Don’t Deserve Praise For Something Embarrassingly Easily And Long Overdue

Yesterday Drew McManus released another episode of his Shop Talk podcast where he speaks to Kenji Bunch and Jenny Bilfield about artistic elitism. I was listening to it while painting one of my bedrooms and there was an uncanny period where Kenji Bunch was echoing my exact thoughts on a four second delay. It came at the 28 minute mark (cued up below) where Bunch talks about how he had programmed his season with 100% Black American composers with a 50/50 gender split. He says he got a lot of praise for it, but he was a little embarrassed because it was ridiculously easy to do and something he felt he should have done long ago. He suggests there are institutionalized pressures against making those type of decisions based on chicken-egg gatekeeping. (e.g. employers are looking for experience, but you can’t get experience without a job.)

At the time, though four seconds earlier, I was reflecting very closely along the same lines about the last six months. At my day job we have been offering a curated storytelling series and outdoor cabaret series that features local stories and voices. Many of them are stories and voices of Black residents. We have been getting praise for amplifying these stories and voices from members of the Black community, including some of our board members.

Like Kenji I have been a little embarrassed because it hasn’t involved much effort to arrange for interesting and charismatic people to step into our spaces. My staff and I know there is more to be done and feel people need to hold our feet to the fire to do it and not let us off too easily.  There may be a time when that comes. Right now people may be in a little bit of shock to see their faces and stories on stage when it isn’t Black History Month and then realize it wasn’t a token effort when it happens again 4-6 weeks later with more of the same listed on the schedule.

I think I have mentioned before on this blog that in some respects the situation with Covid has facilitated some of this. Absent the expectation to provide the same type of programming we have in the past, there is more permission, and even a recognition of the necessity, to focus on local talent and stories.

We had actually been moving in this general direction prior to Covid knowing that the planned construction of a building next to us in 2024 might limit our use of our loading dock and thus larger scale performances. We planned to shift the programming gradually to get audiences used to seeing smaller scaled shows. In some respects that transition might be easier and more acceptable to audiences than it would have without Covid. (And who knows how long construction may be delayed now or if it will happen at all if there is a greater shift to working from home.)

I bring all this up to propose that the near future may be the best opportunity to implement measures to make your organization and programming more inclusive. Not only is the institutional inertia that would normally resist such decisions likely to be weaker, the execution of the effort will likely be easier than you anticipated and warmly welcomed.

What you shouldn’t walk away with is a plan to only effect change up to a certain point as a sop to critics with an expectation of grateful praise. As I said, my team and I pretty much anticipate people will eventually say that was great, why did you stop there, if we don’t continue to think about how we can do better for everyone.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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