Research shows that, when it comes to retaining new audiences of color, diversity of representation is not enough. For existing audiences of color, programming undertaken with and for BIPOC communities is more important, and the process underpinning this work is at least as important as the resulting performance.

A mutual partnership entails respect. “The community is already secure in what it experiences culturally,” notes Donna Walker-Kuhne. “People of color have their own music, their own cultural expression where they are fully acknowledged and respected. These communities do not need to be ‘saved’.”

Russell Kelban, Vice President for Marketing and Strategic Engagement at the Oregon Symphony, adds that “partnering appropriately means it’s mutually beneficial.” When promoting concerts with Indian artist Zakir Hussain in 2022, the Oregon Symphony talked with board members and members of the community who represent the same ethnicity. They researched the neighborhoods where significant numbers of South Asian people live and work, advertised in stores where this community shops, and explored companies with a high number of South Asian employees. As a result, the orchestra reached its goals for both audience diversification and revenue. “Engaging with the South Asian Community of Oregon is an important and ongoing relationship for the Oregon Symphony,” notes Kelban. “Our plan is to build that audience base and implement an outreach, via research and conversation, that helps us understand how the Oregon Symphony can satisfy the unique musical appetite of this community and celebrate its culture.”

Orchestras across the country are reaching new constituencies through a variety of strategic partnerships:

  • The Johnstown Symphony Orchestra has worked with the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority to make its steel mill concerts possible, and with the Johnstown Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to build relationships in the Black community.
  • The San Diego Symphony is partnering with KultureCity, a national agency promoting sensory accessibility and inclusion for those with invisible disabilities, to train staff and ultimately become a sensory-friendly certified venue.
  • The Virginia Symphony Orchestra offers discounted concert tickets and community chamber concerts to the African American church congregations in its Harmony Project, while presenting Gospel celebrations and pops concerts like a tribute to Whitney Houston.
  • The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has made a long-term commitment to its Detroit Neighborhood Initiative, with some 223 community partners that co-create and co-produce events with the orchestra.

The Catalyst Guide Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Artistic Planning shares the stories of more orchestras centering communities in their artistic planning process.


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