I usually don’t post two days in a row, but I’m moved to do so after attending a concert by the Civic Symphony of Green Bay last night.
The Civic Symphony (aka “the Civic”) is an organization that epitomizes much of what small community arts organizations are facing today. Formed fifteen or so years ago when a cadre of local musicians found themselves cast off from the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra after the arrival of a new conductor, they have been fiercely dedicated to maintaining an all volunteer, community-friendly, inclusive organization. Their slogan is “Music you like, by people you know.” They have one very part time employee, who mostly opens the mail and pays the bills. All marketing, fundraising, program development and concert management is done by board members and volunteers. They are very, very dedicated. And very, very tired.
At the same time, the Civic is doing some exciting stuff. Last night’s concert featured music in celebration of Mexico’s 200th anniversary of independence, including local Mexican dancers, a guest classical guitarist and an exciting work by Silvestre Revueltas which ended with a virtuoso turn by twelve – count ’em – percussionists. Since the beginning a beloved local actor, Stu Smith, has narrated the concerts with trademark wit. They program thematically, feature a wide and interesting array of guest artists and balance celebrating community with exploring new territory. They even use Facebook far more effectively and enthusiastically than most other local arts organizations.
Last summer, I facilitated a strategic planning session for the Civic. Like most arts organizations, they are concerned about how to move forward in a tight economy and in an environment that has not been especially kind to classical music performing arts organizations. They are especially concerned about how they can move beyond counting on such a generous amount of volunteer labor to fuel their organization without losing their grassroots vision.
In short, they know that they have to work smarter, because they certainly can’t work any harder. So, I challenged them to think even further outside of the box labeled What A Symphony Does. Why do we do a formal four-concert season plus a family concert? Because that’s What A Symphony Does. Why do we perform at 7:30 pm on Saturday night (and often, the same night that the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra is performing)? Because that’s What A Symphony Does. Why are we on the treadmill of selling subscriptions, single tickets, memberships, sponsorships, and tickets to fundraisers? Because that’s what Every Arts Organization Does.
A community organization which is as innovative as the Civic already is should be able to go even further. They should be able to understand that their work is just as much about enriching their musicians as the community — and so they should not be afraid to just play without needing to perform everything they rehearse. They should be able to know that if they truly want to serve the community, they can consider doing concerts at different times, in different places…and sometimes for free.
Most importantly, working smarter and not harder for today’s arts organization means taking advantage of the opportunities that social media provides. An organization like the Civic is perfectly positioned to try some fun audience involvement activities that reinforce their mission. Perhaps a citizen’s brigade of volunteers, recruited via Facebook, or a corps of community reviewers. Maybe “open” rehearsals via YouTube would work, or an online contest in which community members audition to conduct the national anthem at the season opener.
The possibilities are endless, and I’m rooting for them. Any arts organization who has the cujones (and I use that term in celebration of the Mexican theme) to put twelve community percussionists on stage at one time deserves to win.