Join us as we journey deep into the world of classical music—how we define it, how we enjoy it, and how we ensure everyone feels welcome and represented in our concert halls. This conversation is just the start of breaking down barriers to attendance and ensuring classical arts organizations connect with audiences for generations to come.
In This Episode
In this episode, we revisit a panel discussion from Boot Camp 2022 about creating a more inclusive and accountable arts ecosystem. Diversity strategist and consultant Theresa Ruth Howard sits down with colleagues Jane Raleigh, Director of Dance Programming at the Kennedy Center, and Melanie George, Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow, to explore how institutional hierarchies can cap progress and how legacy structures can dampen organizational accountability.
Christopher Williams: Hey everyone. Happy holidays. I’m Christopher Williams, Capacity Interactive’s Managing Director, and I can’t believe it’s already December. As 2023 planning heats up, so does the need for proactive conversations about inclusive and accountable arts ecosystems. Now is the time to ensure your programming and marketing strategies reflect your organization’s stated values.
In this episode, we revisit a highly-rated Boot Camp 2022 session that explores how institutional hierarchies can interfere with progress and how legacy structures can diminish organizational accountability. Diversity strategist and consultant Theresa Ruth Howard leads a thought-provoking conversation with Jane Raleigh, Director of Dance Programming at the Kennedy Center, and Melanie George, Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow.
They tackle some pretty big questions that, I hope, inspire you to question yourself and your organization on the path to advancing inclusivity and equity in the arts.
Let’s take a listen.
Theresa Ruth Howard: Hello. First of all, it’s really a pleasure to be back in the Boot Camp in the flesh. This is my third time being asked to contribute and I’m always honored and excited. I just love the team at Capacity Interactive. So thank you for having me once again.
And I’m just telling you, you don’t even know what you’re about to experience. So, last year we did a conversation, I’m gonna back up a little bit so I can see you guys. We did a conversation about how to diversify your audiences, and oftentimes when I’m asked to weigh in, oftentimes I make things more complicated before I make them simple. I like to pull them apart. And I said, maybe we’re asking the wrong question, right? Maybe we’re starting on the wrong end of the conversation, which is at the audience. And the question should be like, well, why would they come? Why should they come?
And so this year in coming back, I thought it would be really interesting or more interesting to have a conversation with the folks who actually do programming, right? Where we are talking about Jane, who is the Director of Dance at the Kennedy Center. Right? So what is being presented in terms of dance at that Opera House? And Melanie, who is in charge of, or part of the team that curates, the work at Jacob’s Pillow right now. I met Jane through our collaboration on “Reframing the Narrative.” So we’ll talk a little bit about that. But I wanna start, Jane, with… this is your second year. You’re going into your second year as Director of Dance. And I’d like you to talk a little bit about what that role traditionally was — I mean, it’s a 51-year-old organization — what that traditionally was, and what your vision coming into it was for that.
Jane Raleigh: Yeah. Hey everybody, I’m Jane Raleigh. I’m Director of Dance Programming at the Kennedy Center. Thank you, Theresa. Um, yeah, I’ve worked at the Kennedy Center for almost nine years, so I’ve seen almost a decade of history of what the institution has done, which is only a fifth of the institution’s life. But just for context and clarity, my role encompasses the curation of what we call the ballet season, which — interesting marketing question — traditionally, for all 50 years of the Kennedy Center, Ballet and Dance are two separate subscription series that up until four years ago, five years ago, lived in two separate brochures. Which most of the rest of the country looks at that and thinks, what are you doing? Why is it that? So I’m curating the Classical Ballet series and then working with another colleague who curates the more contemporary offerings, and executing all of them.
So I think historically, traditionally this role within advanced programming has looked at the largest ballet companies in the world, the most well known titles, the best known choreographers, people who can sell seven performances in our 2200 seat opera house in the course of one week. And a lot of the choices, a lot of the direction has come from holding up that classical, large-scale ballet offering. And I think one of the — from the beginning of when I became director a year and a half ago, [I] was just thinking about what are those, which of those choices has been made because of true reflections of what we’re seeing in the field, or things we really want to be seeing. And which of those things have been just because we’ve always said that’s what we do at the Kennedy Center, that’s what we present, and where have we maybe not asked different questions or like, tested different data or looked for different metrics of success to see that we could be successful with a much more wide spectrum of aesthetic offerings.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And so, just one more question before I get to you, Melanie. Historically, what has the Kennedy Center audience looked like?
Jane Raleigh: Um, yeah. I’m all about transparent language. We’re a pretty old, pretty white, pretty wealthy audience. Our ticket prices are pretty high. The Kennedy Center is pretty regal. And I think across the entire spectrum of what the Kennedy Center offers, we have taken — the institution, I feel, has taken — an approach of, well, we have diverse offerings in other genres. So the ballet season is like very classical, very traditional. And I’m interested in pushing on that.
