Q&A With Janice Sinden, President & CEO, Denver Center of Performing Arts
We sat down with President and CEO of Denver Center for Performing Arts (DCPA), Janice Sinden, to discuss the organization’s responses to Black Lives Matter and COVID, and how the organization hopes to grow in the future.
In the last few years, our country has experienced radical change – COVID and Black Lives Matter, for example, have transformed many industries. How has the DCPA changed, and how have you been able to rally your team?
The DCPA had started its intentional journey around equity, diversity and inclusion about a year and a half before I joined the organization in September of 2016. Shortly after I arrived, a group of employees who had been meeting for a while wanted leadership to engage with them and provide support for change. We recognized we needed someone to come in to facilitate challenging, often painful discussions to help us identify the path forward. We hired a national firm who was leading this work in the arts sector, artEquity, to do an assessment of the organization and eventually provide training.
Participation was voluntary and we had a lot of folks from across the organization engage. With the support of our consultants and in partnership with other theatre organizations across the country, we started to get our heads around some of the things that we immediately needed and wanted to do. We began to clarify and better understand who our external audience is, who we are to our community, and talk more about why we tell the stories that we tell as a theatre organization.
When COVID forced our shutdown on Friday, March 13, 2020, we had no idea what the future held for us. Hundreds of artists and team members were furloughed or experienced reduced work hours, and we waited with the rest of the world for some sign as to what our future held. In the coming months, we were forced to cancel more than 40 shows, hundreds of programs and events, and by the time we re-opened, we lost $100 million in revenue.
In June of 2020, shortly after the shutdown, 50 BIPOC artists from across the country affiliated with the American Theater published an open letter in the New York Times with a call to action titled, “We See You, White American Theater.” The letter put theatre organization’s on notice that our current practices and behaviors had to change.
A month after the open letter to the theatre community, the same group who wrote the initial letter were joined by hundreds of other advocates and leaders, and they published a list of 346 demands that articulated the types of practices and behaviors that had to be addressed. We started by establishing a Community Response Work Group, and under the leadership of our Executive Director of Equity and Organization Culture Lydia Garcia, we established five Operational Project Teams and to review and prioritize the demands and join in the movement to make meaningful change. As we evaluated the demands, there were things we were already doing, so we wanted to fortify those practices. There were things we knew we needed to stop doing immediately, and then there was a list of things that we needed to unpack and determine our path forward.
For 18 months, we had very few team members working, but we knew we needed to continue the momentum around our commitments to EDI and strive for progress. And during the extended period we were not producing or presenting main stage productions, many team members left the organization to pursue other employment opportunities, which was heartbreaking. And when we finally had confidence we were going to be able to relaunch our mainstage programming, we hired 170 new employees, more than half the number of team members we had before COVID. There was a huge culture shift with so many new employees, many of whom had not previously worked in American Theater. It’s been really interesting, and very powerful, to rebuild our company culture while welcoming so many new employees to the organization.
I also want to thank those who worked tirelessly during the shut down to ensure we remained connected to our students through educational programming, our events services department who identified unique ways for our community to stay connected to one another, our donors and patrons who helped support our recovery and our production and facilities teams who made sure our theatres and venues were ready to receive guests when we re-opened.
When you arrived in 2016, DCPA was already 12 to 18 months into their own DEI journey. What was unique about that experience, with the organization having already begun its journey?
Prior to joining the DCPA, I spent more than five years as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's Chief of Staff. Mayor Hancock is a very progressive, forward thinking, black mayor who had brought me with him on his leadership journey throughout Occupy Denver, Black Lives Matter and numerous other social justice movements. So my commitment to ensuring that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts would be part of this timely and important racial reckoning was top of mind and personal for me. I wanted to bring the experience and energy from the Hancock Administration to this organization. And when I joined the DCPA, this organization had, in many ways, already committed to the work.
I also was transitioning into a sector that I didn't know. My entire career up to this point was in and around government, so it was important that I leaned in and supported this dynamic organization, which was creating its own movement. We knew this would take time and require urgency, and we knew we needed help to prioritize our goals and values. For me, this was very personal, and it required trust-building with this brand new team that I joined.
