At the end of last month, Nina Simon did the lead presentation for Opera America’s virtual conference. (Or perhaps it was just the lead presentation for the topic of “Creating Real Belonging.” I just saw there was a panel discussion on the topic that followed.)
She only specifically referenced opera for about 3 minutes of her 30 minute talk and some of her best ideas of the talk were in those three minutes so the whole thing is definitely applicable to any cultural discipline.
As you may or may not know Simon left her job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History to devote herself full time to Of/By/For All, an entity whose goal is “to help civic and cultural organizations matter more to more people.”
If you have read my previous posts about her, you know she espouses efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming by creating new doors both in a physical and metaphorical sense through which more members of the community can enter and participate with the organization.
Lest people worry about carving up their physical spaces to literally install more doors, what that really means is that the context of space can be very important to how welcome people feel. For a show they had on surfing, people gathered at the beach. For a Día de los Muertos program her museum had hosted annually, people asked why the heck it was happening there rather than the historic cemetery the museum managed.
Perhaps the most immediately relevant issue tackled was what our audiences might look like post-Covid-19. She mentioned that there was an immense opportunity right now to shift who in the community felt included and welcomed at your organization.
She also astutely pointed out that regardless of what you do, in all likelihood your organization will have no choice in who feels welcome at your organization post-Covid-19. There are going to be people who no longer feel secure entering the public sphere to the degree they had before.
She notes that a lot of organizations are using social media to keep their March 2020 core audience engaged during a time they can’t physically be present. She says now is the time to use social media to begin building relationships with the new groups whom you want to feel welcome rather than just doubling down on retaining those who already like you.
And social media provides a two way street — because people can’t be out and about, they are talking about what matters to them and what they are looking forward to doing on social media at a volume they hadn’t before. Organizations can learn quite a lot about those groups with a little resourcefulness and effort.
Simon encourages organizations to be very specific about who they are targeting. She says it shouldn’t just be “teenagers,” but rather “teens who love to sing,” “teens who love fashion,” or “creative misfits seeking an outlet for expression.” Being curious about people on social media is a good place to start to figure out what makes them feel welcome in a place like yours.
The one suggestion she had in regard to opera made me laugh because it ran contrary to all current performance and Zoom etiquette. As many people have noted, historically attending a performance was a pretty raucous affair. Citing some similar commentary about an early performance at La Scala, she suggested holding a virtual opera performance on Zoom where all the attendees were unmuted.
As always, she said interesting stuff I haven’t covered so watch the video.
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