Audience Diversification – Strategy 2: Onstage Representation
After establishing institutional alignment, the number one strategy colleagues across the U.S. name for drawing in new audiences is to feature compositions and artists from diverse demographic backgrounds onstage. “It’s essential to be authentic. You can’t target a community without anyone onstage representing that community,” says Terell Johnson, Executive Director of the Chicago Philharmonic. Elias Feghali, Associate Director of Audience Strategies and Analytics at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, concurs. “When potential new audiences don’t find someone relatable on the promotional material, their interest often wanes before they even start reading.”
While the classics are not going anywhere, there are too many new and authentic voices emerging not to program more broadly. Jessica Ruiz, Senior Director of Artistic Planning at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, observes that “we hear artists of color say they never believed they could do this until they saw someone who looked like them on stage. That must be true for audience members as well.” People feel more welcome when the concert reflects their identity and experience.
Engaging local talent can be especially powerful. The Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra discovered the young Hawaiian-born composer Michael Thomas Fumai, proceeded to program eight of his works on as many summer concerts, and then appointed him Director of Artistic Engagement and Composer in Residence. “The audience fell in love with him,” says former President and CEO David Moss. “[The broader audience] needs someone who ‘looks like me’ in a leadership position.” The orchestra’s integration with uniquely Hawaiian culture has yielded dividends. “We’ve seen growth in audience because of that commitment,” says Moss.
Faces of color in the orchestra itself are perhaps even more telling than composers performed and guest artists presented. As Donna Walker-Kuhne comments, when well-supported within the organization and set up for success, a newly hired or newly tenured musician of color can “hold the door open” to racially diverse audiences by symbolizing the orchestra’s integrity and its commitment towards its communities.
The League’s Inclusive Stages program is a major national initiative to increase the racial diversity of musicians in American orchestras.
Photo: Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra performs the Sheraton Starlight Series at the Waikiki Shell. Photo courtesy of the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra.