Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thoughts on Community Engagement

I realize my last post was a wee bit unfocused after I went back and read it a few days ago, so I figured I would touch on the topic a bit more this time with (hopefully) more detail and clarity.

Cultivating new audiences has been a major priority for most non-profits in recent years.  As this new push has been gaining some steam and traction, it seems that orchestras stopped doing "Outreach" to reach new audiences and starting doing "Community Engagement".  I happen to be very passionate about community engagement so this is something I think about all the time.

Recently though, I've been rethinking about how orchestras approach community engagement and why it doesn't always seem to work as effectively as they hope for.  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm a big advocate for orchestras getting out of their big and fancy concert halls once in awhile and create a consistent presence all over their cities.  I'm not for a second suggesting that orchestras should totally ditch the concert hall, but I am absolutely suggesting that maybe they spend a little more time making music for other parts of the community.  If these organizations actually went out on a regular basis and established a true presence and connection with their entire community, it would create a much stronger bond with those communities and would build community engagement into the performance experience.

I'm fully aware that orchestras often do "neighborhood concerts" and similar things, but one performance in a neighborhood isn't going to do much in terms of widening your audience for the long term.  Perhaps that's not the point of these concerts, but I think they're on to something that could really make a big difference for them down the road.  Many orchestras have existing programs within their communities that could be used to usher in this idea.

For example, here in Philly, I intern with their School Partnership Program where they have teaching artists teaching every week in about six schools across the area.  In addition to this, orchestra members do come out to the schools as well musicians from other partner organizations.  Each year all of these schools are brought in to see performances at The Kimmel Center and other venues around the city, but what if in addition to them going to the orchestra, the orchestra members regularly came to them.  They could make a big fanfare about members of the Philadelphia Orchestra coming to perform in THEIR neighborhood.  This way the students, teachers, family, friends, neighbors in that community could not only see the work the orchestra is doing there, but it would also give them a chance to have the concert experience with one of the leading orchestras in the country in their own communities.  Even if this happened twice a year at each school with different chamber groups, over time I think it would give the orchestra the opportunity to leave a much larger mark on that part of the community.

In addition to the expanded community engagement, I think this idea would have a lot of other benefits for the organization.  The main one being that I think if this was really done right, I think it would open the organization up to new opportunities for sponsorship and grants.  If orchestras were not only reaching their usual audience, but totally new audiences as well, it would appeal to a much larger base of potential sponsors and donors.  There are a lot of untapped markets out there of communities that are just waiting to experience the trans formative power that classical music and any art form can bring to a community.  I think orchestras should be actively pursuing those markets to create a wider impact and a last impression on their communities.

These are just some of my thoughts for what we could do differently as we move forward.

What are yours?    

***DISCLAIMER***  The Philadelphia Orchestra's School Partnership Program is only meant to be used as an example.  This idea I'm tossing out could be applied in a variety of ways to fit in with what organizations are already doing.

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