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Last time I presented the first part of a discussion about the potential for boards as positive resources for community engagement. Here is the rest of the text.
Getting to Yes
Since the inertial tendency of a nonprofit arts board may be ambivalent (or worse) toward community engagement, it is important to develop a strategy for developing enthusiastic support. The first step is to identify and then enter into preliminary discussions with current board members who are either already in favor of stronger community ties or seem willing to consider the position. (This is also the first step when considering a similar effort with arts organization staff members.) When ready, these board members will be able to provide guidance and to lead the process of educating the full board.
Advocating for community engagement should begin with clear explanations of what community engagement is and addressing misconceptions about it. Beyond that, the board needs to understand the rationale for an arts organization pursuing a community engagement agenda. Generally, the reasons fall in one of two categories: fostering sustainability and achieving far greater relevance. The former addresses the social and economic challenges that demand broadening the organization’s reach into the community; the latter the potential for significantly increased support. Since these could be construed as “sticks” and “carrots” arguments, as much focus as possible should be placed on the “carrots”–the excitement and expanded influence that community engagement can generate. In addition, reassurance that the entire organization will not be radically changed overnight is critical. The process of effectively developing relationships with new communities demands time and programming necessarily follows that process. As a result, best practice in community engagement demands slow, incremental change.
When the majority of the board has become convinced of the value of community engagement, it is important for there to be a public commitment to engagement. When new communities meet representatives of arts organizations they often assume the sole intent of the organization is to get them to buy tickets or make donations. That is many people’s experience with the arts. Successful community engagement needs to be based on mutual benefit. An official statement of the organization’s reasons for engaging and a commitment to mutuality can be a starting point for building trust. Sample wording for such a statement can be found here.
The Vision Thing
Articulating organizational values, vision, and mission is one of the most important responsibilities of nonprofit boards. It is an aspect of board governance that has the potential to energize every member and galvanize them into passionate commitment that spills over into all board functions. Enlisting the board in establishing community engagement as a strategic priority for the organization has the potential not just to support engagement but to make the board more effective in everything it does.
Partners in Engagement
Finally, it is valuable to include the board as partners in the ongoing process of engagement. Members should have input into the plans and be utilized as relationship builders. Where they have their own community connections they can lead. In other cases they can assist in developing and maintaining relationships with new communities. This is particularly important since staff members do not have the time to do much more than (at best) coordinate such work.
The board of directors is a legally required element of nonprofit organization management. It can be viewed as an obstacle to ignore or work around or it can become a resource to employ in the service of mission of the organization. It will be far better for the health of the nonprofit and the work of community engagement if its members are enlisted in the service of engagement. They represent great potential in relationship building. Indeed, given the time-intensive nature of working with communities, they may be among the most important assets to employ.
The full text of this essay can be found here.
The board of directors of a nonprofit arts organization can and should play an important role in planning for and adopting community engagement as a crucial mission strategy. There is a tendency on the part of some (I have been guilty of this myself) to view the board as an obstacle to be overcome in this work. Yet the board’s potential as a resource for furthering the work of community engagement is considerable and we owe it to ourselves to find productive means of tapping it.
Basic Board Governance
However, the board’s potential for supporting community engagement can be limited if it does not have a clear understanding of and commitment to its more general roles and responsibilities. Boards certainly have a fiduciary responsibility, including ensuring (through participation in fundraising) that the organization has the necessary financial resources. They also have more wide-ranging internal responsibility for the health and welfare of the organization (e.g., maintaining faithfulness to mission, ensuring adherence to laws and regulations, and setting values and vision) as well as external responsibility to make certain the organization furthers the public good.
Unfortunately, too many boards are not aware of these (and many other) responsibilities and are thus ineffective in supporting the work of the organization. In some senses this should not be surprising. Outside the nonprofit world, there is very little understanding of the nature and function of 501(c)(3) organizations. As a result, few people come to nonprofit board service with a clear view of the nature of the work. Further, in an effort to secure board members, expectations are sometimes minimized while training is limited or haphazard. And for too many, board service consists of boring meetings that have little purpose or meaning and of tasks that are not challenging or interesting. This can be made worse by a chief executive’s lack of enthusiasm for the board’s input.
Since boards are a required fact of nonprofit life, it is in the interest of the organization to take advantage of their potential. The keys to doing so are effective recruitment and training processes; creation of a culture in which meetings are productive, meaningful, and even fun; and establishment of a mechanism for board evaluation–annual evaluation of the board as a whole and of members individually.
