EDGE Chattanooga arts leaders look to 'intentional' strategies to diversify audiences, offerings

EDGE Chattanooga arts leaders look to 'intentional' strategies to diversify audiences, offerings

March 1st, 2019 by Lisa Denton in EDGE

Elliott Coleman (Gatekeeper), Donel Solomon (Tin Man), Maya Jaffar (Dorothy), Tiffany Williams (Lion) and Darryl Wheeler (Scarecrow) in a scene from the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's 2017 production of "The Wiz." Director Shane Morrow broke with custom by holding auditions for the multicultural musical at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center as a way to expand the reach into predominantly African-American neighborhoods. It was the first time in the theater's history that auditions were held off-site.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Chattanooga arts leaders

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Ideally, the panoply of arts in Chattanooga would draw participants of every age, ethnicity, gender, education and income level.

Realistically, there's still work to do, says Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, a private, nonprofit arts advocacy group that provided funding to 16 arts organizations and 23 events and projects in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

"I'd say it's improving," Bowers says of arts diversity in Chattanooga, "but there's plenty of room for improvement."

Bowers compares the arts to a big tent that has gotten bigger over the past few years.

"We have a meeting once a month with the organizations that we provide funding for," Bowers explains. "A number of people made comments about the things they're doing, both within the organization and with their product, and with the way they're reaching out (to promote more diversity). It's on the minds, I'd say, of every arts organization, and there's a lot of activity going on within them."

Count the Chattanooga Theatre Centre among them. When Executive Director Todd Olson arrived in April 2017, the theater announced a commitment to diversifying its audiences, offerings and leadership. Almost two years later, he concedes the effort is "a work in progress."

"It all comes down to: Does our work onstage accurately reflect the community of Chattanooga?" says Olson. "We're also aiming to do that in our staff and on our board."

Heightened hiring practices have helped in that effort, but more obvious to patrons is the addition of multicultural productions each season. "The Wiz" led off those changes in the 2017-18 lineup. Shane Morrow, who was tapped to direct the African-American retelling of "The Wizard of Oz," made the unprecedented move of holding auditions at the South Chattanooga Community Center, opening up casting to the majority African-American residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. That was the first time in the then-94-year history of the theater that auditions had been held off-site.

Olson says outreach is continuing with a 10-year undertaking of August Wilson's 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle," in which each work, set in a different decade, depicts aspects of the African-American experience in the 20th century. The first offering, "Fences," debuted in February.

The play is directed by Ricardo Morris, who was hired in December 2017 as group sales and events manager at the theater. Marketing, he says, was reworked for "Fences" as theater officials debated "How do we get the word out to black audiences?" about the run of the play.

"We have been trying some alternative marketing strategies," Morris says, including fliers tucked into the Sunday bulletins at predominantly black churches.

"It's all about intentional efforts," he says. "That's the strategy. Like, 'If you build it, they will come,' you think, 'If you produce it, they will show up.' But that's not necessarily the case.

"You've got to be intentional about your programming and marketing and even intentional about how people feel when they get here. When they get here, they need to feel welcome and invited.

"Historically, we were not allowed to come here," says Morris, who is black. "If you go back to the beginnings of the Theatre Centre, we would not even be allowed to come."

Segregated experiences seem to seep into the DNA, he says, and get passed down through the generations.

"These stories are still being told," he says. "People want to put [segregation] in the ancient history category. But it was just 1963 [that the Civil Rights Act was proposed; it was signed into law in 1964]. And even after legislation passed, attitudes didn't change."

A 1980 Howard High School graduate, Morris says he "didn't discover the Theatre Centre until after college — and I was a theater major. It wasn't on our radar. I never went to the symphony or the ballet. We didn't do any of those things growing up here."

Stratton Tingle, executive director of SoundCorps, similarly believes in the power of intentional marketing.

"SoundCorps strives to be representative of the diversity found within the Chattanooga region, which requires us to be sure we're marketing our programs and initiatives in a way that actually reaches all of Chattanooga's various communities," he says. "This can be a challenge in a time when simply posting ads and announcements to websites satisfies the needs of many businesses."

In addition to word of mouth, "we still rely on old-fashioned poster-hanging and passing out handbills at events and places where our audiences are," he says.

Established in 2015, the nonprofit SoundCorps is dedicated to growing the music economy by building industry infrastructure and professional expertise. One of its flagship programs is Sidewalk Stages, which last year engaged 125 local musicians in more than 700 street performances, Tingle said.

"Our performer demographics pretty accurately reflect the regional census data as it relates to race [about 33 percent black], but we could certainly engage more women, which make up a little over one-third of our performers, and we could most definitely engage more from the Latinx community," he says. "We also do a pretty good job on activating a wide range of performers from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and ages, although a majority of our performers fall within the 21-35 category."

From a music standpoint, Tingle says he sees more challenges in age demographics.

"All artists, especially the younger ones, stay pretty frustrated with performance opportunities," he says.

But racial differences definitely play a role in Chattanooga's music scene.

"I do notice that many venues shy away from booking as many rap shows as are available to them, which is a shame because there is so much top-notch hip-hop flourishing in our city," he says.

Tingle believes that would change if more rappers engaged live bands.

"I'm as into electronic music, DJs and music production as just about anybody," he says, "but there's simply something special about going to a show which features live musicians performing onstage.

"The Road to Nightfall music series is an example of a great music series which would love to feature more hip-hop acts, but one of the qualifications to take part in the series is that the band feature a minimum of three performers. Many of our local hip-hop emcees simply aren't building a live show with much more than a DJ backing them up. I think as producers like Carl Cadwell [Summer Dregs] continue to diversify collaborations, you'll see this hurdle overcome.

"I've never seen more collaboration across genre and race in our region as I do now."

Bowers says the business model at ArtsBuild has evolved since its days as Allied Arts, when funding favored the largest, most-established arts organizations.

One of the newer initiatives is Community Cultural Connections, a grant program established in 2012 that has enabled social-service nonprofits, neighborhood associations, churches and cultural festivals, among others, to provide programming for underserved populations.

The success of that program spun off Equity in the Arts grants, supported by the Benwood Foundation, to specifically target black and Latino artists.

"Our mission still remains our mission — 'Building a Stronger Community Through the Arts' — but you could drive a truck through that," Bowers says. "What has become our mission, really our touchstone for the decisions we make about funding and the work we do is 'More Arts in More Places for More People.'

"The way that we translate that is we are attempting to make the arts available in places where you don't normally find them and for people who oftentimes have been overlooked or underserved as far as arts are concerned.

"Many times we make a reference to a bigger tent [for the arts]. Obviously we want to have a lot more people under that tent."


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