Theresa Ruth Howard: Okay. Wait for it. You bought the ticket. Take the ride. We’re gonna wrap this around. This is gonna be a broad conversation that’s going to… Trust and believe. So. Hello darling. Can you talk to me a little bit about how your role as Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow originated? You’re in, I believe, the third — you’re going into your third year in this, in working with them, because it’s evolved. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Melanie George: So my actual title is Associate Curator — one of two — and Director of Artist Initiatives. And the Director of Artist Initiatives part came about because I was actually doing a lot of things that belonged in separate departments. And I think that they were actually like, looking at how can we pull this together to make a — not only a fuller position, but also to put it in a single budget so that it’s not pulling a little bit from archives, a little bit from, you know, this one and that one. I had a relationship with Jacob’s Pillow prior to coming to work for them. I do lots of different things, but one of the things that people kind of know me for is that I’m a dance dramaturg and I’m one of the sort of few that’s actively working and visible in that way.
And so Jacob’s Pillow runs a residency program. I’m gonna do this because I feel like if I turn my head this way, I’m in the mic, but if I look at you, I’m not. So I had been — they would say, oh, we have so-and-so coming, and would you be available to come and work with them as a dramaturg? Sure. And I used to live in the area because I used to work for an organization called Lumber Yard, which used to be called American Dance Institute. And I worked with them until the pandemic in which I was laid off. So, Jacob’s Pillow was actually looking to hire a guest curator in February of 2020. You can imagine why that didn’t actually come to fruition. I got a call in March, it said “hiring freeze, we’re not doing that.”
And then, George Floyd’s murder and lots of other conversations that were happening, and they sort of reconfigured their idea of what they were going to do with that curatorial role. It went from being a guest curatorial role to being an associate curator. And then it became — going from one person to two people. And so my colleague Ali Rosa-Salas, who is also the artistic director of an organization called Aprons Art Center in New York, we have this job together. I started about a month prior to her. But essentially we’ve been on that same trajectory and we went through a full festival. And then coming out of that festival, they said, we’re also gonna offer you this. I was like, great. I need some health insurance, let’s do it. And under that umbrella, I am now directing the residency program, also directing the college partnership program, also working as a scholar within the archives, and still doing the associate curator situation.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And you are both two women of color.
Melanie George: Yes.
Theresa Ruth Howard: You mentioned we’re
Melanie George: It’s not an accident. I think that’s very purposeful.
Theresa Ruth Howard: We’re at a flash point in the BLM movement. The summer — I call it the summer of BLM, right? What has been some of your focus in terms of… Wait, hold on. Jacob’s Pillow, 91 years old, in the Berkshires. So historically, what do those audiences look like?
Melanie George: Well, it’s interesting because what I’m learning, ’cause I’m still learning, is that, you know, we have people who’ve been coming to Jacob’s Pillow for like 30 years. 40. You know, like there’s a guy, there’s a man who pulled me aside at our opening week last summer and was like, “I’m the mayor of Jacob’s Pillow. I want you to know this.” Right. And I was like, “Oh, hey, nice to meet you, mayor.” And so, there’s people who feel very connected to… and they feel very, um, I think proprietary is a fair word to use around that organization. I think given that long history and how long people have been coming there, I would say that it skews older and white.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And also the Berkshires demographically, what’s in that space? I point that out because those are real issues, right? With how you’re gonna diversify your audience. Like Jacob’s Pillow is not an easy place to get to if you’re not necessarily in that space. Kennedy Center vastly different. So I wanna talk a little bit about the idea of how programming and curation specifically can actually aid in transforming who’s in your audiences. So instead of worrying about just programming like “Where are all the colored people? they should be coming!” Are we actually curating and programming in a 360 degree sort of fashion with cultural competence? And taking the idea of like, if that’s what you want the result to be, then what do we have to do on the front end? And so I wanna start with you, Melanie. Can you talk a little bit about what you and Ali were thinking as you began to, you know, look at who might be placed in the space of Jacob’s Pillow, maybe that hadn’t been there before? And sort of what that process was.
Melanie George: Yeah. So, you know, I can only speak for myself, but I expect that probably for most curators you’re starting from a place of like, what do I find interesting? What do I find watchable? You know, and then looking at how that might have legs beyond your own individual interests. And so, when I was interviewing for that guest curator role, I had been asked to sort of submit a list, like, who are you watching right now? And that list didn’t really change very much when I came into the associate curator role. What I will say is that, on top of looking at who are the artists that we are inviting who historically have been overlooked by the institution, I think one of the things that made me an attractive candidate in being hired there is that, one of the other things that people know me for is that I’m a jazz dance artist and a jazz dance scholar.
