The Arts as a Community Builder

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Anyone who’s passionate about their work draws their motivation from the lens through which they see the world. If you’ve ever heard me speak, you’ll know my particular combination of experience: a love of (and history of running) arts organizations, a stint at B-school, and working for American Express.

So my passion comes from an enthusiasm for bringing the best professional business tools, skills, and techniques that I saw in the corporate world to the arts to help our field grow and improve. For many people reading this article, that may be the lens you bring as well.

Others, however, envision their role as a leader in the arts in an entirely different way. For them, the arts are all about community engagement, community building, and improving the lives of those who create art. I found myself amid such a community of leaders last month when I attended (for the first time) the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) conference. (And yes, they did give out the hat in the picture…get it?) That conference emphasized a view of what the arts are all about that is very different from what you typically hear at conferences such as the League of American Orchestras, Theatre Communications Group, or National Arts Marketing Project.

This committed group of managers that run historic theatres see themselves first and foremost as builders of a community. What struck me was that what they do offers some of the best hope for stemming the tide of an American way of life that is increasingly homogenized, franchised, and replicated. We all know you can find a Starbucks, Jiffy Lube, or McDonald’s in practically every town, but guess what you can’t find? The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center exists only in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; the Capitol Theatre is unique to Bowling Green, Kentucky; and the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, (where Garrison Keillor now does his radio show) is one of a kind.

Historic theatres provide a link to the past and the future. That may sound like a cliché, but their role in their communities is crucial. Parents and grandparents may recall their first date in these theatres. Their grandchildren can now go to see cultural offerings that stand out as different from what they will find at the metroplex or Disneyland.

Of course, the leaders of these theatres are concerned with the same business ideas I’m used to — they try to optimize their ROI, improve renewal rates, do better email marketing. But these things turn out to be secondary. Above all, they are working to make sure the arts (and their buildings) are embedded in the very fabric of their communities.

On a panel I participated in, Tom Tomlinson, Executive Director of the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, described how when he set out to revive the Capitol Theatre, he worked to get himself on every possible community board and attend all the community planning meetings, even for things that were only peripherally related to the theatre. His strategy was to make sure that that theatre was not only represented in Bowling Green, but also seen as an integral part of the community.

Then Rip Rapson, President of the Kresge Foundation, gave a presentation about “creative placemaking,” which I recommend you read in its entirety here. He described the inspiring work of a fascinating company, Artspace, which describes itself as “America’s leader in arts-driven community transformation.” Its mission is to “create, foster, and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations,” and we saw some of the fruits of that impressive work in Minneapolis. Their projects across the country not only revive historic buildings, but also make low-cost living and working space for artists possible. They see their role both as community builders and arts supporters.

At LHAT it seemed that the managers who run these historic theatres see their jobs as not only to fill the house — it’s to fill their communities with what makes that community unique, by creating distinct programming and educational activities in a special place. These days it seems an uphill task to press against powerful economic forces that conspire to make communities in an America where everything feels the same.

So if you view running your arts organization through the same lens as mine, it’s healthy to try on another pair of glasses from time to time. Success in the arts is not only about optimizing your email, or getting your website up to snuff, or getting that season brochure out the door. Perhaps it’s more about making sure that you engage with your community in as many ways as possible, bringing in diverse groups of people to your venue and showing them that your organization is vital to the community. It’s no secret that places like Santa Fe, the Berkshires, Dallas, New York, and Nashville have strong identities through their resident arts organizations.

This conference reminded me that despite my worldview, I should also remember to look at the world of the arts through the lens of community-building — thinking about placing arts organizations firmly within your community, not on top of it or bolted onto it. This approach may be worth the same amount of focus as you put into your marketing and fundraising, and it may just make your organization that much more successful.

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7 responses to “The Arts as a Community Builder

  1. Great post, Gene, and inspiring. I’ve had a arts community-building mind-frame since my days in public radio, where I discovered that in many towns and cities the station is essentially an arts organization and community hub. We’re all in this together.

  2. Gene,

    This was my favorite blog post yet! I have a particular passion for historic theatre preservation, and I’ve seen firsthand in my communities (home and school) how citizens’ feelings of cultural ownership can be validated and enhanced by the offerings of these historical landmarks. In many cases, it’s a sense of local pride. Thanks for including as a post topic!

    Cara Peterson

  3. Good points. Actual community beats virtual community hands down – a challenging concept to promote these days. There is power in presence: being in the same place at the same time and sharing an experience not just with fellow patrons but with the artists as well.

  4. Decided to read this again now that I have “recovered” from the conference. So happy to see that “you got it”. Come back in 2014! Many of us now have a collection of L Hats.

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