A board can participate in the development and implementation of an arts organization’s community engagement plan without being a fully functioning board. However, the chances of success in doing so are limited to its overall level of competence.
Board members serve arts organization because they like things the way they are. While, on reflection, this seems obvious, it is often a surprise to people that boards are not anxious to embrace change. This is not simply a reflection of the inherent conservatism of institutions; it is a manifestation of the fact that individual members do not, for themselves, see a need for change. Acknowledging this at the outset will help in developing a plan for educating the board about the need for and value of community engagement.
Some community engagement activists hope that, at best, the board will not actively oppose community-oriented planning and programs. Given the importance of the board’s role in the organization and the forms of significant support it can provide, I now believe that the board “not standing in the way” is far too low a goal. We need to work with our boards to develop in them enthusiasm for the relevance, vibrancy, and sustainability that community engagement can offer.
Board as Resource Engines
Certainly, boards of directors have long been seen as vehicles for providing financial support. They have also been understood to be valuable for the power connections (political, corporate, social) they have. However, in engaging with communities with which an organization has little history and few personal relationships, individuals who have community connections with the groups the organization is trying to reach are priceless assets. Not infrequently those communities have only vague (or sometimes even negative) impressions of the arts organization. A board member with “street cred” can provide a foundation on which trust can be built between the organization and the community. There is no amount of money that can accomplish that; it’s a resource as least as valuable as a large donation. So, when an organization commits to engagement, consideration should be given to recruiting board members who are passionate about the art and who are respected by the communities the organization is seeking to reach.
Next time: Getting to Yes and the Board as Partner in Community Engagement
I don’t like spending money. I’m leery of signing up for ongoing contracts for service unless I really, really have to (want to).
So when we bought a new “pre-owned” car that came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM™ satellite radio I was not overwhelmed with joy. But here’s what happened. I kinda like the Sixties radio station, the Margaritaville station, the Classic Vinyl station, and my wife loves the Seventies station. When the three months were up I looked at the cost of keeping just the music and thought I could swallow that for a year. But when I tried to do that it was a bit complicated (more on that in a minute) but they also were offering a one-year price on the bells and whistles version that was less than the price of the music only version so, well, I bit.
Then a few weeks ago I had a self-knowledge revelation, tumbling to the fact that inertia (feel free to substitute mental sloth for that word) will very likely cause me to re-up at the end of the year. This whole process is Sales 101. The free trial worked. I found I liked the service and would never, ever, ever, have chosen to pay at the beginning. The big discount for year one also sucked me in. My quarrel, of course, is with the hoops to jump through if you don’t want to choose the path they have laid out for you. It reminds me of what it takes to downgrade your Time-Warner Cable service. (They can’t trick me by changing their name to Spectrum. It’s still the same company.) That process was like running a Marine Corps obstacle course, complete with mental bruises. But I digress a bit.
I’ll grant that the connection to community engagement of all of this is tenuous, but here’s my thinking. I would never have purchased the service without the trial. The equivalent need not be a “pops concert” because some communities would have no interest in such a thing. It can simply be the opportunity to observe (or discuss) how an arts experience might actually enhance one’s life and improve one’s community. The nurturing process, moving from one stage to another, was scripted, intentional, very much like the one proposed by Morison/Dagleish in Waiting in the Wings. I would argue for a more relationship-building approach than a clinical Step 1 to Step 2 to Step 3 one-size-fits-all scenario, but relationship building is a progressive process. Maybe there are lessons to be learned and applied.
Summer is an excellent time to review topics covered before and evaluate whether they should be raised again. Four years ago I offered a preliminary overview of a way of discussing the benefits of the arts. The subject keeps coming up in conference presentations and workshops so I thought it would be appropriate to revisit it now and to add a brief update at the end. Here is a passage from my 2013 post Benefits of the Arts:
Those for whom art has deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. As a result, we sometimes assume that simply putting forth our work or medium/genre is serving the community. So, in spite of our intent, the effect can be what I call artcentric, disconnected from humanity and off-putting to those who are not true believers. In contrast, the key for the future of the arts lies in finding ways to serve people who do not already feel the arts are important to them–ways that they recognize.
The core benefits of the arts are their impact on people–individually and collectively. For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence–self-understanding, self-acceptance, identity, and pleasure to name a few. Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment–facilitating relationship-building and understanding. In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital–both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference.
