America, in the wake of the heinous and truly awful murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, saw massive uprisings in all 50 states and protests that have spanned all the way to present day (December 2020). Some companies, corporations, and nonprofits issued statements of solidarity to their communities saying that they supported Black Lives Matter and the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) community, mere days after the murder of George Floyd.

Minority populations are heavily targeted by marketers to hopefully sell their company’s product or to fill in the empty seats at their shows. Minority community leaders have already raised concerns with only being included when the company or corporation wants money from those communities, and as soon as those companies have that money, they stop marketing towards that demographic, and stop listening closely to the needs of that group of people until they need to sell their excess seating again. In this blog I will be looking at ways arts organizations can engage with minority communities and mean what they say when they market to them.

Before I jump into this, I would like to recognize the privilege I have as a cisgender white man, and fully realize that I am in no way an expert in this field nor am I pretending to be one while I write this. I merely offer this blog post to be a perspective that arts organizations and other nonprofits can use to help put meaning behind their marketing.

One of the biggest things arts organizations can do to show that they mean what they say is to take actions that demonstrate real support for minority communities. Because of the pandemic, many performing arts venues have been unable to show their commitment to their public statement. However, that does not say they can’t be doing things in this interim period. Arts organizations can start looking inward at their current organizational structures. How many members on the Board of Directors are white? How many members in the admin team are people of color?

In the article “Let’s Not Turn Black Lives Matter Into Black Lives Marketing,” Tiffany Hogan writes that companies should be looking inward and work towards changing their organization from the inside. She also writes that the easiest way for corporate America to affect change is “…hire, train, promote, grow, and repeat.” By effectively changing your organization leadership and fostering growth within your organization, you will be backing up your statement of solidarity. Another way arts organizations can show that they support the minority community is opening up their spaces to help uplift the communities they are trying to incorporate more into their existing family of supporters in the arts organization.

Some theatre companies like The Public Theatre and Atlantic Theatre, in New York City opened up their lobbies for Black Lives Matter protesters to escape the heat, NYPD officers pepper spraying and to hand out food and water and masks to allow the protesters to regroup and continue protesting. Other theatre companies have undergone massive change to support their communities like Penumbra Theatre Company in Saint Paul, MN; which transformed their space into a space for racial healing.

Arts organizations can follow these initiatives already put into practice to show that they do want to support the communities they are want to reach. Right now, in the middle of this pandemic, everyone is fighting to stay afloat. The arts organizations that will stay afloat are those that listen to the needs of those communities they are trying to bring into their family. People will be more generous in their donations if the arts organization provides for the needs of the community. People will see that the arts organization that is helping them, like The Public Theatre and Atlantic Theatre, are integral to their community. They will want to keep that organization in their community for as long as possible and will support it in a way that they may not have supported it had they not done the work to provide for their community. For arts organizations that want to make a change but are unsure if they can make the change during this great pause and would rather make a change once things can safely open up again, programming is an easy change to make.

A theatre that includes more BIPOC artists and works about the BIPOC experience is Kumu Kahua Theatre. Kumu Kahua Theatre is a small theatre on the island of Oahu, Hawai’i that produces works written by native Hawaiians about the Hawaiian experience and the Hawaiian culture. They are the only theatre that is dedicated to showcasing these stories and they help local artists create their work. They have helped produce and create over 250 original works about the island nation and its culture and people. Their plays have become cultural touchstones for the local people that continue to support Kumu Kahua and the work that they do. They have also extended their work into an online platform during this time when performing arts venues have closed their doors to keep people safe. You can see their productions for free on Zoom if you call to reserve a spot. The production that just ended was called Aloha Attire which focused on the traditional clothing of Hawai’i and the clothing that has Hawaiian influence. The rest of the season focuses on the gods of Hawaiian mythology and cultural rituals involving hallucinogens.

A happy same-sex Samoan couple is framed in the background by their mothers in the foreground look at one another in Kumu Kahua Theatre's Fa'Alavelave "The Interruption" (2019)

The season should be diverse and not just one or two plays that are from BIPOC and minority artists and voices. Does the whole season have to be BIPOC like the season at Kumu Kahua Theatre? No, but it is my personal goal and hope that all American Theatre becomes equal parts BIPOC and traditionally white works. While we are on the topic, choose works that are focused on the whole experience of the minority communities. Not all of the BIPOC experience is tragedy and heartbreak, and the works selected should show that. Kumu Kahua Theatre has a great example of this showing both the tragedies of the local Hawaiian people but also the celebratory parts in their seasons. Characters in the works that you produce should aim not to relegate BIPOC and other minorities into a supporting role or into a stereotypical role. Representation is important, and if you always see the people that look like you being put into roles of “comic relief” or racial stereotypes but never as the main character, it isn’t representation.

We See You White American Theatre (WSYWAT) is a coalition of BIPOC creators fighting for more representation in the arts, and I highly encourage reading the demands as it will at the very least give you some guidelines to foster change in your organization.

One of probably the easiest changes called for by the WSYWAT is to include what is now widely known as a “land acknowledgement” into the curtain speech, the naming and acknowledging the American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian tribal lands and its people that lived, currently live and will continue to live on where a theatre event is happening.

Including a land acknowledgement shows that  your company cares and knows that it is on land that was given in good faith to the US government or stolen by the US government under treaties that were broken by the US government. It shows that your theatre acknowledges the land and the people that were displaced in order for this show to happen.

Another WSYWAT demand is acknowledging and recognizing the enslaved Africans that were subjugated to free labor and worked the land that a theatre now resides on, or in some cases the actual theatre. By recognizing and acknowledging this you are showing that your arts organization is aware of how it came to be and it is not trying to erase the history of the people that created the building or the lands and people that this theatre now presides on.

An open eye is colored beige with words "we stand on the ground" in the eye. The eye is on a black background. This is the logo for We See You White American Theatre.

Finally, it is in your organization’s best interest to listen to the needs of your community. It sounds simple, but it is probably one of the most important things your organization can do. As a nonprofit, you focus on serving the community that you are in. Listen to your community. There are needs that the community has, that you may not be listening to or considering when you create your season or performances. The community will back those they see as helping uplift them, so work with the community you serve, and they will help you. You could even partner with local community businesses or other community nonprofits to show the community that you are a vital part of the and invaluable to the people that you serve you within.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things arts organizations can do to enage minority communities and mean it, but it is a good place to start. To show that your organization means business, you should start to change the organization from within and continue to foster that change far beyond the initial change. Some of these ideas are easier to implement than others and some can be really outrageous for smaller nonprofits. There is no timeline for when arts organizations should change or mean what they say or face cancel culture, but that does not mean arts organizations can drag their feet with making these changes. Those companies that embrace this change and embrace it quickly will reap the rewards the minority communities have to offer the organization, and those organizations will be able to live on for many years to come.

Quinn Sipes is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Stage Management program at Virginia Tech