And so, I’m attending to a whole specific genre of dance that is just generally overlooked in everybody’s venue. Right? And I’m tapped into who’s making that work right now. So that’s another thing of it. It’s also what kind of work can we be inviting that might be changing what it means to be a Jacob’s Pillow artist, what dance forms are we investing in that move beyond or maybe redefine what it means to make concert dance. And I think the conglomeration of all of those things means you end up getting a range of artists, some of whom have been around for 40, 50 years and had never been invited. Dallas Black Dance Theater, never been invited to Jacob’s Pillow before the summer I was there. And then you get something like Jumatatu Poe who has this piece that involves this intersection of contemporary dance and j-setting, which is this dance form that originated in the south that is sort of black queer cheerleading.
So all that stuff you saw in the “Single Ladies” video comes out of j-setting, right? And Jumatatu is generally not performing in those kind of spaces, right? He’s usually doing something that’s sort of a more black box theater kind of thing. And so what does it mean for us to invite him, and the way that he made us attend to dealing with the range of queer identities within his company and how we had to make sure that we were accommodating in all the ways that we should have been. Right? And so when you invite artists, it opens up conversations for how you are actually receiving artists.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And engaging with them.
Melanie George: Right. And then as a result, it’s changing audiences because the person who’s coming to see… I’m trying to think what was in that first season that I curated… the person who’s coming to see… oh, why am I drawing a blank? It’s been a long, long process of curating during a pandemic, I have to say. And so, like, it truly is a blur. But something from this summer. So someone who’s coming to see Taylor Stanley may not be the same person who’s coming to Jumatatu Poe. And there’s space for all of those audiences if we make space for them. But we have to actually think around the environment that we want to create, as opposed to only accommodating the environment that we have.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And in that conversation, when you’re talking about people who have never been invited into particular spaces, then as an organization — think about an organization as an organism, right? And oftentimes we are working in departments, like you are in the marketing department, right? And it feels like there are spaces in between the entities. It has to create a different conversation, right? Because you cannot be on automatic pilot when you’re trying to do something different. So the idea of the conversation of what one artist needs to enter that space and for you to invite people into the space to engage with them has to be an organizational sort of conversation.
Melanie George: Absolutely. And I’ll just add to that, what are we doing to prepare audiences to receive this work that they’re not familiar with? As opposed to tossing the work to the wolves and just hoping that, like, good luck. We have a responsibility on our end if we’re going to engage them.
Theresa Ruth Howard: Right. So the artists can’t do all of the work. There’s has to — you have to prepare the space.
Melanie George: There’s literally work they don’t have access to do. Right?
Theresa Ruth Howard: It’s not theirs to do. Yeah. So, Jane, let’s talk about this for a second. So let’s talk about this for a second. So we worked on a project called — a program called “Reframing the Narrative.” Do you wanna discuss what your thought behind that was?
Jane Raleigh: Yeah, it’s very interesting to think about it in context of everything you’re just saying. So “Reframing the Narrative” was, in its simplest form, in its beginning stages, an idea for a week of ballet performances in the Kennedy Center’s opera house that focused on black contributions in classical ballet. And that’s really where it started. And when I think back to baby director Jane, I was like, oh, that’d be cool. Let’s do a week. You know, I think in the ballet world, we’re often talking about how the field is 10 years behind the conversation that society is having. And let’s try to get us to catch up and do something where we need to shine a light on something that’s being discussed in society in all facets right now. But that really, when I think about it, the purest form of the idea was “let’s do seven shows.”
And thinking about the same form, of what Jacob’s Pillow did, I wanted to expand the curatorial voice knowing that I should not be the one making all the decisions about a black ballet festival at the Kennedy Center. So I invited Theresa and another colleague, Denise Saunders Thompson, who’s the CEO of the international Association of Blacks in Dance, to be co-curators of the thing. And I feel like it was a nut that then just cracked open. And now when I think about it, thinking of that as just a series of seven performances seems so small-minded. And I think about where my team — dance programming, but also what we call our pod of all the people within the Kennedy Center who work and touch dance at all — the place that we are now in as a team and the set of functioning values seems totally different than where we began.
And a lot of that was because we realized we don’t have the ticket buyers in our database who should be the ones coming to this. We have some, but I think if we looked back at the old machine of the Kennedy Center, it’s like, okay, let’s pull in all the DTH buyers — Dance Theatre of Harlem buyers — and let’s pull in maybe the Alvin Ailey buyers. And that would be the extent to which we knew how to do stuff. And the conversations immediately went so much deeper to like… I even just think of the day that we brought you and Denise to talk directly to our marketing and press team of like, stop hearing it out of my voice and hear it directly from the curators’ voices and the three of us as a team. And like, let’s talk about everything that we’re doing from that 360 view to understand what we’re actually trying to put on stage.
Theresa Ruth Howard: So this is where we go into the way that organizations generally function, right? In that sort of siloed thing. And then we touch when we need to touch, and we do our bit, and then we bring it back. And then that’s what it is. And so with reframing, it was almost immediately — for me personally — I was like, I’m not interested in doing a diversity program for you. That’s not my job. Right? And if we’re gonna do this, then there is something that we are going to say and there’s something that we’re going to do in the process. And in the process, we really pulled every, every department in the Kennedy Center together as a collaboration. And it was amazing because everybody was so excited about pitching in. Right? And being invited into this process that generally, they’re on the back end of. Like marketing is generally on the back end of anything.