I would hold that all other forms of benefit–economic development principal among them–are ancillary benefits. These are valuable to communities but are not central to our mission of serving people through the arts.
This core/ancillary classification of benefits can satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing us to focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. We can then envision the deep mission of arts organizations as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.
Perhaps, to condense even further, we can frame the essential benefits of the arts as enhancing the human spirit and improving social relationships. Granted, both of those are ideas for intensely felt debate, but for whatever it’s worth, they are principles on which I can hang my hat.
Ultimately, the way we understand the benefits of the arts is critical. The benefits are the reason we do what we do. This framework is helpful for me. Feel free to use or ignore this as you please.
Jupiter, Florida in northern Palm Beach County is home to a very large population of Guatemalan immigrants. In April 2015, Onesimo Lopez-Ramos, an 18-year-old member of that community, was murdered outside his home by a group of young men who later told police they were out “Guat’ hunting.” In response to this tragedy, El Sol, a local resource center for Guatemalan immigrants, Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, and the Lighthouse ArtCenter collaborated on a traveling exhibition, called “One Jupiter,” celebrating Mayan culture and the contributions of Guatemalans to life in Palm Beach County. It was designed to increase understanding of the rich heritage that the Guatemalans bring with them and provide an opportunity for healing and relationship building across cultures in the city. Presented in schools, libraries, community centers, and even Florida Atlantic University, it appears to have had a positive impact on the community. When El Sol opened in 2006 it was met with protests and angry residents complained about it at town council meetings. Today, in the words of a local reporter “the community’s tone has completely changed.” The public anger has evaporated.
The collaboration that sponsored the “One Jupiter” exhibition was not born as a result of Lopez-Ramos’ murder. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and the Lighthouse ArtCenter had worked with El Sol prior to that on programming for immigrant children and support for the Resource Center’s work. The tragedy certainly did galvanize the partners into action but it was not necessary to build trust from nothing at the time it occurred.
One of the most interesting things to me about this story is that the relationship among the institutions has continued and grown since the initial work in 2015. The partnering organizations remain in dialogue and assist each other in providing training and art classes for children and adults as well as summer camps designed in ways that encourage participation by Guatemalan young people. In June the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County hosted a portion of the “One Jupiter” exhibition and is sponsoring related panel discussions and presentations. (See article) Rather than being a “one off” collaboration, the members of the organizations have made a point of maintaining their connections, this is especially interesting since one of the principal leaders of the project has recently moved to Maine.
This story is inspiring on its own. We should never forget the role that art can play in cross-cultural understanding. But the “One Jupiter” story also demonstrates some critical principles of community engagement. The project would not have been nearly as successful if there had not already been a relationship among the participants, and certainly would not have happened so quickly. The exhibition first opened five months after the murder. Indeed, given the grief in the Guatemalan community it is likely that a project such as this would either have had to wait a long time–until trust was built–or would not have been possible at all. Relationship building is important foundational work even when we don’t know what projects will come out of it.
In addition, the collaboration did not simply stop when the first round of exhibition traveling ended. (Notably, the exhibition was also not the sole element of the partners’ joint projects.) They have continued to talk and work, all of which has resulted in drawing the awareness of the broader Palm Beach County community as demonstrated by the Cultural Council’s participation this summer. They have been successfully maintaining the relationships.
Even from a distance we can grieve with the city of Jupiter and particularly its Guatemalan community. The best hope going forward is that we can learn from this lessons about building bridges into the communities that surround us wherever we work.
Before I close, let me address my colleagues in academia. The people who have worked on the One Jupiter project are very anxious to get the word out about it. They would love someone to tell the story more broadly. I can imagine it being an excellent opportunity for a graduate student project. Get in touch if you’d like an introduction.
“I don’t know anyone who . . . .”
Recently, a colleague presented a workshop on nonprofit financial management to a group of board members of and volunteers for very small grassroots social service organizations. In the course of one of their discussions a participant observed, “I don’t know anyone who is not working two jobs.” My colleague’s first reaction was that this was highly atypical. The nonprofit board members many of us are used to represent money and influence or carry the title of “community volunteer”–people who have enough money and time to devote to service. In very small agencies like those participating in the workshop, the personal circumstances of board, staff (if there is any), and volunteers are not too far removed from those of their clients. Due to their life situations they do not have access to the people who are “typical” board members. The fact that they don’t individually is the principal reason they don’t collectively.
