The Changing Face of Arts Engagement: My remarks at the Stratford Festival Forum


Rendering of the Tom Patterson Theatre, opening in 2020 at the Stratford Festival, designed by Siamak Hariri of Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini, an architect passionate about the transformative potential of architecture. Image: the Stratford Festival website.

Earlier this month I had the privilege and pleasure to speak at the Meighan Forum at the Stratford Festival–a public lecture series hosted by the renowned theater festival in Stratford, Ontario, launched in anticipation of the opening of the new Tom Patterson Theatre in 2020, which will feature a dedicated forum space. I was particularly grateful for the quality and depth of the questions, moderated brilliantly by Ted Witzel a theatre-maker and programmer who also has a blog, which I highly recommend. Since the Q&A was not captured in the transcript I thought I’d reflect on a couple of the questions here.

One of the first, centered on whether the Stratford Festival should be expected to focus on diversity in its programming and audiences, given that Stratford, Ontario is a largely white community. This is a question I’ve encountered before from arts leaders.

I responded first by suggesting that we have perhaps gone down an unhelpful path in the arts by channeling much of the energy around diversity, equity, and inclusion into the goal of having a “representative” staff and board and drawing a “representative” audience as this by-the-numbers approach may lead some to conclude that cities with low percentages of people who are non-White do not have an obligation to concern themselves with diversity. Moreover, focusing on quotients does not, in and of itself, address the racial climate of an institution.

I then talked about having grown up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri and having known a grand total of four black people before I went to college in New Orleans: the one black girl in my all-girls Roman Catholic college prep high school; a cousin that was adopted into my family; and two men who worked for my father. I then remarked (and I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“Growing up and living as an adult without exposure to people who are different from you (on any number of dimensions of diversity) is part of what contributes to fear and misunderstanding and a feeling of “the other” and even “us” versus “them.” Thus, I would say it is perhaps more important in places like Stratford–or other places in the world that have low ethnic or racial diversity–that arts organizations tell the stories of those who are not represented. One of the ways we can gain empathy and understanding of people, places, and experiences outside of our day-to-day existence is by going to the theater where we can be asked to imagine them.”

Another patron asked what she could do to help engage the estimated 51% of the local population that is lower income and unlikely to be able to afford tickets. Among other suggestions, I took the opportunity to talk about Nina Simon’s book The Art of Relevance and her nudge to arts organizations to cultivate “open-hearted insiders … who are thrilled to welcome in new people.” I explained that cultural institutions can’t make this shift without their patrons moving with them. I’ve written more about this here.

In the past ten years I’ve given dozens of talks but none for the general public (as I’m generally speaking to those working in the cultural sector). I realized during the Q&A for this forum how much I miss talking with arts patrons–with whom I haven’t had much day-to-day engagement since co-leading On the Boards with Lane Czaplinski, and running the Festival at Sandpoint before that.

Those who have read previous talks will recognize some anecdotes; however, there are definitely new ideas throughout and particularly in the middle. It’s a relatively short talk (9 pages). Here, again, is a link to the transcript.

Thanks for reading and I am, as always, grateful for any comments you might like to share.

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