And the idea that we were sharing with them as we were ideating, as we were trying to put this thing together, gave them a sense of ownership and responsibility. And then the idea of — I personally was like, I wanna hear your pitches. I wanna hear your pitches, because your pitches as a journalist, your pitches are the thing that tell the writer what’s important to write about. And if you put the word “diversity” in there beside “blacks and ballet,” we’re gonna get the same trite coverage that you usually get. And I’m gonna have to smother myself in my sleep. Right?
Jane Raleigh: She said that to the press team.
Theresa Ruth Howard: You know I did. But the idea of actually thinking about the language that we’re using to describe what this thing is to describe artists, you have to actually know. Right? So can you speak to me about the work that you’ve done or the process of your bringing these new, sometimes unknown, artists into Jacob’s Pillow space and how you engage or interface with the marketing team to support their being represented properly?
Melanie George: Yeah. You know, what I will say is — I’ll be fully transparent and say, this is an area that I believe that I need to get better at in terms of being proactive about engaging in conversations with marketing earlier. The way that Jacob’s Pillow has functioned… there was only ever one curator for, like, the history of Jacob’s Pillow until 2020. Different people, but always one. And then we had this team that is now developed, and it’s actually five of us, right? There is the executive and artistic director who used to historically only be the one that curated. And then now there are two curators, and then there’s a directing producer and an associate producer. And so we’re all in this conversation right now, which has made us have to be accountable in different ways for not only how we’re interfacing with marketing, but also how are we interfacing with production?
How are we interfacing with company management? And so I think that right now, we’re beginning to engage in these conversations so much earlier in a way that I don’t believe that we did in 2020. And it feels more right. And it feels more robust. And it feels like it has more promise because of that. And so, to speak honestly, I’d say that as we were learning how to be a team, we were functioning in a very sort of siloed way. And it was us making a decision. This is the season, and here it is for you to figure out how you’re gonna market it. And that’s not okay actually, right?
Theresa Ruth Howard: That’s traditional though, you know, that’s not uncommon.
Melanie George: But I think particularly if you’re changing the scope of the kinds of artists that you are presenting, you can’t do it the way it’s always been done. Because new ideas into old models typically fail. So make new models to accommodate the choices that you’re making. I’m not sure if I’ve answered your actual question.
Theresa Ruth Howard: No, no. But it is. It’s the — when we did our sort of chat about this panel, one of the things we talked about is how the historical structure of your organization or institution can impede the work that you’re trying to do. Right? So like, you’re doing all this great DEI stuff, but you’re putting it like, okay, you made a really great dish and then you put it in a dirty bowl to serve. Right? Like, you need to clean the whole thing out and really think about it from a different perspective. So the way that… We just were not having it. So we were just like, look, all in. Get in. And so what happened was a very organic sort of flow. Now I’m on the outside. Can you tell me from the inside as you were working on — when like we get on a Zoom call and they’ll be like, “Yes, yes, yes.” And there’ll be 50 other things for you to do. And I’d be like, “Wow, great call.” End call. Leave meeting. And her team is like, what? So tell me what would happen internally as all the busy work of the actual organization was being done?
Jane Raleigh: Yeah, when I think back to those moments, what stands out in my memory is when we got to the place where the entire team felt actually engaged in the process, like you said, like was invited to add their own creativity, to hear what the curators and the artists were saying, and take a slightly different tone of voice in our copy, or like arrange the schedule of ticket sales pitches in a different order or talk to different outlets in the press. Those moments of excitement were the thing that then lit a fire and carried people, all of us. And I do, I mean, there were some conversations where people were like, “Oh yes, this is great.” And then we would get off the phone and I would get a phone call like, “Uh, Jane, I don’t know if Theresa understands that we might not be able to get the Today Show.” Like you wanted us to pitch the Today Show. But I think the idea of what you were wanting was that we were getting to the core of what the story was and understanding who would want to tell that story rather than, like, we always tell the New York Times and The Washington Post to please cover our stories with a feature. And when I had that conversation with her of… This whole process around “Reframing the Narrative” is less about what we actually land and more about how we got there together. She’s not gonna care if we don’t land the Today Show.
Theresa Ruth Howard: I’m still pissed.
Jane Raleigh: But it’s funny because we’re now about to enter into prepping our 23–24 season brochure, which feels like the great looming machine of the Kennedy Center coming back, and “Reframing the Narrative” was one shining spotlight within the 21–22 season. And so now that our dance programming team is approaching “how are we gonna do the entire 23– 24 season?” But we wanna maintain that engagement and energy. We’re brainstorming. We literally had a meeting last week where we were talking about, okay, usually what we do is we prepare a historical document that has the bullet points of why we chose the piece, the synopsis of the story, a link to the YouTube sizzle reel of the company. And I’m pretty sure our marketing team doesn’t read it. Why would they read it? Because they can find all that stuff online. So we were just thinking about like, okay, what if we pitched this season to marketing this year before they write the copy as a series of questions? Or what if we send them videos before the pitch meeting and then ask for their observations? And then we say, yes, that’s exactly why we chose it. Trying to find other ways in the fast-moving machine to slow things down and get back to that energy and excitement of the creative juices.
