Have you ever stopped to think about what the term “reaching out” really means? We talk about reaching out to our audiences, to new communities, to new patrons and to new donors all the time– but I think it is time that the arts community take a fresh look at what reaching is and is not.
Full disclosure: I dislike the terms “community outreach” and “reaching out”. I don’t like what they imply, that somehow our audiences or the community needs us to graciously step down from our dais of cultural superiority and (shudder) mingle amongst them.
These terms are elitist. Thank goodness that in recent years the arts world has begun to shift in lingo, now giving these same kinds of programs names like “community or audience engagement initiatives”.
But I’d like to argue that a name change isn’t enough. There has to be a sense of authenticity in the way arts organizations interact with and develop relevancy to fellow citizens of their communities.
So how can you do this? How can an organization ensure that its community engagement initiatives are really connecting with people in the community? How do you provide real value to others through your art? The following are some basic guidelines for community programs that are actually– well, engaging.
Be mission driven.
The first step is to compare your community program with your overall organizational mission. Community programs should simultaneously provide benefit for others as well as raise an awareness of the artistic work of your organization. Don’t send a mixed message with your programs. For example, an orchestra who runs a program in the public schools that teaches an introduction to all the performing arts is overreaching. Protect your mission and your budget by sticking to programs that promote your brand of artistic work.
Help your organization personify the values of a model citizen.
Did you know that for-profit corporations have the same legal rights as a real person? I was shocked to discover this and it got me thinking, what if non-profit organizations behaved like a person? What would their habits be? Thinking in terms of human characteristics can help us guide our arts organizations to be model citizens in our community. Do we help out in times of need? Do we donate time and services to people in crisis? Are we active in city government regarding arts issues that would impact our community? Is our organization a pessimist or an optimist? Are we an activist or a pacifist? These questions help us to create a new lens through which we can view the work that we do and how it is perceived by our community.
Showcase artists as community members.
If you were able to answer yes to some of all of the questions in the previous section, then chances are you have members of your organization who are active citizens at the individual level as well. Showcase them! Get the word out to the public about the great work these dedicated artists are doing. It’s a win-win situation. Your artists and/or employees will feel their work is being appreciated and the community will have an increased awareness about the work these great people do in your community programs. The community will begin to see the people behind your programs and can develop meaningful relationships with them.
Identify a need and consider how your art can address it.
One of the great things about musicians is that we can use our art to influence positive change in the community. Consider important issues in your community and use your musical gifts to help raise awareness of an issue. Get your hands dirty and show the community through action what issues your organization supports.
Let’s consider for a moment that your organization has an engagement program that is very costly, but seems to be underperforming. Many organizations are afraid that if they cut the underperforming program they will be seen as in crisis or as taking away valuable services from the community. Perhaps it isn’t as black and white as that. There is an alternative, which is to cut the poorly performing program and break apart that program’s budget to support a wide range of one-time issue based events.
If hunger is an issue for your commmunity, you could use the funding to help sponsor a food drive by providing a concert for the kick off event. Another portion of the former program’s budget could be to help send small chamber groups (made by members of your orchestra) into veteran’s centers, retirement communities, or public schools to bring music to audiences outside of the concert hall. Suddenly, a program that was formerly a budget black hole has now been transformed into a variety of one-time projects that tackle important community issues. Your organization becomes a civic activist while simultaneously improving its image. It’s another win-win.
Consider the impact your organization’s art will have on other arts in your community.
When designing community engagement initiatives, this can be a difficult consideration to assess. Especially in large urban and cultural centers, it is both a challenge and a necessity to project how your plans will impact other cultural organizations. However we must remember that at the most basic level, if you are a non-profit then your mission trumps your bottom line.
I know that I’m going out on a limb by saying that, but I do believe it. David Handler, co-founder of la Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, said to me in an interview last year that concerning arts organizations “…there is room at the table for everyone…” Don’t make your aim to provide the same program better than another organization. Don’t focus on competition as much as providing service. Those who provide real service will be the ones who are ultimately recognized as outstanding.
Lastly, drop the pretense and be genuine.