Nonprofit boards are self-perpetuating. They nominate their successors and so, human nature being what it is, boards are predisposed to homogeneity. The participant’s comment reminded my colleague (and me) of this inherent issue with respect to diversifying boards. We are all in silos of various kinds: arts, social service, political, racial/ethnic, religious, sexual identity, socioeconomic, etc., etc. For most people, it’s likely that they know few or any from outside their own inadvertent silos. We know people we know and don’t know the others. It takes extraordinary attention and effort to counteract this tendency, but if equity is important (yes it is), counteracting this has to stop being an “issue” and must become an obsession in all our work. (Thanks to Barry Hessenius for this construct.)
But merely finding “different” people to check off boxes won’t yield the desired results. Single individuals from any silo may or may not bring a diverse perspective. Plus, the toll of being a token can stymie anyone in working effectively. My work in advocating for relationship building with communities provides a solution. Build relationships with the communities you want to see represented on your board and staff and in your audiences. Put in the work to develop trust where none exists and in the process learn about those communities and their individuals. Pursue those who catch the spark of your mission and understand the value you can bring to their circle of friends.
This is not the work of the typical nominating committee that puts together a slate of names the month before the board election. (Although that model is almost uselessly ineffective even without taking issues of diversity into account.) It is the work of the whole board to be building those relationships and, out of that, identifying individuals who can add value to the function of the board.
Sometimes a blog post derives from seeing something that only tangentially relates to its point. Such is the case with this one. A while ago I saw an article on the Wallace Foundation’s support of a project for Ballet Austin. It is an interesting and valuable marketing study related to audiences, arts industry assumptions about them, and new ways to draw more people into new work based on the research. It is a fascinating report and an important one. And to be clear I have great respect for the work Ballet Austin has done over the years in connecting with people and I’ve recently made friends with a number of the staff at Slover Linnett, the team that conducted the research.
So, the “however” that is coming has nothing to do with the research, the report, its findings, or any of the principals. It just stems from two nagging (and related) concerns. The first is our tendency not to see the people we try to reach or those who attend arts events as people. No one does this consciously, but the phrases “butts in seats/eyes on walls” is shorthand for our focus on numbers and results rather than relationships. And this tendency can have the effect of creating another barrier between us and “them” (which is another problem with our terminology). This was the genesis of the title of my first book, Building Communities, Not Audiences. We have to be vigilant in minimizing, not increasing, the distance between the arts and the people we should be serving.
The related concern is that datacentric research misses an opportunity. (This paragraph is based on assumptions so I’m perfectly willing to be corrected.) When focus groups are asked questions solely about what we want to know for marketing purposes, it can have the effect of making them subjects of our experiment. I can imagine adding a few questions that draw them into conversation with us that could have the effect of initiating or firming up relationships with them. Here are a few of my sophomoric ideas about possible questions:
- “Is this art form important to you? And if so, why?”
- “What about the things you saw/heard resonated with your own life?”
- “What things you saw and heard seemed particularly important or meaningful to you?”
- “What would you like our arts organization to know about you?”
You get the idea. I acknowledge that I’m not even a neophyte when it comes to arts marketing research. The field is way beyond me. However, there does seem to be an opportunity to turn focus groups into relationship building opportunities with the addition of a few questions like these. (This is an idea I first broached some time ago in Focus Group or Story Circle.)
I am, without question, excessively sensitive to anything that has the potential to increase the distance between us and the people we hope to reach. I put this forward not as a response to the article I cited but as a means to generate thought about how to use this important aspect of our work to improve connections with our communities.
Since I got into the weeds of defining development terms last week (Development Terminology), I thought it was time to present the latest in my thinking about terminology related to community engagement. Over the nearly six years that I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been working on definitions that help explain engagement’s place in the arts management tool box. There has been much confusion and misunderstanding about exactly what community engagement is and how it differs from other essential work like audience development and audience engagement. The confusion is most unfortunate in that conflating or misunderstanding any of them gets in the way of taking advantage of the benefits each has to offer.
As part of developing our engagement training programs and working with communities around the country, we have been fine tuning and updating the definitions and adding more substantive materials to understand it all. (Evaluating Engagement was one aspect of that.)