Theresa Ruth Howard: I wanna go back to the Today Show.
Jane Raleigh: We didn’t get it.
Theresa Ruth Howard: No. Because I did not expect that. Yeah. But you should be so excited. I feel like you should think that this is the greatest thing ever and everybody needs to really get a piece of this. And so yes, all of those traditional spaces, but as you’ve been talking about, there’s so many different outlets. So if you’re not looking at different podcasts, and not just — everybody wants to be on Fresh Air, but there’s a multiplicity of different podcast, black podcast makers, Latinx… You can pitch more broadly, but you can’t do that if you’re completely unaware.
Melanie George: Well also I feel like what I’m hearing you say, not having been in this process at all, is I’m hearing you say from the start, every area that’s involved has to approach it with ambition, not as if it’s an obstacle. And if you start from a place of “how are we gonna get over this hurdle?” Then you’re not actually gonna get over the hurdle, or whatever will reveal itself through ambition, as opposed to looking at it as the impossible dream.
Theresa Ruth Howard: You know, I’m gonna have to give up cynicism. Is that where… I feel like sometimes…
Melanie George: I mean, I’m a Scorpio. I’m not giving up cynicism. But I do just keep going back to, like, make new models. Make new systems. Right?
Theresa Ruth Howard: Right. What was an important factor is — because what I learned about working with organizations, especially leaders, it’s all high school. Everybody wants to sit at the cool table. Everybody wants to be a part of the cool thing. So the invitation was the thing that got people excited, they were invited into a part of the process that they had never been a part of. And so when you see the how the cookies get made, you’re like, oh, I wanna eat a cookie. I can’t wait until this is ready. That was the thing I thought that was really transformative. My job was — in those meetings, I was like, I am the chief and enroller, right? I’m gonna enroll people in the vision of this thing. And walking in — I was never on site until we came to do the residency — there was a buzz about us being in that space. And then when we hit the show week, there were people invested in what was happening. So it was, yes, it was electric, but it was not just electric from the outside. It was electric actually from the inside.
Melanie George: But see, then my question becomes — because I think a curatorial goal of mine is that we’re investing in artists, not in individual projects. Because a lot of times artists will get programmed for one really special thing and then they won’t get gigs for like six more years. So, how do we create that excitement about the approach as opposed to the thing, right? Because the thing will eventually have an end date. And then it’s very easy to put that aside and say, “now we’re onto something else.” Right?
Theresa Ruth Howard: Okay, because it was really super successful. Like for instance, so my girl Brittany [Laeger], we were working on these pitches and the pitches went out and we got some, you know, some traction. The Washington Post, Sarah Kaufman, interviews myself, the choreographer, some of the dancers, and the article comes out and she got it. Like, no, no, she beyond got it. Right? People were like, what the hell? She saw everything that we had been talking about in meetings, but that was because everybody knew, everybody understood the assignment. Donald [Byrd] understood the assignment. The dancers… That’s enrollment, right? So that by the time — she didn’t have a choice but to write what she experienced. And I think that that being successful gives Brittany and that [PR] team the excitement to go like, yeah, we can actually change the outcome, right? Because it’s our approach that’s actually different.
Jane Raleigh: I also think from an external idea, thinking about the people that we did bring in to see “Reframing the Narrative” who maybe had never felt invited by the Kennedy Center before, or because of our history, had been invited once 20 years ago and then felt burned by the organization and chose specifically not to come back, but knew that this was an important thing for them to show up. You know, I’m talking about the black community of D.C., specifically the dance community in D.C. I think our team, the programming team, did a lot of work to individually reach out an build legitimate relationships with people.
Theresa Ruth Howard: Relationships.
Jane Raleigh: And that’s what I’m — I mean, I’m in the experimental phase ’cause it just happened in June, but I’m just wondering, like, I have an email in my inbox today from someone who was a studio partner in “Reframing the Narrative” who reached out and has an idea for a masterclass series for their students at the Kennedy Center. Traditionally the answer would’ve been, we don’t do that kind of thing. So sorry. But I have not yet responded because I’m trying to think, what version of this can we do, because I started that relationship. So I don’t wanna say, thank you so much, we did that program and now, like, talk to you again in 20 more years when we do something else. But that is like — I feel that as an individual accountability that I have to do myself. And also I believe my immediate team, which is literally three people, I feel that we, all three of us, feel that accountability to continue those relationships.
