The perfect job found Ed Holmes when he wasn’t looking for it.
“I was talking to a friend about a completely different issue,” Holmes said. “He said, ‘Do you know they have a position at Overture Center you might be interested in?’
“I called them up out of the clear blue, and it was due the next day. I submitted my application, and here I am.”
Holmes said his new job as diversity and inclusion director at Overture Center for the Arts feels like “a call to service.” Since starting in mid-August, his charge has been to help the state’s largest arts center to pursue equity on many levels, from community access and programming to employment.
When Holmes appointment was announced, Overture president and CEO Ted DeDee called him “uniquely qualified” to be an “Overture ombudsman.” Among Overture’s some 500 volunteers, only a few are persons of color.
Holmes retired in 2013 after a 24-year career at the Madison Metropolitan School District, including 10 years as the principal of West High School. In 1982, he founded the Ebony Expressions Cultural Awareness Project, a community theater group for young black performers. It ran for 25 years.
“The arts can be a catalyst for bringing people together,” Holmes said. “It’s a natural way to have a dialogue around challenging issues. It doesn’t have to be a threatening environment.”
Holmes is still new at his job. He spent the last month meeting with donors and staff, trying understand better what Overture already does well. Recently, he spoke with The Capital Times about how Overture can do more than talk about valuing diversity — it can prove it.
You’ve been on the job a month now. Has it been what you expected it to be?
People have been very, very accommodating and welcoming, from the board to the advisory group and the executive team, all the workers. There’s been a lot of discussion about the role of the diversity and inclusion director and the importance of what it means for the organization. Everybody seems to be excited.
As opposed to, when you talk about diversity and inclusion, it’s a tough thing. People are ready to understand what that will mean, what Overture will look like in the future as we look toward more diversity in staff, volunteers, folks coming through the doors, different programming.
Based on the description Overture gave, it sounds like your job is huge. Are you starting to compartmentalize a little bit?
It has to be organic. You start at the point where the organization is. The thing that first came to my attention was the range of programming that already exists at Overture. I was blown away by the quality and amount.
There are opportunities that exist, so let’s try to create pathways to access. That’s been a big issue — not everybody was aware these programs were going on. How do people access the programming that would be of high interest to them?
For folks who may not be able to afford tickets, say, to a Broadway show, we have folks who have made contributions to subsidize tickets. I’m doing outreach to organizations ... and what does that look like?
Were there affordable tickets made available to “Lion King?” That sold almost all available tickets.
There were tickets made available, quite a few I think. There was a pizza luncheon, to make it family-friendly.
We’re looking at doing something with mothers and daughters for “Cinderella,” tea and cookies, tea and cupcakes, a two-pack for grandmother, daughter, aunt, niece.
We’re trying to be creative and open the doors to different communities.
We’ve talked about where Overture does diversity well, but where are the gaps you see? What priorities rise to the top?
What rises to the top is a need to develop high-interest programming, identify communities that have not been a potential audience yet. I come from public schools. We had 122 different countries represented at West High School, because of our proximity to the university. Tibetan populations, recent immigrants to the community and the state. Those populations had not been clearly identified.
We’re working with the Latino Chamber of Commerce around Latino artists. Maraca (and his Latin Jazz All-Stars are) coming. Will there be a chance for the community to meet the entertainers? You’re creating more of an intimate environment, so the community gets to connect with the artists up close. That’s a different approach.
My first goal is to do the outreach to the churches in the African American community, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the NAACP, all the service organizations, the Greek fraternities and sororities.
Another diversity challenge is with volunteers and staff. What are your thoughts about that?
It’s the same thing. When you reach out into the community, people realize that the doors are open. When postings become available you let people in those organizations know. If you have a list of 300 to 400 people with emails and we sent that blast out ... people are going to say, “Wow, this is a job opportunity.”
At my press conference the other day, a young woman said, “I’ve known Mr. Holmes since I was in preschool. He’s here now, and I want my son to have an opportunity to take advantage of the programming here, and I want to volunteer.”
That’s what the outreach does. It creates a direct connection that did not exist before.
With “Kinky Boots,” Overture started doing extra screenings of people’s bags. It was a little chilling to see all the extra security there. Do you think that presence of security could have a cooling effect to someone who’s never been to Overture before could have a cooling effect?
Everybody’s being checked. We’re not profiling ... the fact that everybody has to go through it is letting everyone know this is a safety precaution that is an unfortunate reality in our society today.
This is something people are becoming more comfortable with and more aware of, and they’d prefer to be safe. It’s just changed. Our society’s changed.
What attracted you to this job?
The arts were like the first thing, for me. If I was going to write a position for myself I couldn’t have written anything better. I am so excited and so jazzed.
The arts were transformational in my life and played an important role in my development, in who I am as a person. When I was in high school I was in the male chorus, I was in plays. It helped me develop confidence, a sense of self-esteem. It gave me a connection to the school that was a positive one.
The arts can be transformational for people. It has an impact on you, whether it’s volatile or benign. It gives you an opportunity to expand world view. You can experience a whole range of human emotions through the arts, and that’s part of our humanity.
Overture has struggled with an “ivory tower” reputation, that it’s elitist and not affordable. Can you talk about the role that trust plays in your job, and the ability to network between people?
You know, Kids in the Rotunda is free. So you let folks know. Where it felt exclusive and elitist, it’s not, but when you tell people that, you have to prove it to them. You can’t just say it.
You can’t just talk the talk, you gotta walk it. That’s where the challenge is. We need to continue to create high interest programming that everybody has access to, regardless of socioeconomic background.
It sounds like Overture has been trying to move in that direction already. Do they need to do more?
The community needs to step up and support. People don’t know that Overture is a nonprofit now, it’s not an agency run by the county or the city. It’s a private nonprofit. A lot of what Overture is able to do, or unable to do, is based on the amount of support that it gets.
The cornerstone of Overture in terms of income is Broadway. You have a group of patrons that come and buy season tickets and pay the Broadway price ... the ticket price is based on Broadway, the contracts that have to be signed. The price points are based on what Broadway says. People think when they come into a facility, “Overture made this price up.” That’s not it at all. It’s the opposite; there’s not much leeway, in terms of price point for a specific show.
In order to come to a Broadway show, unless it’s subsidized, it is pretty expensive. For me, it’s trying to find ways to create subsidies and create a culture where people will be interested.
In Madison a lot of the theater that happens is traditional theater. It sells tickets. But now we’re talking about moving outside the box a little bit.