As a final note, I urge all arts organizations, administrators, and artists to be humble. Try to forget notions of position, class, influence. As artists, we are all cultural stewards. We are servants to our art and the people who experience it. Don’t ever forget that, no matter how successful or challenged your organization may be. Never be afraid to get your hands dirty. But most importantly, never belittle anyone– ANYONE, in your organization or your community. We are servants. Realizing this is the only way to begin to serve our communities in ways that truly matter.
In a captivating performance on Wednesday night, Eunbi Kim and Laura Yumi Snell crafted a new kind of performance art, a new kind of presentation format for live classical music and a new message for contemporary performing artists. With the spell-binding production of Murakami Music, Eunbi and Laura made it clear that if you are willing to take big risks– your art will thrive.
It’s taken me several days to begin to write this review (for lack of a better term) of their performance. I’ve been thinking about the experience, what I took away from it, and how in the world I would try to explain it to you. I knew that a simple recap would never do it justice. This post is going to be much more detailed than other reviews I’ve done; for when I get the opportunity to write about something that absolutely embodies the core ideals of Tuxedo Revolt, I have to be able to share it with all of you.
When Eunbi first told me about her idea for Murakami Music, I featured the concept in a post back in January. If you aren’t familiar with this project or need a refresher– click here. Last week’s performance took place at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea. It was the perfect venue, living up to its definition as a 21st Century Salon. I must give a great deal of credit to the founding artistic director of the Cell Theater, Nancy Manocherian for her vision for such an innovative, elegant and multi-functional performance space. For a hybrid music/drama project like Murakami Music, the Cell provided a fresh and blank canvas for Laura and Eunbi to explore throughout their performance. But now— onto the performance itself.
Merely listing the order of events, pieces played, and highlights of the evening isn’t appropriate. I found Murakami Music to be so intellectually stimulating that I realized I would need to analyze the performance like a painting, or a piece of literature. This was no concert– it was a full-out experience.
When you consider that the project was based on passages of Murakami’s writings, combined with a performance of musical selections referenced in his novels, a book reading with musical examples is the first thing that comes to mind. The project’s director Kira Simring anticipated this perception and skillfully transcended it. As the program began, artist LauraYumi Snell read from a copy of Murakami’s book– as we might have expected. Then, as Laura continued to recite passages from the novel, Eunbi began to delicately introduce the solo piano into our field of perception. Laura continued to read aloud, but gently closed the book, all the while still reciting Murakami’s text. The dramatic narrative from the text then took on a life of its own. With flawless transition, our descent into the world of Murakami Music had begun.
This performance was focused on engaging the audience at all times. Murakami’s texts, so skillfully dramatized by both Laura and Eunbi, shared a symbiotic relationship with the music of Chopin, Debussy, Prokofiev and other composers whose music was featured in the performance. Spoken word and live music gave meaning and context to each other. Audience members who had never read the works of Murakami were introduced to his world of dual meaning and pensive emotion through beautiful music with similar dramatic properties. Audience members who were not familiar with solo piano music were introduced to it in way that they could begin to understand its emotional depth as it echoed the emotions of the unfolding drama.
For the music-must-stand-alone-as-its-own-art-form critics who are reading this, I must say that Eunbi and Laura created a performance where both music and drama took equal roles. The music, brilliantly executed by both Eunbi and Laura, was in no way impeded by the precisely planned and well chosen texts they also presented. Under the gifted guidance of Kira Simring, the pair used both music and drama to appeal to the senses of sound, sight, and spatial awareness. As an audience member, I was on edge waiting for what was to come next.
Transitions between scenes and musical selections were handled flawlessly and the performance never lost its momentum. I am most critical of transitions between events when I attend performances. These are the moments when audience members are not lost in their own thoughts, but rather present with you and in the moment. Transitions present a golden opportunity to introduce new themes, new ideas and new energy. Too often, transitions seem like TV commercial breaks, interrupting the flow of a performance and flat-lining the energy of the overall experience.
