An Interview with Donna Walker-Kuhne

An expert in audience development and diversification, Donna Walker-Kuhne has devoted her professional career to increasing access to the arts. In advance of her keynote plenary on “Dynamic Community Engagement” at Chorus America’s Conference in Cincinnati, she spoke with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about how the conversation around community engagement has changed—and the opportunities this creates for choruses to “roll up their sleeves and dig in.” 

CD: The term “community engagement” is on everyone’s lips these days, but I have noticed that different people use it in different ways. In the choral field we’ve tended to use “community engagement” and “audience development” interchangeably. Do you personally differentiate between them – and if so, how?

DWK: For me, they are often quite similar, because both these terms suggest a process. Audience development is a multi-tiered relationship. And with community engagement, well, the word “engagement” suggests activities happening over a period of time that involve a number of entry points. I use both interchangeably.

CD: As you travel around the world talking about this work, what are the most common questions you are asked?

DWK: How to do it! In the 1990s the question was “Why? Why should we do it?” That question for the most part has been answered—the cultural diversity of our country just can’t be denied any longer. Now that the awareness has become a reality, the question is “How? How do we start? How do I convince my boss to earmark the necessary resources?” It’s a search for money and resources and process.

CD: You’ve said building a culture of diversity starts with leadership and goes all the way down to the audience itself. What are some strategies you advise to help organizations start building that culture?

DWK: It has to start at the top. Leadership needs to say to everyone “This is what we’re going to do.” The next step is to generate internal conversation. At staff meetings, talk about building a culture of diversity. Ask your staff “What does diversity look like? What role could you play in helping to create this?” You will hear amazing answers because people have been thinking about this. They just don’t know where to go with their ideas.

Donna Walker-Kuhne signing copies of her book Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture, and Community at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Americans for the Arts.

Then perhaps you refine the thinking through a monthly lunch where you address these ideas more specifically. Have someone take notes. Ask departments or individuals to host the lunch so there’s a broad sense of ownership. Ask people to bring information: an article that inspired them, a report they have. You have to root this thinking in the day-to-day behavior of the organization, so that you have vision from leadership and focus from staff.

I think some of the best activities to start with are simple things: “If we’re doing the Messiah, why not partner with Baptist churches? And let’s have some guest stars from the community.” Make the first gesture, make the phone call and say “We’re doing the Messiah. You are doing it too. Let’s talk.” It’s as simple as that. It’s not a big production. Just pick up the phone and say “It’s a great opportunity for us to collaborate.”

The next step is to set up measurements of evaluation. What does success look like? You decide. You’ve reached out to four churches, one said yes. Was that the goal? I don’t know. You decide. And what is the level of that engagement? Is it that we both have guest stars singing the Messiah, or are we going to do a masterclass with them? Are we going to invite them to workshops and other things we do? Do we make this an annual event? There are many options. Nothing is right or wrong.

And then you tell the story. Send out a press release, put it on social media. Communicate this wonderful collaboration surrounding this beautiful music.

CD: What if the buy-in from leadership isn’t there to begin with? How can you convince the people at the top to get on board?

DWK: You begin by identifying the most effective message for the person you are speaking to. You might speak about it from a financial perspective and say “We’re leaving money on the table. There’s a whole new constituency out here. If we can cultivate them, we can increase our bottom line.” To someone else you might say “Changing demographics are rapidly demonstrating to us that we must pay attention to how we grow our audiences.” That would be another conversation. A third way is to present a plan. It may not be sufficient to just say “I think we should do community engagement.” Present a year-long strategy. Who will you engage? How will you engage them? That will get the attention of people who lead the way.

CD: We’ve heard from our members that one of the things keeping them from doing more community engagement work is the worry that it might take away from their efforts to engage their core audiences. How do you do both things?

DWK: Well, there is no question that you have to do both. Core audiences should always feel that they are integral to the sustainability of the organization. We’re a business; the arts are a business.

And so how do you keep them?  You invite them into the process. You tell them what you are doing. Audience development doesn’t have to be a mystery; it’s not an underground movement. It’s something that should be shouted from the rooftops: “Guess what? We have just concluded our first-year planning for cultivating new audiences in our city. We want you to be the first to know.” Announce it boldly. Tell them that they are the first to hear about it. Make it distinctive – make itgreat. Then your core audience wants to move with you because they value what you are doing.

