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Cast members in Opera Grand Rapids’ production of “Stinney: An American Execution,” which depicts the story of George Stinney, Jr., a Black 14-year-old who was wrongfully executed in 1944. Cast members in Opera Grand Rapids’ production of “Stinney: An American Execution,” which depicts the story of George Stinney, Jr., a Black 14-year-old who was wrongfully executed in 1944. COURTESY OF OPERA GRAND RAPIDS

DEI in the arts is a long but necessary process, local leaders say

BY Thursday, November 03, 2022 01:17pm

Opera Grand Rapids, formed in 1966 to host musical productions that in prior decades had occurred through multiple local community and civic theater companies, is taking measures to help expose the arts to future and more diverse audiences.

The organization recently launched a community tickets program in collaboration with several other local organizations to provide free tickets to low-income and underserved community members who have never experienced an opera before.

In 2020 and 2021, Opera Grand Rapids led a chamber series in which 50 percent of all artists hired were Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). This year, the Opera hosted the world premiere of “Stinney: An American Execution,” an opera focused on the story of George Stinney Jr., a Black 14-year-old who in 1944 was wrongfully executed.

In recent months, the Opera requested $25,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding from Kent County to support a 2023 event that would involve partnering with hip hop artists to produce a fusion opera-hip hop experience, according to the organization’s proposal.

“But the best is yet to come,” said Director of Development Miranda Krajniak. “We have more exciting features planned for the coming season and we can’t wait for these programs to materialize.”

Opera Grand Rapids’ efforts centered on diversity, equity and inclusion reflect a trend among West Michigan arts organizations attempting to make their spaces more accessible, attract more diverse audiences and better represent the communities they serve. 

Successful DEI efforts are proving long and slow but necessary nonetheless, according to local arts leaders.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) identified DEI as a core priority in a strategic plan adopted early this year, even though DEI has been a focus for much longer, said Christopher Bruce, GRAM’s director for art, learning and engagement.

“We’ve been for many years working on how we diversify everything that we do,” Bruce said. “We want the demographics of our guests and our staff and our volunteers to represent the demographics of our community. We want the works of art that are on our wall — both in who created them as well as what they are representing — to be reflective of the communities that we serve.”

GRAM has ongoing DEI initiatives for staff hiring and retention, programming and engagement, and is currently planning a portrait exhibit that will feature diverse artists and subjects. 

“It is an opportunity for people to see themselves represented in the museum in a very authentic way — in a way that is difficult to do at times,” Bruce said. 

As well, the West Michigan Symphony board of directors adopted a DEI roadmap in June 2021. 

“Nearly 20 percent of the residents in Muskegon County identify as non-white, but these numbers are not reflected in our audience and volunteer base, nor in the orchestra you see onstage,” said Andy Buelow, CEO of the West Michigan Symphony. “We developed the roadmap in order to commit our organization to systemic work on diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The West Michigan Symphony adopted a DEI statement in 2018, but officials realized in the following years that it didn’t go far enough, according to Buelow.

“The DEI Roadmap provides us with a constant framework to benchmark our DEI work and make sure that we are continuing to do the work on multiple fronts,” Buelow said. “Without it, I think it would be nearly impossible to bring any level of consistency to the work.”

The West Michigan Symphony contracted with a team of DEI consultants and assembled a task force of board members, musicians and staff. That task force spent a year creating the new roadmap and another year working with the consultants to start implementing it. The roadmap includes commitments to increasing engagement and partnerships with underrepresented communities, fostering a more inclusive workplace, regularly featuring BIPOC composers and artists throughout programming and removing barriers to participation in educational programming.

The West Michigan Symphony has made tangible progress on these goals, officials say. To help remove barriers to learning music, the organization launched a new student string orchestra program in Muskegon Public Schools that provides each student involved with free access to an instrument.

Opera Grand Rapids began diverse programming five years ago when it wasn’t an official “goal” within the organization. Instead, it was a natural progression of featuring art and artists with diverse perspectives and vision, using opera as a medium, Krajniak said.

Challenges and opportunities

While the universality of artistic expression makes the arts fertile ground for DEI work, it comes with challenges, according to arts leaders.

Communicating well with the communities they want to engage with has been key to the Muskegon Museum of Art’s success with DEI programming, according to Executive Director Kirk Hallman. The organization has been working for decades to intentionally build DEI into the museum’s planning processes and institutional goals. From quilt shows to portrait galleries, the museum has drawn upon community feedback to guide exhibit planning and hired curators from the communities they want to represent.

GRAM is in the process of building a community gallery to serve as a “home base” for local art. The idea for that base came out of conversations with the community, Bruce said.

“We really believe in working collaboratively. We should not be creating what we think our community needs, we should be creating with our community exactly what they are telling us that they need,” Bruce said. 

GRAM has a staff-led taskforce that focuses on internal DEI work and partners with outside organizations and advisory groups to bring external voices into the conversation. 

However, change can take time.

“Most people want to see quick results, and when those don’t materialize, they can become disillusioned,” Buelow said.

To be successful, DEI work needs to be applied to all aspects of an organization, including internal culture as well as public-facing programming, Buelow said. 

“Embrace the concept that this work will never be done … don’t expect overnight changes,” Buelow said.

Bruce is open about the ways that GRAM is still learning how to do DEI work well. 

“We are testing things out. We are trying things. We are doing some things far more successfully than others,” Bruce said. “We are seeking input as much as possible, because we know we can't do this alone.”

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