Community and collaboration: Keys to enhancing diversity at performing arts centers

As in many cities throughout our country, conversation and actions have been taken with the goal of increasing diversity in performing arts, particularly in engaging people of color to partake of and participate in events presented within their communities. Centers for performing arts have wonderful goals of immersing a wide array of people in the performing arts, educating the community about various cultures and art forms distinct from the typical and familiar, influencing thinking to help us become communities that embrace diversity and promote inclusion, and ensuring the activities and events have a sustainable impact on the community. To that end, centers are recruiting and hiring individuals with the expertise to affect these desired objectives. Madison’s Overture Center for the Performing Arts is no exception. In August 2016, Ed Holmes began work as the organization’s first ever director of diversity and inclusion.

I recently sat down with Holmes to learn more about his role, progress, and vision for the future of preforming arts in Madison. What follows is our conversation.

Ed Holmes (EH): So, you want to start with a specific question [laughter]?

Deborah Biddle (DB): Yes, tell me, why did they hire you? What was the impetus for the hire?

EH: Overture Center leadership came to the place of thinking that it was really critical to have someone to specifically address issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. When the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families released the 2013 Race to Equity Report, the foundation board looked at that report and were very dismayed and disheartened about those disparities, primarily the disparities between African-Americans, other people of color, and white counterparts in all major quality of life indicators — health, education, and jobs — and socioeconomic disparities. That was their call to action. They wanted to do something to address those disparities because what they saw at Overture Center was that they were serving a specific clientele in the Madison and Dane County community with programming and audiences that were not diverse. Based on the information they saw in the Race to Equity Report, they realized the organization was not as diverse as they thought they should be.

DB: So, what are you working on right now? What has been your focus?

EH: It’s a work in progress. The first thing that I did was not to necessarily just focus in one area. The first year was an opportunity to do a vertical analysis of the organization. My background is in education. I spent 24 years in education in the Madison Metropolitan School District, and another 14 years working in diverse communities organizing in what used to be called the United Neighborhood of Dane County, which was a community center system before the Boys & Girls Club. That’s been my path to get here. So, you kind of reinvent yourself a couple of times. You go from community organizing, which is connected to public education. It’s working with the same families — working with the kids in the community who go to the public schools. In the public schools, I started off as kind of a counselor, a social worker, but moved into administration pretty quickly. Most of my career was as an administrator.

For 10 years, I was head principal at Madison West High School. Throughout my career, I’ve been working on issues of diversity and inclusion. I’ve been an advocate and a supporter of the arts, which is how I came to this place. I think it’s a great opportunity because my experiences have been connecting people with resources, advocating for the importance of arts education, and the importance of arts for our community. The arts are an important part of quality of life for all people. I don’t know that people understand the significance of the role the arts can play in connecting with the communities, and just for the sheer enjoyment, putting people together for entertainment, socializing, and art for the purpose of raising social consciousness.

We recently had a huge exhibit called Faces of Incarceration. We started the summer series with the exhibition, Captured, followed by a youth panel on incarceration and a showing of the documentary, Milwaukee 53206. What we do is art, and it’s entertainment. It’s both performance and visual arts, and it’s raising social consciousness, awareness, and education. It’s all those things that I’ve been doing over the course of my career. I’m excited about that.



DB: All right, so after the first year, do you feel like you know where you want to go now?

EH: Yes, part of the journey for me was to understand a new landscape. It’s a PAC [Performing Arts Center]. But, it’s also an industry in and of itself, and it’s taken me a while to understand the complexity of the industry — the complexity of this organization and how to make inroads into making the organization, the patrons, and the people we serve more diverse.

DB: How have you gone about doing that?

EH: Well, we started off with an event — like a press conference — and that was very deliberate for me. My sister came in. We had a bunch of community people and community leaders. I brought in folks who I work with, as well as some of my former students. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to understand that it would not be business as usual. I wanted folks to understand that if we’re talking about a cultural change — a cultural shift — it’s going to feel different. It’s going to look different. So, the first thing that I did was to really try to give people the sense that this is how it’s going to feel when the organization, the patrons, and the people coming through the doors are of diverse cultural backgrounds. That was where I started. The thing that was interesting to me, and what I learned pretty early on, is that the Overture Center was already doing an incredible amount of diverse programming. They had Patti LaBelle, Boyz II Men, Drumline, International Festival — I mean the list goes on and on in terms of what they were already doing. So, when I first came on, I thought that my job was going to be creating new programming that would attract diverse audiences. But no, it was not. It was really trying to connect people to existing programs that people may or may not have been aware of. To get people in the doors who previously may not have thought that was for them.