CD: You’ve often been quoted as saying the arts are the only pure vehicle we have in today’s society that crosses cultural and ethnic barriers and allows people to transcend their differences. That’s a wonderful insight.

DWK: This really crystallized for me around two experiences that I had when I was working in marketing at The Public Theater in New York. The first is that I was working with a lot of student groups for our Shakespeare performances and seeing kids eagerly coming to see Shakespeare, many of them for the first time. But then after they saw Shakespeare, they chose other plays and they started to come three, four, five times per year. We created a preview package as a result of seeing such a flurry of students coming into the building. The story on stage didn’t matter as much as the experience of coming to a place that was welcoming.

The second influential experience was working on Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. The opening weekend was purchased by Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who I had met through a mutual friend. She told me, “I’m getting ready for our annual fundraiser. It will probably be an auction of some very boring art, and I get so tired of that.” And before I could catch the words, I said, “Well, why don’t you buy out opening night for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk?”

Here is this woman from the Upper East Side of New York, obviously accustomed to great wealth, and I’m telling her to come downtown to see a story about black people. And we hadn’t even seen the show yet; it was still in concept.

She looked to me for an explanation, like “What is that?” And I said, “I really can’t tell you, but what I can tell you is this: George Wolfe is writing and directing, and Savion Glover is choreographing, and I trust those two forces — it’s going to be brilliant.” And so I courted her. I invited her to tour the building. I invited her to observe a rehearsal. I arranged for her and ten of her friends to see our Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. That sealed the deal!

Then she asked her friends to each host a night, because now she had taken the whole weekend—and they organized dinners across the street at a nice restaurant. So now each night we had well-dressed blonde, blue-eyed women and men coming in the lobby, sitting next to guys with locks and baggy pants. All of them were transformed, because they weren’t looking at each other. They were looking at the art, and then commenting to each other about how great it was.

At the post-performance reception we had Upper East Siders eagerly meeting cast members. On a normal day these people would have crossed the street to avoid each other.

CD: What do you think it is about the arts that allows those kinds of connections to be made?

DWK: I think it’s because the arts are an expression of life that comes from the heart. They allow us to express our emotions. I don’t make value judgments like, “Is it good art? Is it bad art?” It’s simply art that makes us human beings. It’s a sacred place, a safe place.

I don’t think that exists in any other realm of living. It certainly isn’t in politics or religion, where there’s so much disparity. Nor is it in education, which is a process you are required to “do” as opposed to “express.” And that’s why I choose to work in the arts. I planted myself in this world because I wanted to be able to be surrounded with that kind of joy and emotion and honesty.

CD: What are you seeing organizations do well right now in terms community engagement? What are some bright spots?

DWK: There’s a deeper interest in facilitating workshops, which suggests that there’s a desire to learn tactics and not just hear some nice words. We’re past “Let’s hold hands.” People want to roll up their sleeves and dig in, and they want to do it appropriately. Because there’s nothing in American culture that prepares you to talk to people who are different from you. That is sadly one of the big holes we have in our culture. Where do you learn that? How do you figure that out?

I have hope for the millennials and the teens. Social media has opened up a world of communication. People can become friends through shared interests without knowing what the other looks like. I believe we can change the way we integrate with each other by the way we see each other. So that perhaps in the next century, we will see a different kind of story, a different kind of history. That’s my hope.

CD: That’s a wonderful hope. As we prepare to roll up our sleeves and dig in, any final words of encouragement?

DWK: Those of us who are in the arts fundamentally have to be people of hope because there are so many things that we don’t have that we need to execute our work. When it comes to community engagement, we have to channel that hope in the best way we can. It may not be the dream you wanted. It may start with one small task, maybe “I just connected with two or three people, and they promised that we can go and have lunch and continue the dialogue.”

You do what you can based on the resources that you have. That’s why I’m such an advocate for establishing your own measures of success. If you don’t say what success looks like, nobody will know it when it happens. And we need to really celebrate those successes, because that’s what helps to create a movement.