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.
Why? It’s possibly the most annoying question in any language. But it is also one of the strongest tools we have to cutting through the excess that slows down our organization’s work. Think of “WHY?” as organizational Drano®. Asking this question can clear the way for your organization’s course of action to achieving your mission. It can also be used to improve workflows, staff efficiency, and relieve tons of negative energy and feelings your staff may be working under. It can change your working conditions in ways that inspire members of the organization to fully commit themselves to your organization’s cause.
Use WHY? to weed the garden.
If the focus of this whole process is to better serve your constituency or audience—then ask yourself why do they need your organization? What do we provide that cannot be obtained through another organization? If your organization has a mission statement, then now is the time to look at the sacred mission statement and shine the burning light of WHY? onto it. Let’s take a look at an example. If you are an orchestra and your mission is to present concerts to audiences of every age, then you might be asking the following questions: “If our mission mentions nothing about music education, then why do we spend a third of our budget on teaching artists in the schools?” “If the founding mission of this organization states that we are to present concerts of to audiences of every age, then why are we not equally programming concert experiences for the very old as well as the very young?” As you can see, the use of WHY? allows you to determine dissonance between your organization’s stated mission and your actions. If you can’t make a cogent answer to the question, then you know that an action taken by your organization or some part of it is not on board with the organizational plan.
I should mention that missions can change over time. However, changing your organization’s mission is nothing to take lightly. You must have good reason and strong support to do it. It is very common in the arts world for organizations to expand their missions in order to be able to apply for more funding for various projects. It happens frequently with education divisions in orchestras. Organizations who do this risk what I call the “Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none” Syndrome. They become lukewarm at all of the things they do, and quality suffers across the board. We are not servants to the organizational budget, and the bottom line is not the ultimate importance in what we do. It is better for us to view ourselves as stewards to the people we serve. Our primary directive in all that we do is to consider the mission that was laid out in the charter of the organization. When we realign ourselves with our core mission, we can begin to reconcile mission and budget in ways so that one fully supports the other.
Your next step is to ask WHY? to everything and everyone, but also to yourself. Your actions and your intentions must also be examined. Do not judge whether a policy, and employee, or a process is bad or good based on whether or not they can back up their WHY? At this time, you are using the question as a way to gain a bird’s eye perspective of your organization—not to reenact the Spanish Inquisition. You are gathering data. In my next post, we will talk about how to analyze the data you’ve gathered to take your first action steps to changing your organization. We will learn how to remove the obstacles that slow down or obstruct your art from getting to the people you serve.
The central thread that runs through each and every aspect of the Tuxedo Revolt can be boiled down to relevance. First, let’s all get on the same page as to what the word relevance means:
Definition of RELEVANCE
a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence<giving relevance to college courses>
: the ability (as of an information retrieval system) to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user
When relevance comes into the conversation about performance and the arts, I’m really thinking of the definition 1b (above) and the question it poses. How do the performances we give have practical and or social applicability to our audiences?
In conservatory, I learned a lot about music. I learned about the theory and structure of musical compositions, I learned about the lives and the histories of the people who composed these great and monumental works. I learned how to break a piece of music down and digest its form and many melodies, and of course how to be technically sound in my execution of the performance. However, nowhere along the way did anyone teach us about how to apply relevancy to the skills we had acquired.
This revelation is a recent one for me. Nowhere along my path of education was I ever offered instruction with regard as to how to ensure that the creative work I was toiling away at with my music was relevant to my listeners. This doesn’t make me angry or bitter about my education. But it does illuminate a serious flaw in the way we train artists these days.
There is a concept I have mentioned before, called cultural insulation that exists among artists in a certain discipline. For the sake of example I’ll use musicians in the conservatory. You have 300 to 1,000 musicians learning alongside one another. There is no need to explain to your friends and colleagues why music is relevant to everyday life. Music already holds a special place in the core values of each music student, and this insulation from other viewpoints causes the belief that everyone should/could/or does value music in the way that we as professional musicians do.