Melanie George: Accountability, and it’s a culture of yes. Right? And so much of… hmm, choosing my words… so much of how programming often works is actually a culture of no. Like, no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no… Right? And so then when you sort of change that in terms of, what if we shift to a culture of yes. And what are the possibilities which we can do, and then — I feel like I need to say this — and then how do we do this without taxing our staff in such a way that it’s actually not achievable?
Theresa Ruth Howard: Right. So if budgets are moral documents, then programming is the physical manifestation of those morals. Right? And marketing is just the narrative. But you, in marketing, you’re not magicians, so you can’t, you can’t make up, well, sometimes you do, but like, your job would be so much easier if you didn’t have to be crafting like Rapunzel, right? Spinning gold. So the question I ask in my other hat is, organizationally, how do we work together to achieve these goals? The things that we say are goals, right? More diversity, more inclusion, to be more inclusive and welcoming. And how can marketing act as an accountability partner to the organization?
Melanie George: Can I add a question on that? I think also if these lofty, ephemeral goals — diversity, inclusion… — what does that actually look like in your specific organization? Right? Because the way it shows up at the Kennedy Center in D.C. which again skews rich, white, older… D.C. itself has a large black population. Right? It’s very different from Jacob’s Pillow, which, while there are Indigenous folks and Black folks and Latinx folks in proximity, that’s typically not who’s coming. And so, the way we’ll see the results tangibly will look quite different from what it looks like for you.
Theresa Ruth Howard: Yes. And I think you should look at your demographics. Like everything is not possible. What should happen at the Kennedy Center may not be a reachable goal for Jacob’s Pillow. Basic demographics are gonna tell you what is actually possible. But there are things that we can actually be doing to help encourage that. Right? So I think it’s time to open the floor for questions, comments, concerns, for anything. Um, this is all an experiment. If we could think about it as — I’m waiting for the first question — if we could think about it as an experiment, that was what was cool about, I remember it was kinda like, yeah. Like what, yeah. We can’t actually lose here. We can only win and learn.
Jane Raleigh: And I’ll just say, because everyone saw it as an experiment, it encouraged that culture of yes that you’re talking about. And then once — everyone talks about “don’t set a precedent.” I was like, “oops, we set so many precedents that we have to say yes.” And then you’re just like, “oh, we did it last time. It was fine. And nothing burned down. Let’s just keep going.”
Shira Green: Okay. Some questions. Thank you. First one is, beyond PR, what marketing strategies or changes were implemented so that you didn’t stick new programming in the old machine?
Melanie George: That’s a good question. Well, I think for the Pillow, the pandemic forced some things. And so our actual 2020 festival was…. Well, okay. So the pandemic happened, and then one of our two theaters burnt down in the same year, in the same calendar year. And so it forced us to do a lot of things differently that we would not have done otherwise. That first summer we only did outdoor programming. So we were using the campus in different ways.
Oh, okay, so here’s an example. Going back to Jumatatu, that performance happened in a tent and it was that first summer. And we did things like creating a bus to bring in a whole community of queer folks of color to be present because the artist said, we are not doing the show if we don’t have people that look like us in the audience. Cool. So we had to reconceive.
Jane Raleigh: Yeah. Yeah. I would mention for “Reframing the Narrative,” we did a lot of work on ticket prices. And I think traditionally at the Kennedy Center we have our standard revenue goals, and then there’s always a gap. Like almost none of our shows are slated to sell 99 to 100 percent, but usually we just don’t do anything with the seats we believe will definitely remain empty. So we did a big push with our marketing team to get — we offered a $10 ticket price and a $25 ticket price that we didn’t push to the whole world. We delivered it to all these people that we were building one-on-one relationships with, but we delivered them both at the same time and asked people to choose the ticket price that felt right to them. And I think, I don’t know the exact numbers, but we know that a significant population of students that generally we don’t see in our audiences did take advantage of those special discounts that I’m hoping to now remind our marketing team that was successful and only got us more revenue because the seats weren’t empty.
Theresa Ruth Howard: You see?
Shira Green: You just sort of started touching on this, but could you talk about measuring success in this realm? What kinds of KPIs, if any, were you thinking about as you went.
Jane Raleigh: I was obsessed with this, with “Reframing the Narrative” ’cause I’m not a data person and I was just like, what is the qualitative data that we’re collecting? And so we implemented a survey system across the entire season to hopefully reflect and measure that people were more deeply engaged with “Reframing the Narrative” than they were with everything else on the season. I’m not sure. I mean, it collected great comments. I’m not sure from a data standpoint if it was significant enough. But I did things personally like screenshot every social media comment that talked about the transformative power of the show. People were sending all of us text messages and Facebook messages, and I screenshotted all of them. And I have photos saved. I took a lot of photos of people engaging with the campus and saved those in a folder. I don’t know how I will prove that that means success, but I’m sure that it does.