My posts dealing with these definitions have been among the most widely read of this blog. In the interest of keeping current, here is the current incarnation of definitions related to the
[This definition is exclusively intended to apply to community engagement work] Any group of people with common interests or characteristics defined, for example, by place, tradition, intention, or spirit. (Based on a definition created by Alternate ROOTS)
Or even simpler: A group of people with something in common.
Arts-Based Community Development
Arts activities designed to serve community interests. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to produce immediate results that benefit the organization: sales, donations, etc. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.
An attribute (or state of being) that communities seek–citizens actively involved with community life. The impetus for encouraging civic engagement could come from community leaders, grassroots advocates, or anyone (including artists and arts organizations) concerned with collective well-being.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a mission strategy designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit. It is accomplished by developing trust and understanding through which reach can be expanded. This results, over the long term in increased ticket sales and financial support as well as more arts-friendly public policy. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community and arts organization.
Community engagement that creates change in the arts organization–programming, organizational processes, and/or modes of thinking. The root of such engagement is community learning: learning about the needs, interests, even personality of the community the arts organization is attempting to engage. If an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community. It’s focused on itself. It is only transformative engagement that builds an arts organization’s relevance.
For the online version of these definitions, click here.
Fools rush in . . . .
I may just be a glutton for punishment. However, over the (many) years I taught arts management and the many more in which I have engaged with colleagues in discussions of marketing, sales, development, fundraising–you know, the fun part of the arts (!?)–I’ve been troubled by what has seemed to me to be a fuzziness about the way we use all the terms. While all of this is not directly related to community engagement, the impact of these fields on it and of community engagement on them is (or should be) very important. So, as I’ve been working on my training programs I’ve decided to make a stab at differentiating among them in the way I have earlier worked on audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. (Be warned, I’ve done a bit more work on those as well so a post will be forthcoming on those.)
I know these terms are now deeply embedded in our field and that people have deep commitments to the way they use and understand the terms. And, since I am not a day to day practitioner I may be missing important aspects of each. However, for me what follows is a way of making all these important terms play nicely together. For anyone interested in sharing these via URL, this material can be found here. [http://www.artsengaged.com/essentials#DevelTerms]
In the arts management world, much discussion of development, marketing, fundraising, and sales is complicated by conflicting or overlapping definitions. While what is presented here is decidedly “non-standard,” it represents an attempt to clarify the terminology in ways that might be helpful.
The process of soliciting and securing resources for an organization. All of the following are subsets of development.
Processes and activities that support fundraising and sales and that enhance organizational visibility which serves as the foundation for both. It is best understood as communication with external constituencies about the offerings–the receivable values–an organization presents.
The process and activity of soliciting and securing grants, contributions, and donations to an organization.
The process and activity of securing an exchange transaction with a member of the public in which they give money and/or their time in order to receive the value of the art the organization presents.
The percentage of any given population that takes advantage of an organization’s offerings.
The average number of times any given member of the public takes advantage of an organization’s offerings in a prescribed period of time.
So there you have it, for better or worse. I’m certainly interested in improving on these definitions so (constructive) comments are welcomed.
In May I was invited to speak at a convening of the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts Fund grantees. Each of the cohort’s 14 arts organizations really gets engagement and is extremely active living out the work of connecting with communities.
There were many, many wonderful stories of effective community engagement. However, one in particular made a deep impression upon me. One part of the impression was the power of an example that demonstrates that not only does engagement not need to be a budget drain but that it also provides the possibility of bringing more revenue to an organization. The other part was the up-to-the-minute timeliness of the story.
In conversations with staff members of the Riverside Art Museum, I learned that their initial work in fostering relationships with Riverside’s Latino communities had resulted in donations to purchase art. But the “hot off the press” revelation came during the convening. The actor and comedian Cheech Marin had recently lent a portion of his Chicano art collection to the RAM for an exhibition. As a result of that experience and as a result of the enthusiasm he saw in the community’s response to it, he is partnering with the Museum and the city of Riverside to create the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry in a repurposed library (that is being replaced by a new building) that will be five times the size of the Museum’s current space. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen putting to the lie the idea that community engagement is a one-way drain on resources. Congratulations to the RAM! For more info see: [http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-cheech-marin-chicano-art-center-20170424-story.html]
Even later breaking news: the project has been approved unanimously by the Riverside City Council–http://www.pe.com/2017/05/17/riverside-council-approves-cheech-marins-chicano-art-center-downtown/ Mr. Marin and the Museum will now have a year to raise about half of the $5-$7 Million cost of upfitting the old library for its new use.
