“I came into ballet kind of by accident,” Darin Conley-Buchsieb tells Limelight between sessions at the Communicating the Arts conference in Sydney, where he recently delivered a presentation titled “Silently Loud – How Our Inaction Is Keeping Us from Meaningful Change in Arts Culture.”
Before moving into the arts world, Conley-Buchsieb – who worked for many years on behalf of prisoners sentenced, as juveniles, to life without the possibility of parole – was HR Director at the San Francisco Unified School District. “My window looked outside right into the ballet offices, into the dancer level. So I’d see all the dancers perform, like my own free private show every day. So when I would get annoyed at the bureaucracy of government, I turn around and I look at the ballet dancers and just get happy and centred.”
It wasn’t long before Conley-Buchsieb was himself working for the San Francisco Ballet, as the organisation’s Human Resources Director and Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. “If I got paid for every letter that was in that title, I’d be very well off,” he laughs. “One of the reasons I decided to take the job was because of their initial focus and desire to build their diversity, equity and inclusion program.”
“Diversity is obviously about the numbers,” says Conley-Buchsieb, who will deliver another presentation – “Diversity as an activator for financial growth” – at the Culture Business conference in Sydney this week. “How many folks are you employing that are bringing difference to your organisation – and that difference can be race, it could be gender, it could be sexual orientation. It could be veteran status or other ability, disability, the list goes on – or any intersecting of those, the many other categories.”
Recruiting is the easy part, says Conley-Buchsieb, who has devoted his career to the social and strategic productivity impact that diversity, equality, equitability and inclusivity brings to organisations. “The difficult part is when you get that diverse talent into your organisation, how you then make them feel welcome and included in the business operations and in the culture of arts organisations.”
“Arts organisations, I think, have a culture of no,” he says. “They love saying no for just about everything, especially if they’ve worked there for a long time – but they do not have generally a reason that’s written, that anyone can find, why the answer is no. The newer generations, and I think the more diverse bodies coming into the artform ballet, want answers. In order to feel included, we have to have a different model of transparency.”
Conley-Buchsieb’s job therefore entails recruiting as well as doing diversity work at all levels of the organisation, including on the board, executive leadership, to staff like IT and marketing and development, as well as dancers, students in the school and how the organisation positions itself more broadly. “How are we growing our audience development so that we get diverse folks in the seats and interested in ballet?”
Conley-Buchsieb leads what he describes as a small, nimble – but mighty – HR team. “But we try and work it out where everybody has individual responsibility for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work from executive – the managers – to staff,” he says.
Given that artforms like ballet, opera and classical music tend to lean heavily on a 19th-century European canon, does that create unique challenges for diversity – and therefore reaching new audiences? “No and yes,” Conley-Buchsieb says.
“I said ‘no’ first because diverse communities love engaging in culture,” he explains. “Most diverse communities, I would even venture to say, started much of the formation of some of our classical art forms and have contributed in ways that I don’t think we’re really valuing or respecting in current society, and in our art – they just want to feel like they’re welcome.”
“The ways we don’t make them feel welcome – the way ‘yes’ comes into the question – is when the tickets are insanely priced to weed out people who have access to being able to come,” he says.
Elitism is another potential barrier. “We like feeling really good about the events that we throw and the performances we have, and getting all dolled up and dressed up and having our fancy night at the Opera House,” Conley-Buchsieb says. “And that looks kind of ridiculous to people who are working two, three jobs, and have children who enjoy the art, but don’t enjoy the fru fru-ness of the get up, and how you have to behave in the opera house and all that etiquette that you don’t understand – you know, that’s awkward.”
“So we have to strike a balance between classical art forms and kind of getting away from that stereotypical etiquette and trying out new things, being innovative in our world,” he says.
There are also plenty of recent examples in the ballet and opera worlds where the handling of race on stage has drawn criticism and sparked heated debate online. In Australia a recent Nutcracker was accused of portraying “racialised stereotypes of Chinese characters”, while American soprano Tamara Wilson’s decision not to wear the Arena di Verona’s traditional make-up (used in the production since 1913) for the titular Ethiopian princess in Verdi’s Aida made headlines around the world.
