By Allason Leitz (ARAD ‘19)
ARAD was pleased to host Carl Sylvestre as part of its Spring Distinguished Speaker Series. Mr. Sylvester spoke about Fundraising for Social Change in the Performing Arts on February 25th, 2019. He has held senior positions at many cultural institutions including The Metropolitan Opera, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Theatre Workshop and Theatre Forward.
Mr. Sylvestre began by breaking down the differences and similarities between equity, diversity and inclusion as they relate to a performing arts organization. What I found most interesting the ways in which our (now very popularized) language around diversity initiatives can also hold so much weight that it can quickly becomes polarizing in a given community.
Mr. Sylvestre defined equity as a way of “addressing inequalities in the field”; diversity as “bringing forth and championing a plurality of voices” and inclusion as “recognizing and welcoming communities who were not always part of an institution.” It is this latter understanding of inclusion which is actually what I realized most people mean when they speak about diversity initiatives. Inclusion is an active decision we make every day, in every business decision and in our personal lives, and a muscle which needs to be flexed to grow. Diversity is a fact of this universe and becomes more visible when the dominant community decides to lend an ear, or a seat, in the case of marginalized audiences feeling welcomed into spaces they historically have not been. Mr. Sylvestre went on to note that inclusivity in term of patron retention is often a challenge for arts organizations. Developing a show in a season meant for a specific marginalized audience, doesn’t automatically mean we have actually earned that demographics’ repeat attendance.
The question moving forward is how can we continue to build and retain these audiences in a way that is mutually beneficial for all the stakeholders involved: audiences, organizations and funders? Mr. Sylvestre noted that sometimes the benefits for individuals partaking in the arts can have far-reaching effects in their lives. In the case of fundraising, these effects can hint at the plurality of the human experience and the many spheres in which we live our lives.
In one case study he cited, a theater project with a pharmaceutical sponsor learned that participants, who had previously struggled to attend medical appointments, without prompting increasingly began showing up to them. This of course was not a prerequisite to inclusion in the theater project, but if anything in my opinion, it was proof that the arts have an inherent capacity (when engaged with deeply) to transform lives in a way funders could never have expected, sometimes working out on many levels for all involved!