Community engagement can be a path to new and otherwise unavailable sources of funding and support.
I had planned this post before Trevor O’Donnell wrote this: Is Marketing about the Consumer or the Product? Really I had.
We recently bought new pillows. Not expensive ones, mind you. Just basic pillows. The photo accompanying this post is of the bag the pillows came in. Who out there can now write the next few paragraphs for me?
What consumes well over the half of available space? You are correct. A picture of someone using (and enjoying–in all likelihood a greatly exaggerated enjoyment to be sure) the pillow. OK, I’ll also acknowledge the obvious. The pillow user is an attractive young woman, but this is pretty plain vanilla consumer marketing in the U.S.A. We’d hardly expect much else.
So, Marketing 101. Pictures = good. (Ditto few words.) Pictures of people happy about the product = better. And the second equation is baseline stuff, not a brilliant new horizon in advertising.
What do we not see on the package? Copy extolling the inherent virtues of the pillows. The following are words describing attributes the purchaser (me) might (and does) find personally attractive: “Allergy Protection Pillow,” “Firm,” “2-Pack,” and (arguably) “Jumbo.” We’ll leave the logo and product names aside. The only other copy is “100% Organic Cotton Fabric.” That could be interpreted as self-aggrandizement since it’s about the wonderfulness of the materials. At the same time, “organic” is popularly understood as a positive thing and “100% . . . cotton” rides the “natural” train in a time when natural is a widely valued trait.
Real arts marketers have discussed the lessons to be learned here far better than I ever could. I’ll just say, when you compare arts promotional materials with this pillow package, consider the impact of the faces of dead composers/playwrights/painters, imperious conductors, and otherworldly looking performers on potential “consumers” of the product as opposed to this pillow user on a rest deprived purchaser of sleep aids.
Engaging Matters will be taking the week off next week recovering from Memorial Day
I mentioned previously (Connecting) that I attended the Charlotte Jazz Festival earlier this year. It was a wonderful event with a number of highlights. The one most apropos of this blog was a concert by Sammy Miller and the Congregation. I had seen them perform at the Festival the previous year and they were good. This year, however, they had become a force of nature.
Let me begin with a bit of fanboy prose not directly related to this blog. They were awesome: immensely talented musicians, well-schooled in the history and techniques of jazz, and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining. I was smiling throughout the concert. I think it may have been the most pure fun I’ve ever had at an evening of music.
That out of the way, what is related to this blog is their combination of high-end artistry and technical skill, musicianship, and knowledge of their discipline with total dedication to winning converts. The band even has a mission statement:
Sammy Miller and the Congregation are on a mission to put the generosity back into jazz and bring art back to the people. Playing joyful jazz—music that feels good—the band shares the power of community through music in a style that entertains, enriches, and most of all uplifts.
The concert itself was dangerously high energy from start to finish. They played to, with, and in (!) the audience. They were theatrical, even flamboyant at times. But just when I was ready to check out saying the schtick was going over the top they would launch into a fascinating, sensitive contemporary take on a jazz standard. They sometimes flirted with “too much” but in the end this was a group of artists dedicated to their art attempting–and succeeding in spades–to help people love jazz.
Everyone who I heard perform at the Festival this year was a stunning musician knowledgeable about and dedicated to jazz. What sets the Congregation apart is the addition of an almost maniacal dedication to connecting with their audience. They love performing and they really love making others love jazz.
I have written before about a performer who appears to completely enjoy connecting with the people at his concerts: Jimmy Buffett (Lessons from a Pirate: I; Lessons from a Pirate: II). He works in a much different corner of the musical universe but he is also dedicated to connecting with his fans.
The difference between the two is that JB is not worried about winning the hearts and minds of the public. His incredible commercial success proves that but he keeps at it. Sammy Miller and the Congregation do have that concern for the art of jazz and for its future.
It is the dedication to connecting that I would most highlight here. We in the nonprofit arts are every bit as committed to our art as this group is–but not more so. The question is whether we are willing to do what it takes to allow people to come to love our work as much as we do–not by “dumbing down” that work but by expending the energy required to make what we do irresistible . . . and keeping at it until we succeed.
I had a very difficult time finding a video or a recording that did justice to the live experience, but rather than leave you hanging, this is a pretty good representation of a part of the appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Li’l Liza Jane.
And, for a straight-ahead classical music example of the same ideas, see Joe Patti’s blog post on the pianist Alpin Hong.
