Creating a Welcoming Space for Diverse Community
On a Saturday evening last July, Dr. Ed Holmes observed the crowd in Overture Center for the Arts lobby and smiled to himself, his heart full. More than 2,000 Black community members were assembled at the Overture to see Gladys Knight, the “Empress of Soul,” in concert followed by the White Party, featuring R&B group Dru Hill, to raise funds for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County.
This special event exemplified the culmination of Holmes’ last six years of equity and innovation work at the Overture. The center features seven state-of-the-art performance spaces and four galleries where Broadway tours, national and international touring artists, nine resident companies and hundreds of local artists engage people in nearly 700,000 educational and artistic experiences each year.
“My role is to bring more diversity to Overture in our audiences and artists and to engage our diverse communities, to change the reality of who is coming through our doors,” said Holmes, chief equity and innovation officer.
When Holmes joined Overture in 2016, the arts center was perceived as not serving the entire community, but rather as an exclusive arts space catering to a select portion of the community, particularly upper-class white people.
“We want all people to feel welcome at Overture,” he said.
The former head principal of James C. Wright Middle School and Madison West High School, Holmes approached this goal in much the same way he engaged with his students during his two decades with the public education system: he began engaging young people in meaningful, experiential opportunities.
Holmes reached out to community-based organizations and leaders within Madison and the surrounding communities to develop partnerships, and he created opportunities for diverse groups to come to the Overture for relevant performances, activities and events.
His first major event was when the national tour of Drumline Live performed in 2017. Overture invited groups of young people to a pre-show gathering with representatives from Madison College to discuss the college application process and the significance of a college education. The group then shared a meal and attended the performance together. Local group Black Star Drum Line opened for the show.
“It was a profound experience for the young people, really for everyone involved,” said Holmes. “From this opportunity, I saw the depth and magnitude of what we could do for young people of color in our community.”
Holmes played an integral role in bringing the University of Wisconsin’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives’ Line Breaks Hip Hop Festival to the Overture in 2016; the Madison 365 Wisconsin Leadership Summit in 2019; and, the International Women’s Day with Goodman Community Center and Girls Inc. in 2018 and 2019.
The Overture has also hosted the annual King Coalition’s Madison/Dane County MLK Day Observance for 10 years, and this past year hosted Roar Enterprises’ world premiere of Madison’s Black Renaissance.
“Events like these — and International Festival, which has expanded to a day and a half this year — are the cornerstone of what we do, showcasing regional, national and international artists and engaging our diverse community,” he said.
Holmes noted that he is pleased to see how the Overture has evolved, and he has witnessed the change in the people coming through its doors. This change can be attributed to the organization’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“This work is not without challenges, not linear, not without difficult conversations and difficult experiences,” he explained. “It’s messy, but at the end of the day, we continue to move forward and improve.”
Holmes recognizes there is always more work to do. Overture’s equity and innovation goals are “aspirational, a moving target,” and the organization will keep fine tuning as it moves through its journey.
He explains that the organization has built capacity over time to do this work on a higher level. It is no longer simply Holmes at the helm of its efforts. Ida Balderrama-Trudell, director of equity of innovation, coordinates much training and outreach, and all staff are on board to learn and grow.
“Everybody in the organization is working to elevate a collective cultural awareness and competency,” he said. “We continue to learn new ways to engage patrons and artists and better serve our diverse community, providing extraordinary experiences for all.”
Holmes’ personal values are based in education and outreach, making his role at Overture a great fit. He wants people of all ages to understand the cultural significance of the arts and the role arts play in development, creative expression and life.
“I’m inspired each day to do this work because I feel we are having a positive impact on creating community and bringing people together in a way that is joyful,” Holmes said. “The arts provide an opportunity to step away from one’s daily challenges and spend time with friends. The arts uplift your spirit.”
Get up close with cellist and singer Gabriel Royal
By Shari Gasper
On Friday, Feb. 10, Oklahoma-born, Brooklyn-based, 30-something singer, songwriter and cellist Gabriel Royal comes to Overture Center for the Arts for an intimate evening of music in Overture’s new “Up Close” series. The unique musical experience transforms the Capitol Theater stage into a cocktail lounge, where audiences will experience original music by emerging artists from around the world.
For some audience members, this will be the second time seeing Royal perform at Overture. Royal, a famed African American cellist, was the guest artist at the organization’s 2021 Take the Stage donor event.
“I love Madison!” said Royal. “I love the people and the venue. Madison has treated me very kindly.”
Royal began his career playing in the subway stations of New York City. That’s where he found his lawyer, his manager, his cello and a genuine connection with his inspiration: the commuters of New York.
During the pandemic, Royal moved home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he works as a teacher for Tulsa Public Schools and continues to create music.
“I find inspiration in many places, with friends and family,” he said. “I’m even more creative here with my own space to jam and hang out with friends.”
Influenced by Stevie Wonder’s groove and Burt Bacharach’s jazzy yet poppy sensitivities, along with other contemporary artists, Royal’s trademark sound is all his own. Royal released his self-titled album in 2016 along with his single and music video for “Say It’s Right,” directed by Blake Farber, who has worked with Beyoncé and other A-list artists.
Royal has emerged as a trailblazing talent, performing at NYC’s top music venues, such as (Le) Poisson Rouge and the Blue Note Jazz Club. Royal has played the Monterey and Newport Jazz Festivals as well as many of the European benchmarks like North Sea. He has performed for sold-out crowds in countries around the world and collaborated with some of the industry’s most in-demand names.
Known for his soaring vocals, hum-along melodies and lush arrangements, Royal is among a select number of artists combining cello and voice.
For his upcoming “Up Close” performance, Royal plans to play some of his new cello and piano songs, incorporating a lot of storytelling.
“I will share the inspiration behind the songs, where the song came from, and provide a narrative about the creative process,” he said. “I like to talk and joke, so it’s going to be really fun, not your typical sit-down classical music situation.”
Royal’s weekend in Madison will be a special one for more than just his Overture performance. It’s his birthday, too.
“Playing on stage is a joy,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday weekend than doing something I love with people who also love and appreciate music.”
Check out overture.org for details and tickets.