Embracing the Public Value Challenge

by Rhonda Hunsinger

Last week I was in chilly New York City attending a Board meeting of the League of American Orchestras (LAO) and their national winter conference for executive directors. As chair of my constituency group (budget sizes $500,000 to $2,000,000), I was responsible for coordinating the day-and-a-half agenda.

Prior to breaking into groups, the conference opened with a plenary session, addressing the need to increase diversity, outreach and the perception of public value in our orchestras. This is a hefty topic for an hour and a half, and we barely touched the surface before our time was up. One orchestra executive did ask a question, however, that got my attention: “We are professional orchestras with the purpose of presenting live symphonic music in our communities. How can we be expected to be educators and reach out to everyone in our community, when it takes all of our resources to simply present the music?”

I had the urge to waive my hand wildly like Hermione (or to date myself further, like Horshack), but since he was addressing a panel and not me, and I would have had to make an ungraceful lunge for the microphone halfway across the room, I simply grunted, earning myself a few sideways glances from the others at my table.

One of the speakers responded directly to the diversity and outreach question, suggesting that orchestras need to help facilitate and enable music education for children of all social and economic backgrounds, especially those who would not normally have such an opportunity. No argument there, but I doubt there was a person in the room who did not already know this (except, perhaps, for the ED that asked the question). It is the “how to” in which we seek guidance.

Given the chance, however, my answer would have been along these lines: We can’t hide behind the idea that we exist solely to present symphonic music. Perhaps we did several decades ago, but in order to survive as an orchestra today, we must be relevant and have public value in our communities. We have to make the effort if we wish to survive and continue to perform.

Today, our funders are challenging us to a much greater extent to convince them of our public value. When they support the South Carolina Philharmonic (SCP), they want to know if they are also supporting the community as a whole. Are we leveraging their dollars in a way that they positively impact the broader community? Often perceived as “the wine and cheese crowd,” are we finding ways to reach out to more diverse audiences and break down social and economic barriers? Does our existence in our communities actually support other equally important arts, health and human services, and animal advocacy organizations?

If we answer no, today’s donors will go elsewhere. Yet as an arts organization, we don’t clothe homeless children, provide support to victims of cancer or house homeless animals. Or do we?

You and I know the intrinsic value of live symphonic music. We also know our community has changed, with a challenging economy and an evolving corporate landscape. We, too, have changed, and in my next blog I’ll share some of ways the SCP has gone “outside the box” to stay relevant without losing sight of its mission.

ImageThe plenary inspired candid discussions when we separated into our constituency groups, and I will share some of these in the next blog, as well. Did I say New York was chilly? Let’s try bitterly cold. Horridly, terribly cold, in the teens, with 30 mph gusts and wind chills of zero. I’d like to suggest Key West for next year’s winter meeting. The LAO headquarter is in New York, however, so it’s not likely to happen. But I can dream.

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1 Response to Embracing the Public Value Challenge

  1. Drew Spice says:

    How can we be expected to be educators and to reach out to everyone in our community?

    We all know the expectations of the modern symphony orchestra include community outreach and education. However, it can be difficult sometimes for us to know how well we are doing with these aspects of the organization. Especially when times are tough, we might ask if education and outreach are expendable and even consider eliminating these elements in order to focus on the primary goal of presenting concerts. However, there is a problem with this mindset. Not unlike the person who is so overwhelmed with work that he or she cuts out exercise and goes to the drive-thru for every meal, the mind suffers because the body is being mistreated. We know that keeping our bodies in shape is good for our mental health; likewise, keeping up with our community is how we ensure the best possible performances.

    Communities do not exist simply because there are people around. No more so than juggling exists because there are balls and bowling pins nearby. Community outreach is not an expectation, but a requirement because it is cultivation. We do not exist in a vacuum, yet for many people, community participation is optional. For-profit employees are seldom expected to be active in the community as the job does not require it. But for non-profit and arts organization staff, being active and approachable in the community is a constant requirement. Donations are generally made after dozens of real conversations, not scripted pitches. Cultivation starts with community outreach.

    Education is cultivation as well, believe it or not. We teach and foster young musicians as well as lifelong aficionados, often leading directly to ticket sales, sponsorships, and donations. When we attempt to isolate outreach and education–departmentalizing them too much–we miss the bigger picture. The excitement and passion that teachers harness when educating our youth is exactly what we need when interacting with every single potential donor/concert attendee. The very idea that we would consider outreach and education separate and/or new expectations is a sign that something important has been missed.

    Music is about communication. Reaching audiences is not about being objectively good. It is about being subjectively meaningful. Communicating with an audience to which you are integrally connected is vastly more successful than with an audience where a divide exists between the community and the organization. A large part of that success comes from the so-called expectations of education and community outreach.

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