Theresa Ruth Howard: And how do you measure impact, right? There are different measures. There’s butts in seats, and there’s the way that people feel in the seat, right? Not just from what they’re engaging with this way, but as they walk through the door and they’re on your campus, do they feel like it’s their campus? Right? I think that if we’re going to create new models, then we have to expand that spectrum of success because every seed that you plant is not going to bloom and blossom in that season. And so sometimes you’ll be like, well that didn’t work. You’re like, well, you didn’t give it a chance to work. Some things you really have to invest in, right? In order for them to mature. So we’re always saying we don’t wanna be box tickers, but yes, we do. Because we wanna feel like we’ve accomplished something. And I think that sometimes these metrics are these boxes, and it’s not, how are we reading the data? Are we just reading it for… what are we reading it for? Are we investigating? Are we going to dig underneath the data point to see, well, why didn’t it work? Or why was that successful? Why do we consider this success and how do we replicate it? Does that make sense?
Melanie George: Yeah. You know, I should care more about metrics than I actually do. Maybe. So I work with artists and I’m very concerned with the lives of artists, but I spent an irrational amount of time last summer looking at our ticket sales over the course of the summer. We’d get this report every day. Every day this thing would land in my inbox, and I would just read it hoping it would reveal secrets to me about why this one was selling and that one was not. And I’d learned nothing. Actually, I’ll tell you something that we did learn about the Pillow. It’s a very weird thing. We talk about it all the time. It’s such a strange, not important, but also weirdly important thing that if we booked an artist that had the genre of their dance form and the title of the artist’s name, it would sell better. So if it was JazzAntiqua or Ballet Nepantla,
Theresa Ruth Howard: Depending on what it was, they were coming to that.
Melanie George: Right? And I was like, this is super weird, you know, but then we would have some like really big name artists who wouldn’t maybe sell in the way we thought they were going to, and someone who no one knew or didn’t know enough of… And so that was a, that was a weird, interesting thing.
Theresa Ruth Howard:</strong > But for marketing, that’s great to know. Because if the genre doesn’t appear in the title, that means you have to do extra work to make sure that people — That’s what I’m saying, like the raw data itself is meaningless unless you know how to read it.
Melanie George: Yeah. But what I was going to say is that I think that there are different contexts for measures of success. There are artists that we have programmed who now — their work has legs and they’re getting programmed in other places in ways they never would have if they had not been invited to Jacob’s Pillow, because of the prestige that that organization has. There is a show that we did last summer that sold… not great, but it was a very important show. It was called “America(na) to me.” And it was a range of perspectives on what it means to be American or from the Americas in 2022. And we had Indian dancers and Caribbean dancers and tap dancers, and there was a little bit of ballet in there, and a real range of stuff. And it was programmed in the first week.
And so we know that probably shouldn’t have gone in the first week just because of how we know tourism works in the Berkshires. But all this to say, I think there’s a version of looking at that and saying, oh, it did not sell well and therefore it’s not a success. And I’m like, no, that show was a fucking success. You can’t tell me differently. Right? The way those artists felt about — if you could have watched them in the room together, like having fellowship… We invited a company who is now based in the Caribbean, who were originally indigenous to that area who had been displaced because of the way we have displaced indigenous people. You can’t tell me that show wasn’t a success.
Theresa Ruth Howard: That is one of those… Invest. You have to invest. We know this is good. We have to educate. We only go see Swan Lake because they’ve been doing it for centuries. So it’s valuable. We know it’s valuable, but if you keep, for instance, bringing a version or something like that back, people go like, oh, that’s important. That was there before. That’s investment, right? Because it is important. It doesn’t necessarily have to show up immediately as a firework. That’s a value system that I think that we, we make this up. Right?
Melanie George: Well, and I feel like as a curator, my choices are telling people what to value. And so there’s a teaching opportunity. And then I’m also a dance educator, so there’s a chance to educate. And there is a value in that too because the whole idea of bringing me and Ali on as curators is that we’re changing the trajectory of what Pillow audiences are gonna look like. And all that to say, I’m fully just sitting in the fact that it takes time. And so the immediate metric isn’t as valuable to me. That’s my point. Because I can’t do this work in one season.
Theresa Ruth Howard: No, nobody can.
Shira Green: We got one more question. Basically for organizations where curatorial or artistic is not already inviting marketing in, how do you recommend marketing or development folks join the conversation?
Theresa Ruth Howard: Okay, look, y’all know how I roll. But I would say, Hey, people are doing this. The Kennedy Center is doing this, right? Cool kids, right? Like the idea of like, okay, we’re trying to do this. Would it hurt? Sometimes the door is not locked, it’s just closed, and there’s a difference. So maybe you try the handle, right? Like, you gotta try the handle. Jiggle it an — oh, what are y’all doing in here? Can I sit in? Because we’re not used to it, right? I think sometimes we get used to the lanes and we’re good at lanes, and I think that we need to really kind of start crossing over. And especially if any of your organizations are doing any type of DEI-space sort of workshop, communication inside the organization is really the key. So you have these opportunities in learning spaces to sort of pitch out ideas of different ways of being, right? I don’t know that people are necessarily against it, we just don’t do it. And again, I think that’s not resistance. It’s just like, it hasn’t necessarily dawned on people to be like, oh duh, maybe y’all should be in here sooner.