For some in diverse communities, there was sticker shock and anxiety over the cost of tickets. But I try to push people to do the outreach in a way that is hands-on, and to make contact with people — individuals, organizations, and communities — that they had not before engaged. So, it was more of a targeted outreach effort all year for me to invite people to come to be a part of and experience what was going on here.

This is really a world-class organization and facility. It has a $205 million contribution, which is the largest single philanthropic contribution to a performance arts center in the world that we are aware of. It’s a great gift to this community. The intention was that it would be for everyone. That was my hope and my goal for the first year. Let’s bring people through the door and make sure that more people are aware of all the great things that are happening here and let folks know that this place is for them.

One of the things I did was get the vice president of marketing to go out to the Fall Gospel Festival produced annually by Clyde Gaines. He’s an African-American promoter, and its a big deal for the African-American and church communities in Madison. We also had flyers that we put into the insert of the Fall Gospel Fest program that promoted Boys II Men and Patti LaBelle. We went to the Tasha Cobb gospel concert at High Point Church. We put flyers in those programs about Overture Center’s upcoming concerts — Patti LaBelle was on one side and Boyz II Men was on the other. That type of outreach hadn’t previously happened.

Those are the types of things that I was trying to do. And not just to do it myself, but have it become a part of the culture of the organization — so that it’s programming, marketing, and development. It starts to trend diversity and inclusion. It starts to be at the core of everybody’s thinking across the entire organization.

Drumline was another opportunity. Again, an intentional outreach piece. We collaborated with all the schools and also with community-based groups.



DB: My son actually attended that event with Latino Nation and the Black Student Union from Verona Area High School. The students really appreciated being able to go. They thought it was a really cool event.

EH: It was a great event. That’s the type of outreach I try to have. I wanted to connect it to having the students understanding that this particular program was connected to historically black colleges, and part of the tradition and the experience they would get if they chose to go to a historically black college. We also collaborated with Madison College for that event. The beautiful part about it was the collaboration with Madison College, and one of the local businesses. And this is where the business part of it comes in. Porta Bella Restaurant is a place that I frequent — I’m a fan of the food [laughter]. So, I spoke with Ed Shinnick, one of the owners of this family business, which has been in operation for around 50 years in Madison. I told him what I was trying to do. And he said, “Sure, we’ll help you out. We’ll give you this pizza at a reduced cost. We’ll bring people out to Madison College.” The cool thing about that experience was that Ed Shinnick himself came there, and he helped set up and pass out the food.

Madison College representatives talked about college applications and had students play a college trivia game. They also gave out prizes. After the Porta Bella dinner, students walked from Madison College to Overture Center for the Drumline show. That’s the type of collaboration I think will be meaningful for businesses. In terms of how can we collaborate to accentuate the programming, I’m looking for a more comprehensive opportunity, a more comprehensive experience, so there’s more collaboration with businesses and with education hubs. That’s part of the model that I want to try to maintain and continue to develop.

Additionally, we doubled the number of diverse community partners for the Frosti Ball from the previous year. I’ve gotten confirmation that we’ll have three times as many next year. So, its taking steps to continue to introduce people and connect them to what we believe are good programs. It’s a lot of work. I had to contact 32 different organizations to get 10 diverse community partners. That’s the legwork. Do you see what I mean?

DB: Tell more about diversity and the Frosti Ball.

EH: It is a fundraiser for Overture. It’s probably one of the biggest social events in the community for the year. So, it’s not just a fundraiser, it’s also a social event and party.

DB: And what does it take to be a community partner?

EH: There are different levels — $250, $500, $750, and $1,000. However, the community partner level is a reduced amount from what it would cost to be a [full] partner. One of the benefits at the $250 level is a discounted ticket to the Frosti Ball. Additionally, anybody who wants to come to the Frosti Ball through a community partnership gets a ticket for that reduced cost. Community partners also receive advertisement for their organization or business as a Frosti Ball sponsor. Again, it’s a way to engage people who would not normally be able to be a part of the event.

DB: It seems like Madison is a tough market for concerts/events that would typically appeal to communities of color.

EH: Madison is absolutely a tough market. But I’ll tell you, Boyz II Men was a sellout.

DB: Yeah, I tried to get tickets for that. I waited too late and didn’t get them [laughter].

EH: Boyz II Men was a sellout. Drumline was a sellout. The word is catching on. More people are coming to these types of shows at Overture Center.

