To Russia with Love
A ROI in client relations and passion
By Linda Armstrong
How Donna Walker-Kuhne, founder and head of a Brooklyn, N.Y., marketing firm, ended up in Russia teaching theater audience development is as much a lesson in the value of good client relationships as it is in the payoff from staying true to your passion.
“The program director for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had a relationship with the Lark Theater in Manhattan. The program director of Moscow came to New York for meetings and we met and talked and she sent me a formal request to come to Russia and do
workshops on audience development,” explains Walker-Kuhne, president
and CEO of Walker International Communications Group and a 2008 Network Journal “25 Influential Women in Business” honoree.
Lark Play Development Center, located in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, is a client of Walker International, along with such major arts organizations as the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts; the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Coming Up Taller; Dance Theatre of Harlem; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; the Apollo Theater; and the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Walker-Kuhne carved her niche in the arts. She dreamt of being a ballerina after seeing a
performance by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, joined an African-American dance company and worked with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. For 20 years, she danced, played the piano and modeled, earning a law degree at Howard University in the process. Theater audience development is a subject she knows well, not only through her company’s work, but also from teaching it at New York University, Columbia University and Brooklyn College.
Her goodwill mission to Russia was underwritten by the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, which identifies joint projects aimed at strengthening international security, economic well-being and ties between the Russian and American people. She is the only African-American to date to be dispatched by the commission to assist Russians in theater audience development. In Moscow, from Sept. 10 to 18, she held workshops with the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, Russian State University for the Humanities, The Moscow Art Theater School, Moscow International House of Music and the International University in Moscow. She shaped the curriculum around 10 tools for building audiences, a detailed marketing template and case studies.
“I focused on creating access, social networks, utilizing media and advertising, building relationships with audiences, creating partnerships and finding out what the audiences are interested in,” she says. She instructed the participants to form work groups to create strategies and report those strategies to the entire group. “That was the first time they did that.
They appreciated it because they [articulated] their ideas and I commented on what I heard,” Walker-Kuhne says. She also talked with local 20-, 30- and 40-year veteran theater directors and shared their war stories in developing audiences along with her own experiences.
The workshop participants responded positively, Walker-Kuhne says. “They were excited. I gave them a tool. They had something to begin to work with. I told them to choose one thing and begin to do it very well,” she says. “How I teach is heart-to-heart. I was representing America and Black people. Their only image of Black people is what they see in the movies and they told me that. I took responsibility [for the fact] that I had a moment to teach these Russians how Black people are. I wanted to show them that we are caring, professional and giving people. I gave them every case study and lesson I’ve learned.”
Walker-Kuhne is very open to returning to Russia to teach in other cities, notably St. Petersburg, and in Siberia, as was suggested in Moscow. “Siberia is one of the wealthiest regions in Russia. Things are done on a high level there. I like breaking barriers, working with new ideas and environments,” she says.