After Nearly Six Decades It Is Time To Stop Striving And Start Doing

American Theatre recently published a “Confidential Plan” written by Zelda Fichandler, founding artistic director of Arena Stage in 1968. Initially a memo written to the Arena Stage board about integrating both the acting company and audience. A revision of the memo was published more publicly. The notes on the article say that Fichhandler was initially unsuccessful and had to rework her plan. The fact she labeled it confidential is likely a reflection of that fact she knew her proposal would not be well-received if made public.

As you read her thoughts, it is somewhat depressing to think that observations she made about audiences in 1968 are still true today. After noting that the population of D.C. was 63% Black and yet there are no Black actors in the Arena Stage company she states (my emphasis):

The Negro’s struggle for power—economic power, business power, political, intellectual, psychological, human power—foundationally affects his relationships with other Negroes, with whites, and with himself. This struggle reverberates through contemporary American life. Each of us feels its vibrations every day. And yet we come into our theatre at night as if into an unreal world: A white audience sits around a stage upon which a white company tells “sad tales of the death of kings.” Surely we are in the wrong place!

Then later, in discussing the composition of audiences and her vision for increasing representation both on stage and in the seats:

Homogeneous audiences, who connect with a play in a predictably uniform way, with one pervading attitude, are anathema to the pulse of a living art. It isn’t coincidental that, in all its years of history, Arena seemed most alive while we were playing The Great White Hope and Blood Knot this year, both with interracial casts, both drawing an audience more diverse than usual with regard to race, income level, age, education, occupation, human experience, preoccupations and interests, patterns of entertainment, and expectations about theatre and life in general.

She makes other thought provoking statements and observations in the sections excerpted in American Theatre. However, some of the more general ones like those above remain as ideals arts organizations strive to achieve 56 years later.  She says the theater was never so alive as when the programming and performers were most inclusive, yet that is still a goal everyone says they want to chase.

Many non-profit arts organizations have made statements committing to a better job diversifying representation in programming, performers and audiences.  Hopefully those commitments are sustained and endure. There were many commercial enterprises that made similar promises in response to social pressure in 2020 after the deaths of people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery but have eliminated much of  the staffing and funding that supported those initiatives.

Choose Yourself Over The Long Haul

Seth Godin had posted on the 150th anniversary of Impressionism which is benchmarked from the April 15, 1874 art exhibition organized by a number of artists whose work had been refused by the prestigious Salon de Paris.  The original show by the “Refused,” as Godin terms them, included 31 artists, among them were Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Paul Cézanne.

Godin notes that first exhibition was a failure, not even attracting 1% of the Salon show and garnering largely negative reviews.

One of the most positive things to come from the exhibit was a scathing satirical piece, the one that gave the impressionists their name. The insecure critics came to regret their inability to see what was possible.

And yet, the artists persisted. Year after year, eight times, gaining momentum each time, they returned, working their way from outsiders to become the dominant form of artistic expression of their time.

But most of all, so much easier today than in Paris 150 years ago, these individual painters did two things: They picked themselves and they did it together.

I am amused to learn that the Impressionist name actually came from a satiric piece.

I am not sure the moral of this story is to stick with it and one day you will succeed. There were 31 people who participated in the first event, but most of their names are unknown.

While I agree with Godin that it is important to pick yourself and that it is easier to do today than it was 150 years ago, eight years is an eternity in terms of trend and tastes and people’s expectations of results. Success might be possible sooner, but how many people have the endurance to wait that long to gain recognition.

That said, I still remember seeing Sen. John Fetterman speak at an APAP conference when he was still mayor of Braddock, PA and spoke about an observation Sen. Arlen Spector made about it taking seven years for any sort of policy to garner enough momentum and support to become implemented.

Getting All Eyes And Minds On Accessibility

Yesterday, the Western Arts Federation (WESTAF) sponsored a webinar on accessibility lead by Betty Siegel, Director Office of Accessibility and VSA at The Kennedy Center.

Siegel was absolutely fantastic. Her presentation was dynamic, full of relatable examples, and humor. One example she gave as the best sources of information about the history of accessibility was Comedy Central’s Drunk History episode on Judy Heumann’s early advocacy for disability rights. She frequently claimed the Drunk History series was a primary source of information for her.

While she did talk about legal and human dignity issues associated with accessibility, the overall goal of her presentation was about getting staff and volunteers to the point of internalizing the philosophy of making spaces and events accessible. You can renovate the physical space and compose policies, but if everyone isn’t invested in the practice, situational barriers may arise that people overlook as problems.

The example she used was of a historic building that has stairs at the front door and a ramp to a side door. The janitor opens both doors every day, but one day he is absent an a staff/volunteer comes in and not being aware of the full practice, only unlocks the front door.

Interestingly, that aligned with an experience I had just a week earlier when I realized that cleaning or facility staff might be deactivating the powered doors in our buildings at night and no one was turning them back on in the morning.  If someone hit the door plates, they wouldn’t open. So I had taken to tapping the door plates on my way in every day to make sure the doors swing open. But I also need to make sure everyone else is checking the doors as well.

Video of the webinar below. List of resources WESTAF provided below that.

 

 

Accessibility Resources

  • U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ): 
    • 800-514-0301 (voice); 800-514-0383 (TTY)
  • U.S. Access Board:
  • ADA Centers National Network:
    • 1-800-949-4232
  • W3C (wcag 2.1 aa)
  • National Endowment for the Arts:  
  • Access Smithsonian:  
  • Kennedy Center Office of VSA and Accessibility:  

Donors May Be Adding Inefficiencies To Fundraising

Seth Godin recently made an interesting post about non-profit fundraising, in particular the inefficiencies that exist in the process that can’t be fixed by technology, because it can, but rather the expectations of the donors.

Along the way, it’s not unusual for a nonprofit to spend 50% of the money they raise on the expense of raising more money. That’s not because they’re inefficient, it’s because we are.

We demand a gala, or an emergency, or artfully written fundraising letters. Donors want personal attention from the folks who are ostensibly doing the front line or strategic work of the nonprofit, and treat regular donations as an exception, not the standard.

When the internet arrived, it dramatically lowered the transactional costs in a wide variety of industries. You can buy an airline ticket yourself faster and with less intervention than through a travel agent. You can buy stocks for transaction fees that are a tiny fraction of what a broker used to charge. But creative and effective nonprofit fundraising has been stuck in a cycle of risk, galas and uncertainty.

This reminded me of a letter that appeared this summer in the Chronicle of Philanthropy where a donor said he was going to stop giving because he wasn’t getting the communication and attention he expected. He made a follow up post this February which contains a link to the original letter. The original letter garnered a lot of pushback from the non-profit community, including some satiric criticism written by Vu Le While the donor says in his follow up he has learned more about the challenges non-profits face in regard to fundraising, he still seems to expect a lot of what Godin says keeps fundraising costs high for non-profits.