I recently attended the second annual Charlotte Jazz Festival. I wrote about it last year, too, making blogging about it, I guess, a tradition. (And it has nothing to do with the fact that a picture of my wife and me was used in this year’s season brochure.) I find my heart leaning ever more strongly in the jazz direction. It’s similarities to classical music and, indeed, all of the nonprofit arts are many: a relatively small group of fans (except for the big stars), an esoteric “vocabulary” both of words and musical elements, and a deep concern about aging audiences. So I frequently find things to say as a result of attending concerts.
This time there are a couple, one of which will be a separate blog post. For now, I want to comment on the presentation of one particular piece. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis has been the anchor performing group both years. The individual musicians are, as you might expect, among the most talented in the country on their instruments and the ensemble is a well oiled machine. All of the technique boxes are checked with big red stars.
What struck me particularly was the performance on the last night of a newly commissioned work by Victor Goines called Untamed Elegance. The concert as a whole was organized around music of the jazz age and Goines’ work reflected themes or cultural artifacts from the era: Prohibition and flappers to name just two. Here are the movement titles:
- The Business of America Is Business
- The Elephant in the Room
- Laboratories of Ideas
- Untamed Elegance: The “It” Thing
- Drunk as a Skunk
- Bold, Naked and Sensational
This titles are interesting but if it had been left at that it would have been a series of six interesting and stunningly performed pieces to satisfy jazz aficionados. For others it would have gotten a bit long. What made the performance work much better was the relatively brief narration/scene setting by Mr. Goines ahead of each movement. He was succinct and provided a highly entertaining case for each of them. (You can readily guess which movement was about prohibition and which about flappers.)
The point is that he knew that a relatively small number of the people in the big crowd for the concert would be “all in” for 40 minutes of jazz based on 1920’s idioms. His oral program notes provided the rest access to appreciating the music.
Before I close I’m going to take a point of personal privilege and mention something that’s not directly related to the mission of this blog. At the Festival I found a new rising jazz star–vocalist/trumpeter (and after Louis Armstrong it takes a lot of guts for a jazz musician to own that combination) Bria Skonberg. She’s got amazing chops, both vocal and on the trumpet; a gift for putting a jazz stamp on a lot of different (decidedly non-jazz) music; a winning compositional style; and an extremely tight ensemble of ridiculously talented musicians. For me, her take on Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi was a revelation and Trust in Me (from Disney’s Jungle Book) was overwhelming.
I am developing a training program for people interested in enhancing their skills in guiding organizations toward more effective community engagement. Several small groups have completed or are in the process of helping me beta test it. As part of the process I have been refining my criteria for substantive engagement.
I begin with what appear to me to be the four critical elements of relationship building in arts-community partnerships:
- Pre-existing relationship with identified communities (partners) built on respect
- Mutual benefit
- Collaborative design, implementation of programming
- Existence of a relationship maintenance plan
From these building blocks we are crafting essential questions to get to the depth of each:
Pre-existing relationship with identified communities (partners) built on respect
How long-standing is the relationship with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
How deep is/are the relationship(s) with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
- #/% involved
- Enthusiasm for relationship on part of participating communit(y)(ies)
- Enthusiasm for relationship on part of the organization
Mutual benefit (beyond or in addition to $ for community organization)
[Note: If there is no community-recognized benefit of the project, this is not a community engagement project]
Is the only benefit to the community financial? (Yes/No)
- How well articulated/understood are community-selected goals for the project?
- To what extent does the project meet community goals?
- How well articulated/understood are the organizational goals for the project?
- To what extent does the project further organizational mission and meet project goals?
Collaborative design, implementation
At what point in the planning/development did the participating communit(y)(ies) begin to contribute to project design?
Was/were the communit(y)(ies) involved in:
- Selecting programming?
- Marketing efforts?
- Production/participation details?
- Developing post-event relationship maintenance plans?
Relationship Maintenance Plan
How clearly detailed are the organization’s post-project plans for maintaining the relationships with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
For each of these questions, we are then developing a range of answers and point values rating the depth and quality of the relationship. While this part in particular is a work in progress and the ratings are not even remotely scientific, I think we are making some good progress. For those interested, the response options and ratings as currently articulated can be found here.
One of the important things that the process of developing the survey (and, for the students, of reviewing the questions) is reinforcing the importance of thoughtful, ongoing relationship building as central to the work of engagement.