Taylour Chang, this year’s recipient of the Art House Convergence Founder’s Award, can easily be celebrated for her role as an art house exhibitor and curator of the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art. That role, however, isn’t her only contribution to promoting the advancement of specialty and independent cinema. As a co-founder of the Alliance for Action, Chang has taken a leadership role in expanding diversity initiatives among members of the Art House Convergence. Diversity and inclusion are not only priorities for the films on the screen, but for every institution that is part of this industry. Boxoffice spoke with Chang ahead of the event to discuss the specific challenges facing art house exhibitors today—and how a more diverse industry will benefit the film business moving forward.
What makes the Doris Duke Theatre unique in your community? What are the specific challenges of running an art house at a museum?
The Doris Duke Theatre is Honolulu’s singular mission-driven, community-based nonprofit art house theater, focused on independent and foreign cinema, with annual film festivals (Bollywood Film Festival, Honolulu African-American Film Festival, Filipino Film Festival, Honolulu Jewish Film Festival, Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival, Honolulu Surf Film Festival, Cultural Animation Film Festival, French Film Festival, Oiwi/Native Hawaiian Film Festival, Korean Film Festival, and others), repertory programming, themed series, specialty events, a year-long concert lineup, and a music education program that works with youth from underserved communities. We’re a single-screen 280-seat theater located in Honolulu, Hawaii. The theater has developed a reputation in the community for its bold programming relevant to the social and political climate of the times. The theater works closely with over 150 community partners throughout the year, which includes film festival committees representing different sectors of Hawaii’s diverse community.
The Doris Duke Theatre is part of the Honolulu Museum of Art. The theater is a revenue-generating arm of the museum while also being part of the museum’s curatorial team, so we face a lot more financial pressure to engage audiences than other museum curators. At the same time, we know our audience very well, and the lessons the theater has learned from building our audience inform the ways the museum expands its audience base overall. A lot of times the theater becomes people’s entry point into the museum, so it allows us to build museum membership through the theater programming. We are often faced with how to connect the dots—curatorially, financially, logistically—between the theater program and everything else the museum has to offer, which can create challenges but a lot of exciting opportunities. When there are a few major gallery exhibitions per year, the theater exhibits different content almost every day, with film festivals about once a month and concerts and/or special programming at least once a week, so the pace and nature of our work is unique within the museum. The theater has a lean but amazing team of three full-time and three part-time staff, and we work closely with community members, engaging different sectors of our community from week to week. Maintaining that concentrated community focus on a weekly basis while also balancing how the theater fits within the larger museum context is a challenge, but being part of a museum helps us bridge deeper connections between our local cinema and the wider arts and culture scene. Our team understands how film brings people together in a way that benefits not just our local arts and culture but also the larger social ecosystem.
2018 will be a record-breaking box office year domestically. How would you rate the year in the context of the art house community?
Regardless of domestic trends at the box office, art houses always find innovative and meaningful ways to thrive and serve their community. Each art house is so unique in its mission and its community base, and measurements of success can vary from art house to art house. Those measurements go beyond making record-breaking sales and are informed by each art house’s mission and the community it serves. Art houses are, at the end of the day, mission-driven, community-based spaces. If we feel like we’ve served our community and served our mission in 2018 and are continuing to strive to do our work better in 2019 (and that is always the spirit the art house community brings to the Art House Convergence), then 2018 was amazing.
Moviegoing data shows that cinema audiences in the U.S. are quite diverse. One of the challenges of the art house community is finding and engaging that same diverse audience. On an operational level—and this can be said about arts organizations in general—there seems to be an equal lack of diversity in leadership positions. How can the art house community address these challenges moving forward?
Working to build and maintain more diverse audiences isn’t some straightforward formula that you can put on repeat or put on auto-mode. For instance, we can’t just program a film and assume a new audience will come. But this happens all the time. A big challenge for us is to re-think how we build trust with audiences who, oftentimes, don’t feel like our spaces are for them. If you don’t have a ton of money to throw into marketing on a large scale, which often is the case with art houses, that means you have to build your audience in deeper ways. This requires re-thinking how we engage with people and how we welcome people in our spaces. It takes a lot of time and invested effort—reaching out to people you wouldn’t normally reach out to, having meaningful, often uncomfortable, conversations with community members, listening to their needs, and being sincere about it. This type of work often is above and beyond what we consider to be the standard way of exhibiting film, but it’s required if we want to sincerely address the lack of diversity in our art house spaces. It’s not an easy thing to outsource because when you’re talking about people feeling welcome in your space, you’re talking about organizational culture change. Everyone in an organization needs to be on the same wavelength when it comes to knowing who you’re serving. Lack of diversity in leadership positions is of course a huge challenge that directly factors into this. As much of a challenge as it may be for us art houses who work so hard to bring great cinema to our communities, often with minimal resources, to address lack of diversity, the on-the-ground community understanding that art houses have best positions us to re-envision the ways film exhibition can bring people together. I do believe art houses are independent-minded enough, innovative enough, and fearless enough to meet those challenges.
In 2017, we started the working group called Alliance for Action at the Art House Convergence with the goal to actively dismantle oppression and inequity in our art house communities. As a collective of exhibitors, distributors, and festival organizers, we take risks, collaborate, and support each other as we work toward equity. Creating safe space for heathy discussion and action to equip people to create stronger, safer and more inclusive organizations is an important step in addressing these challenges. Every organization is individually grappling with really tough questions and realities related to all forms of social inequities, including race, gender, and class, so having a working collective of people to support each other and be sounding boards for each other in the ongoing process is important. The group checks in once a month via video chat. If art houses can effectively support each other and shift culture within their organizations on local levels, then the potential for the art house community to make significant culture change on larger levels is great.
Over the last decade, Art House Convergence has grown to be more than an event and come into its own as a community. Why is the event so valuable for an exhibitor like yourself?
Working in an art house in Hawaii can feel isolating, since we’re geographically disconnected, and we often don’t have the budget to travel, so attending the Art House Convergence once a year and being in community with other art house exhibitors means the world. It has helped me with my personal growth as an art house professional, and it has helped me make friendships that I would not have been able to otherwise. The Convergence gives art houses from small towns and geographically isolated areas rare opportunities to connect with colleagues from all across the country. It’s amazing to see very large, reputable institutions and much smaller organizations, nonprofit and for-profit theaters alike, and so many different perspectives come together in one place. The shared experience of being mission driven, community based, and passionate about cinema creates an inspiring amount of mutual respect within the community that allows art house professionals from smaller, lesser-known organizations to shine and be celebrated. There is a down-to-earth, independent spirit to the community that makes the Art House Convergence really special. For me personally, attending the Convergence made me realize that I wasn’t alone, that the work that we do in Hawaii is not done in a silo, and that every single art house has something to contribute to the larger cinematic landscape. I’m not alone in my gratitude to the Art House Convergence. We are often so focused on the work we do locally, but the Convergence reminds us that we are part of something bigger.