Jane Raleigh: Yeah. I feel like as the Director of Dance Programming at the Kennedy Center, I’m actually like a middle manager type. So I feel like I’m trying to start being louder and more forward about things that I do. But when I was starting to try to do things, I would just try to figure out what the smallest thing I could do was, that I had the capability of doing, without permission or that I could edge towards that and just like sneak it in and then see if anybody got mad. And when they didn’t, I’d be like, wasn’t that great? Let’s just do it up here now and then let’s do it up here. So I do think that like, in the spirit of working together and having everyone taking agency for the work, if you just start doing what you are allowed to do, or up to the edge of what you’re allowed to do, and then show the value of that, people will eventually not be able to ignore it.
Melanie George: As a jazz dance artist, I believe in all things through community. As a black artist, I believe in all things through community. And as a Scorpio, I believe in being direct. So ask, just ask. Ask and ask again and, and have a postmortem about what worked and what didn’t work, and then strategize about how you’re gonna do it differently. I think one of the things that I’m — this is kind of off topic, but — one of the things that’s plaguing me right now is that, you know, we all came out of lockdown and we said, oh, we’re gonna do things differently. We’re all gonna just work a little bit less, and let’s go deeper, and we’re gonna have all these humane work practices. And that was lies. None of us are doing those things and we’re all still overworked. And so how do we change the actual work culture? Yeah. Right? And it’s like, you have to talk to people. It has to be through conversation, it has to be through communication. It’s not gonna be through like will and osmosis, you know?
Theresa Ruth Howard: No. And in closing, these are a couple of the… I call them truth-isms, right? Your motivations dictate your methodology. And if we use the principle of anti-racism as an individualized approach to combating racism, that means that each one of us — not our titles, not our logos, not our fields — we’re responsible. So part of it is how we are in the space and how we’re holding the space, right? So I don’t pay attention to what people tell me. I’m like, “I don’t care. I can’t go in there? Who says?” It’s a different way of being. Again, we have to understand that organizations are people, they’re not constructs. And so we make these rules and sometimes a well-placed question will do a lot more than a statement. Just asking, “Well, why do we do this this way? And can we do it a different way?” is often really effective. And that way it just allows the person to reflect for themselves without you going, well, we should be doing it. No. Well, have we ever thought about doing this a different way? This would be helpful to me if maybe we could, right? So hopefully that broad conversation sort of created a different way for you to approach what you do in the marketing space. And so I just wanna thank you. I’m always appreciative to be invited into your space. And I wanna thank my lovely panelists.
Christopher Williams: Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. This episode was edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-written by Karen McConarty and Krisi Packer. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors, and all work together to create CI’s digital content.
This week, you heard from Theresa Ruth Howard, Jane Raleigh (RAH-lee), and Melanie George. Our music is by whoisuzo.
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About Our Guests
Director of Dance Programming, John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
Jane Raleigh is the Director of Dance Programming at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In her role at the Kennedy Center, she curates and produces the Ballet and Contemporary Dance subscription series as well as a variety of dance performances on the Center’s Millennium Stage and in the Center’s REACH expansion spaces. Locally, Jane serves on the Pola Nirenska Award jury, is a Board member for Dance Loft on 14, and is an active member of Dance Metro DC. Nationally, she is a co-chair of the Presenters Council and an active member of Dance/USA. Jane also performs throughout the Washington region with a variety of project-based companies.
Founder and Director, Jazz Is... Dance Project
Melanie George is the founder and director of Jazz Is… Dance Project and Associate Curator and Director of Artist Initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow. As a dramaturg, she has contributed to projects by Raja Feather Kelly, LaTasha Barnes, Susan Marshall, Alice Sheppard, Machine Dazzle, Urban Bush Women, and SW!NG OUT among others. Melanie is featured in the documentary UpRooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance and founded the global advocacy website jazzdancedirect.com. She is the former Dance Program Director at American University, and has guest lectured at Harvard University, the Yale School of Drama, and The Juilliard School. Melanie is the 2021 recipient of the Outstanding Leadership Award from the National Dance Education Organization.
Theresa Ruth Howard
Diversity Strategist and Consultant
Theresa Ruth Howard is a diversity strategist and consultant assisting arts organizations to better understand, design, and implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs and initiatives. She works with artistic and executive directors, school directors, and board members of ballet and opera organizations internationally on DEI efforts and shifting the culture of both classical art forms. Ms. Howard is also a journalist, former dancer, and the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, a digital platform that preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists in the field of ballet.
We’re swiftly approaching one of the busiest times of year for arts marketers… and with it, holiday programs, gift campaigns, end-of-year donation pushes, and—to top it all off—strategic planning for next season.