. in Art History and English from Canisius College and received an M.A. in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. While living in Washington, D.C., she was the Development & Community Outreach Coordinator for Transformer. After transplanting to San Francisco in 2012, she became the Development Associate for the FOR-SITE Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to art about place, and held Fellowships with Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA, and California Association of Museums (CAM). An arts and travel writer, she is interested in cultural policy and funding, and is intent on exploring as much of the world’s cultural wealth as possible.