Is the arts world historically more diverse than private-sector industries or government?
That's an interesting question, because when I arrived, 87% of our audience, and probably just about the same number of our team members, were white. So, compared to the demographics of the 7-County Denver Metro, our audience and our team did not reflect the diversity of our community. Our BIPOC team members and audience members were saying we must do better. And I would say performing arts organizations across the country have struggled with access and inclusion.
Our focus on EDI shined a bright light on who has not been attending theatre and who has not felt that our theaters were for them for a variety of reasons. And so the work continues. We are focused on community and audience engagement, our artistic practices, our working conditions and a whole host of issues that will help us to make our spaces and our programs and performances accessible and inclusive.
Do you think the events of the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, and COVID have ignited fresh energy to make the workplace a better environment?
Absolutely. And I think that an organization's commitment to EDI and social justice has become an important factor for many employees and audience members in determining where they want to be personally and professionally. Employees, in particular, make a lot of different choices now – they are demanding environments that are equitable, where their voice matters and that feel safe and inclusive.
You observe a lot of enterprises and organizations - from the numerous boards you serve on to your own Board of Trustees. You see a lot of how organizations operate. Not so much exclusively on the DEI issue, but on the larger concept of social impact, do you have a sense of which ingredients or best practices are essential for an organization to really galvanize its workforce with that kind of focus?
That's a great question. One of the boards I am on is the Denver Preschool Program. We have a consultant who is working with the board and staff to help build shared language and understanding around EDI. Our journey began by establishing a framework around mindset and understanding conflict. Once we understand the four corners of conflict, such as chemistry, culture, political views, socioeconomic status and other differences – we can begin to understand each other even if we don't agree. And that, to me, was the most amazing training. It took months to really understand how we lean in, listen and understand, and eventually make meaningful change with each other. It is imperative that organizations are very intentional about understanding their purpose for change to occur and be sustained.
Do you think that we will reach a point in time where every company and every organization is a social impact enterprise?
I sure hope so. I don't know that we'll brand ourselves as social impact organizations, but I think that change will continue to occur over time. The DCPA is not the same organization today that it was when it opened 43 years ago, and the change has been incremental. As issues have arisen and expectations have changed, people and organizations change, too.. Sometimes it's super intentional, and sometimes it is subtle because people's behaviors start to change. And that's part of what we're looking at with audiences. Our audience was at home for 18 months, and then we invited them back. They still care deeply about theater, however for many, their lifestyles have changed. They haven't been in social environments for extended periods of time, and they're thinking more about content and the types of stories they want to experience. Patrons are discerning and they are asking themselves – what do I want to put my money towards? What environments do I want to be in? Who do I want to share my spaces with?
People are shifting and changing. We're asking a lot of questions, too. We're spending a lot of time asking our community and our patrons what matters to them. And based on their feedback, are we going to tell different stories? Good question! We received a lot of feedback in the middle of the pandemic from folks who did not want us to produce as many sad stories. They wanted entertainment. They wanted us to warm their hearts, make them laugh, and bring them joy. They certainly didn't want us to tell stories about the pandemic. And as I mentioned earlier, our workforce is demanding more from their employers now, too. They want to ensure that we value work/life balance, are focused on their physical and mental health, and are more flexible to support their individual lifestyles than ever before.
Do you think the DCPA and American Theater have something to teach or express? A set of best practices to demonstrate to the private sector, government, or other nonprofits about how to tackle social impact issues?
Yes. The arts and culture sector, and specifically the American Theater is increasingly more inclusive and aware of the importance of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, gender and disability representation. We're committed to doing things differently. We are seeing a shift from the days of command and control leadership structures to more shared decision-making approaches and encouraging feedback and engagement at all levels. This is an adjustment for many leaders, and we are ultimately responsible for the final decisions that are made – but through trust and practice, we will become inclusive. Employees are saying: Where is my voice? Where is my representation? We sit together at a round table more often now, and we're evaluating our shared values and investing our resources accordingly.