“I’ll say from a professional and a personal standpoint, I will never want to go to a performance and see a white person performing a role in blackface – anything close to blackface – it would disgust me and I would talk about that organisation like a dog for the rest of my life,” Conley-Buchsieb says. “It makes people feel like their culture is a caricature and not a lived experience, and that’s really disrespectful to individuals’ culture and their real lives – and again, that makes them not want to come, and it makes them not want to engage in an artform that’s about storytelling, essentially.”
“Everybody’s stories deserve to be told in a respectful manner to their culture,” he says. “When they’re not coming because somebody has co-opted their story, and disgracefully so, then we’re missing out on real art that makes you feel a genuine, authentic experience, of genuine, authentic feeling – and that’s a shame.”
“There’s plenty of talent out there to be able to act roles, dance roles, to perform in theatre, from people who actually come from those backgrounds,” he says.
So how can arts organisations begin to address issues of diversity and inclusion? “To change culture, I think you have to know culture,” Conley-Buchsieb says. “So marketing and HR and administrative – meaning executive director and artistic director as well – should be doing a lot of research about their audience, and who they want their audience to be.”
“Here in Sydney, you’re going to look at all communities in Sydney to see who’s not coming,” he says. “And I bet you will be able to find a correlation between what’s put on stage, how it’s advertised, who it’s advertised to.”
The next step is to come up with a strategic plan. “You always have to, unfortunately, still sell diversity and inclusion to board members. Because boards are scared of having to pay more money when you decide to do something so innovative and different from what you’ve always been doing,” he says. “You’ve got to get them on board pretty fast – and by getting them on board, it means you have to start getting diverse people on the board.”
This can sometimes meet with resistance, he explains, as many board members are also donors. “Number one, people of colour have money too, and so they can actually be donors. It starts the very same way that you ask your white donors – you actually just ask them, pretty easy,” he says. “And then if folks don’t have money, on any side, no matter what the race or gender, there are other contributions people can make – they’re deeply connected to communities that you’re struggling to get into? That’s somebody that you want and need on your board.”
You also have to get the executive leadership team on board, Conley-Buchsieb explains. “They have to understand that there’s consequences for not engaging in the vision of diversity and inclusion for your organisation,” he says. “That could be various ways – if they get an annual increase, tie the increase to diversity and inclusion metrics.”
As for audiences who want to see more diversity on stage, “it’s a product that they are purchasing,” Conley-Buchsieb says. “It sends a clear message when whole groups of people who have been coming decide not to.”
Audience members can also get in contact with executive directors, artistic directors and the leadership of those organisations. “You see something you don’t like, say something about it, in a way that is going to invite conversation,” Conley-Buchsieb says. “This work is very personal, and it could personally hurt you when you see something offensive. And it’s difficult to find the words that aren’t going to cut somebody down and leave them feeling like ‘I don’t want to engage with that person because they’re not making me feel so good about what I did, or that I can do anything to change the situation.’”
“Instead of calling people out and isolating them, call them into the group, call them into the conversation, so that you’re able to start dialogue,” he says. “So that you begin to change the arts culture.”
So does Conley-Buchsieb see the arts culture changing? “Definitely being here at the Communicating the Arts Conference in Sydney – it’s inspiring. It’s encouraging. Yes, I look out and I do see a sea of white faces – but we need a sea of all faces if we want to do this work and do it successfully,” he says. “We’re allies to each other. There are privileges that I have as a male – who still is black, yes, but as a male I have certain privileges that other females and transgender females don’t have – I have to assess that privilege, to challenge that privilege daily, and I need allies in that situation. I have to be an ally in that situation as well. So I’m inspired by me bringing my radical ideas from the non-radical current state of the United States of America, and how folks listened and engaged in a difficult conversation so respectfully, and desired to see more – it means things are changing.”
Darin Conley-Buchsieb will speak at the Culture Business conference in Sydney, November 21 – 22