Not much thought is given to training young artists, (or even established ones for that matter) how to explain and justify the need for art, for music, and for our craft to non-musicians. When it comes to learning how to fully articulate the importance of the arts, we must all be able to explain our raison d’etre in a way that is both meaningful and doesn’t rely on cultural cliches like, “Because the arts are important” or “Because the music is the universal language.”
Granted, it is a tall order to train young musicians how to talk about the arts in an intelligible but user-friendly, colloquial way. It is demanding to seek out justifications for what we do, then back them up. Yet, this is the age in which we live. In the face of doubt and cultural stereotypes about the future classical music, live performances, and the arts in general, we must be able to speak with confidence and conviction.
Stay tuned in the coming posts about how to do this, do it well, and with confidence.
Have you ever considered this? If you are like me, and have read your fair share of self-education books about music performance, then you probably have considered the question of not needing the permission of others to be an artist. But there is a key component often not addressed in self-education books that can only be learned in the real world: Who are we not getting permission from? Who is holding us back?
Building healthy audiences, pioneering innovations in performance, and being a champion of innovative music education are at the core mission of Tuxedo Revolt. There is one caveat though; each of these goals relies heavily on the artist being a risk-taker and an innovator at the individual level. Many musicians and performing artists feel like they don’t have permission to break away from the pack and be innovators.
Today, I want to empower you to take risks and to seek innovation in your performance. You will see that you can be innovative and outstanding in performing, teaching, presenting concerts—whatever it is that you are passionate about. Innovation is the key to rising above mediocrity, and the first step to being extraordinary is to explore unknown territories. You really don’t need permission to do it.
This will be the first of two posts that will help you to blow past the people who may be holding you back, to question their authority, and to revolt against anything but your own plans.
Ok, so let’s try this again: “You don’t need permission to be an innovative artist.”
Along your path to becoming a rock star, an opera diva, or the next great virtuoso you will encounter the kind of person I loathe most in the music world: a Sentinel. Remember those terrifying robo-squid things from the movie, The Matrix? Most likely, you’ve already had your fair share of run-in’s with this demonic creature in real life. Over these posts, we are going to take a look at what is a Sentinel, how do identify one, and how to disarm it.
What is a Sentinel?
Sentinels are the people who stand in the doorway between you and where you want to go. This can be either figurative or completely literal. Often, these people have attained some degree of success in whatever it is they specialize in—this alone is not the problem. The problem stems from the way that they jealously guard their success by blocking others from taking the same pathways to success.
I have seen these people in varying degrees of intensity from the casual blow-off all the way to the audition saboteur. I feel certain that it is in the form of Sentinels that musicians gain the reputation for being a little crazy. They don’t have to be outwardly hostile either. Sentinels can also take the form or well-meaning mentors, teachers, and loved ones. Over the years, I have become convinced that many of these people don’t know how much damage they are doing to other musicians or fellow performers.
How to Identify a Sentinel:
The following are some quick and dirty tips for identifying the Sentinels in your life:
- Sentinels love to tell you all the reasons why something can’t be done but rarely give you any ideas to help you get something done.
- Sentinels usually aren’t ultra-successful people, but rather those who have achieved low to mid-level success. They will tell you stories about how they slaved for years to achieve what they have now. They may say things like “It’s a long road, with plenty of bumps—you have to have your fair share.”
- Sentinels are often cold or indifferent when you present them with an idea or new concept that might be more innovative than what they are accustomed to.
- Sentinels may believe that age and the number of years of experience they have acquired is the only way to become an expert or “professional” in a given field.
- Sentinels may always treat your ideas and dreams with skepticism. This is because your aspirations may exceed theirs, and this is both frightening and depressing for them. They have a fear that you might surpass them. Or perhaps they just don’t understand you.
Take this list of characteristics and examine the people in your life. Take a good look at who might fit this list. Tomorrow, let’s examine how you can disarm these sentinels and kindly ask them to step aside and let you through the door to success.