Murakami Music reminded me of why the tradition to hold applause until the end of a performance came to be in be first place. Once upon a time, musical performances were so captivating to audiences that no one dared to release the energy or flow of a performance until the event was truly finished. Audiences didn’t know what to expect as the next great work began to unfold. Finally, at the end of the performance, the moment came for the audience to express appreciation for the performers and to release through applause the energy that was building within each audience member throughout the performance.
As the final tableau in Murakami Music drew to a close, I glanced around at my fellow audience members. I saw young and old on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, captivated and ready it burst into applause. When the final note of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in d minor, op. 14 sounded, we the audience, finally had our moment to thank the artists who performed for us. It was truly a genuine exchange of gratitude.
When I am able to attend such a great performance, I am inspired to keep writing this blog. I am refreshed and reassured that through adaptation and innovation, live performing arts can still be socially relevant and meaningful to audiences. With its solo piano and stage absent of scenery and props, Murakami Music brought to my mind images from the great American playwright Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town. When the audience is challenged to use its imagination, but is guided to do so, there is a freshness to the performance and each audience member walks away with a unique and memorable experience.
I’m reminded of a line from Our Town spoken by the character Emily Webb, “Live people don’t understand, do they? They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?”
In Murakami Music the audience shared in an emotional journey together. We heard live music and spoken words. We saw expression on the faces of the performers which led to an expansion of our own sense of empathy. And for just a little while, we weren’t shut up in the little boxes of ourselves. As an audience we shared in the experience together, and it became ours.
Congratulations to Eunbi Kim, Laura Yumi Snell, Kira Simring and the Cell Theatre for a performance that was truly in the in the spirit of Tuxedo Revolt.
- Haruki Murakami’s new novel reaches 1 million print run in one week (japandailypress.com)
- You: New Murakami novel tops 1 million (japantimes.co.jp)
- Haruki Murakami’s new release: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (themindsplace.wordpress.com)
Spring is here and with it–Easter. For musicians, the Easter holiday is one of our busiest times of the year. Churches and faith centers will typically spend more for extra musicians and grand performances at this time of year (and also at Christmas).
This year, I will be playing in a full orchestra for a church in Scarsdale, New York. The musicians who have been hired to play for the Easter services are professionals and along with the sacred music to be performed, we will also be playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A Major.
Such a large scale work is somewhat uncommon for church services. However, at the first rehearsal, the music director shared with us that the orchestra’s performance each year is highly requested by parishioners. They ask for it year round, and many have shared with him how the music uplifts them and how it connects to their faith in various ways.
Though this story may be heartwarming, it also provides support to the idea that music is still very relevant our lives. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is entirely secular. Yet, the great dance-like themes, the soaring melodies, and the brisk tempos have a way of lifting people up and stimulating them. The parishioners of this particular church feel as if the music affirms their beliefs.
Culturally, we’ve nearly always turned to music to help us make a point or emphasize a certain emotion or spiritual concept. That’s why we play music at graduations, wedding, and funeral services. Music helps us to share in an emotional state together.
On Easter Sunday, the church members will share in the joy of Beethoven’s great masterwork together–but Easter shouldn’t have to be the only time of the year when this happens. We need to encourage people to attend concerts and have this great and possibly cathartic experience more often. We should find better ways of sharing emotions with our audience members, we should use our music to create life-changing experiences. Clearly, the support for great music as demonstrated by the members of this particular church suggests that music can still be easily understood and uniquely interpreted by all.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was music filled Easter all year long?
Sometimes, in the midst of turmoil, we don’t need to be reminded that we must change and adapt. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded to have hope. American orchestras are in great need of a message of hope, and after this recession– can you blame them?
Dolly Parton has always had a way with words, her simple metaphor is the title of this article. But, the message is incredibly relevant to American orchestras. It is important to remember that during this time of economic uncertainty that all arts organizations should dig down deeply into the soil of their community and put down the roots that will feed and nourish their tree.
If the orchestra symbolizes the tree and the storm becomes the hostile economic and political environment; the soil represents the community we serve and the roots are the way we connect to the community. The storm we are all weathering forces us to change the way we pay attention to our roots. Do we grab the earth like a stalk of corn, with one major root shooting into the soil– tall, top heavy, and draining the soil of its vital nutrients? An organization that relies too heavily one source may not be able to withstand the storm if the winds bear down upon it too heavily. Or has the Recession and harsh political climate caused us to grow root systems like the Aspen Tree?