As I move forward with programing, I realize that it’s easy for people in the organization to say, “Oh, we hired a director of diversity and inclusion, so we don’t have to think about it anymore because we have somebody that’s going to address it.” But, it’s an organization-wide initiative that everybody has to be a part of. Those are the discussions that we’re having now. It might look different for each department and each level of the organization, but we have to identify what that is and be very cognizant and deliberate about how we move the needle in terms of diversity and inclusion.

The first thing for me to do was to let the community know that I'm here. That was critical for me. I wanted Overture to have a presence and I wanted to be there and I wanted to interact with as many people as possible to let people know that yeah, we’re serious about diversity and inclusion and we’re going to support you. We want to be collaborative in how we approach this work.

Now we go to the next level and that is making sure that everybody in the organization owns his or her piece of diversity and inclusion. We continue to do outreach and engage our community partners. We have to put the best and brightest minds around the table to figure out how we do this in the business of performing arts centers. There are always questions from the funders, “What is the data? What are the metrics? We’ve got to know the numbers.” But, it’s difficult in performance arts. We can give you numbers, but how do you assign value to those numbers? You can quantify it, but how do you assign a value, an intrinsic value, to the numbers?

DB: Well, it’s the age-old question, “How do you measure success?”

EH: I’m engaging the UW Center for Research and reaching beyond Madison. It’s about putting the best and brightest minds around the table because it’s not just the Overture Center. It’s all of the performing arts centers across the country and probably throughout the world. I’m new. My position is new. So, these discussions haven’t happened before, not at this level.

People who funded this position, they want to know what are the metrics? What is Ed doing? It’s not that. It’s what are we doing? Are we meeting the needs of the community around diversity and inclusion? Are we moving the needle forward? Are we making progress? I would say, yes. I could give you the numbers of everybody who came to these events. I can say that I can pick up the phone and call 100 people right now, they will know who I am, they will know my work. I have some type of understanding of their work. I can invite them to an event and whoever will be able to come, will show up. That’s something that’s different than what’s happened in the past. Those are the kinds of relationships we need. In order to get people to be a part of the vision and the future we have to build relationships. People have to trust you. They have to believe that what you have to offer is something of value to them and their community, and in a lot of cases, to their families.



DB:  My family and I have lived here now for 11 years, and I never felt like the programming wasn’t inclusive. There was always a little something for everybody, though not well attended by people of color.

EH: That’s the rub. You just said it. It wasn’t well attended. It’s a travesty to me to have all this great programming — and some of it is free — and folks don’t attend. For folks not to be aware of it — for whatever reason, whether marketing strategies that are being used or perceptions in the community that Overture Center was not necessarily a place for them. As another example, Diana Ross was here. She’s one of the all-time great R&B icons. When she was here, there was hardly anyone of color in the audience.

DB: What’s the biggest challenge for you in terms of specifically partnering with businesses in the community and minority businesses?

EH: That’s a good question. It’s about finding an entry point with businesses that make sense. With Ed Shinnick it made sense because I felt like I already had a connection. It’s got to make sense. I was doing a cultural awareness lunch and partnered with Mercado Marimar on Park Street. It’s a grocery store where they have homemade tortillas. They make authentic food right there. I know Maria, the owner. I told her I wanted to support her business because we were doing a Cinco de Mayo lunch at Overture Center. I do cultural awareness lunches once a month. We discuss a particular culture, provide some written information, and have authentic food from the culture. It’s a way to build collegiality around cultural awareness. That was a natural opportunity for me to connect with and support that business. We spent money with one of the neighborhood businesses. It wasn’t a chain. It was a local business and I made sure that everybody knew where the food came from. If they enjoyed it, they could go and support that business.

I guess it doesn’t make a difference what the business is, but it has to be something that’s not manufactured. It has to be something that is a natural connection. I’ll give another quick example. We co-sponsored a pre-show reception with Wynton Marsalis at the jazz club, Café CODA, while he was in town to perform at the Overture Center. It’s a natural connection and we both benefitted from that.

DB: In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen with the minority business community and the Overture Center?

EH: Be aware that we’re here and we’re doing outreach. We’ve got to create entry points that make sense for collaboration. I think the piece that people don’t recognize is that we are a private nonprofit. So, we’re always trying to find ways to connect with the community around the mission of the organization, but we also have a commercial side where we try to find ways to generate funds in order to be fiscally responsible. So, there’s always a balance between making sure that the mission of the organization is fulfilled while we are fulfilling our commercial interest, as well.

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