Did you know that Aspen Trees grow in families that share incredibly complex root systems? The roots of different single trees can fuse together and share nutrients and vital resources from the soil. This represents the orchestra or arts organization that builds true partnerships with fellow arts organizations. Because of its very complex root system, it helps prevent the soil from eroding, or in other words, the community partnerships add value to the community and fortify it, not deplete it of resources.
The good news is that the economy seems to be on a slow, but steady path to recovery, and we live in a era of social media where we can reach out and connect with more people at once then ever before in our history. It seems that we have at least plateaued if not begun an uphill swing. However, what has the storm of the past 4-6 years taught your orchestra or performing arts organization? Are you embracing your community like the Aspen tree? Or are you merely a fixture upon it?
P.S. Saturday January 19th was Dolly Parton’s birthday. Hey Dolly, we hope you had a good one!
By far, the most popular post ever written on the Tuxedo Revolt Blog was my post about creating a larger sense of community in the arts. I wrote that post in the hope that It would inspire others to reach out and expand their own artistic circles. At the time, I didn’t know how people would react– if they would take notice. The day after I posted the article, I woke up to the reality that the post had gone viral with hundreds views in just hours. It turns out that artists crave community more than I had thought– and that is a great thing indeed.
Knowing that we want to get to know other artists isn’t enough. As with any concept, an action is required to bring ideas into reality. We have to do something, reach out, collaborate, discuss, listen and learn from each other. So how do you do that? Well, there are a few options I’d like to share with you that can help you start reaching out to other artists, specifically those in other disciplines. You should start by doing what feels natural to you.
Abandon your stereotypes of artists in other disciplines. The reality is that we all share more traits in common than what you might think. Though it may be surprising, the creative process and the act of honing the skills necessary to bring creative ideas to life are very similar across art forms. In fact, these shared traits can be a great point of entry for you to begin a conversation.
If you want to meet other artists, try your hand at their art form. Yes, that’s right. Try your hand at something you’ve never done before. I’ve learned so much about how to be more expressive in my own music making by taking watercolor classes, attending voice master classes, and acting in plays. What better way to meet other creative people than to meet them in their element? It can be an inspiring process to watch other people make art and create.
Be still and listen. While much of what we do as artists is promoting or advocating for our art, remember, “to everything there is a season”. When you do make a connection with another artist, encourage them to talk about themselves, what makes them tick, what drives them to create? Seize the opportunity to listen and learn. Great collaborations are built on a foundation of mutual respect. Show others that you respect their art, their work, and their passion by emptying your mind and listening to them completely.
Be a matchmaker. While you don’t have to wear a kerchief on your head (thou you may want to…) like in Fiddler on the Roof, you too can help put creative people together. I find that introducing like minded colleagues to each other bring am me a lot of happiness, and it can to you as well. If you know a poet who wants to have their work out in the public and you happen to know a composer who is interested in writing a set of songs for soprano and harp, introduce the two people– get the idea? Sometimes, people need the connection to someone else and you could actually be the link that helps truly creative work begin. It is also rewarding process because others can begin to connect you in a likewise manner. Your network and creative community will grow.
Be yourself, and not an artiste. Remind yourself why you are reaching out to other artists to begin with: you are trying to create the right conditions for creative collaborations to flourish. No matter what your project end-goal may be, the success of your efforts will depend on how in sync you are with your creative colleagues. That’s why it is so crucial that you are yourself when you meet other artists. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you are a singer, instrumentalist, writer, actor, or dancer– you are unique among all others in your field. You are what you are, just as the art you create is whatever it is at the moment you have created it. Let people see the real you. Then, those who collaborate with you will know exactly who they are working with and authentic work can begin.
I hope that you will take one or all of these steps to expand and build your community of artists this year. Be bold, and step outside of any walls that might hold you back. There’s so much out there that we can do if we work together, the combinations are endless.