Gaining Community Support for Your Organization
Getting the community to support a local symphony or theater can be a challenging task. Life throws many things at us, the arts tend to fall into the background noise. But there are many ways to gain community support and get the community involved with your organization. I was fortunate enough to attend a webinar where Mr. Caen Thomason-Redus relayed his own experiences with getting community involvement and support with the Detroit Symphony where he serves as the Senior Director of Community and Learning.
One of the most important aspects for community support is to give back to that very same community. Mr. Thomason-Redus spoke about how the Detroit Symphony offers more than just traditional orchestra concerts. The musicians often work outside of the concert hall to teach private lessons to students in local schools, perform in small chamber groups at community events, or play in hospitals and nursing homes. They understand the value that music can bring to the community and want to keep it constant in the everyday lives of many. They also feel it is important to make education a top priority for the community. They have multiple programs such as youth ensembles that educate students in music and provide public performances for the parents and community to attend. They also broadcast free webinars of music programs with educational aspects included and have a project called Detroit Harmony that provides instruments and lessons to children in the community. By showing that the symphony cares for the community and has clear efforts to try and give back, the community will in turn be more willing to support the symphony.
The community is much more willing to participate in symphony events if they feel they have a say in what is programmed. The Detroit symphony values input from the community and makes a point to communicate clearly. They have a program called Classical Roots that is composed of community members that meet to plan events and give feedback to the orchestra. These people are representative of the community in which they live so that there can be direct communication. This is a good idea for any arts organization that is trying to maintain good connection with the people in their communities. Creating a committee with people who are not directly associated with the organization and represent a diverse group in the community is important. The community will view this as an effort to reach out and hear from them. Mr. Caen Thomason-Redus also says, “It is inevitable that negative feedback will be received at some point. In situations like that it is best to truly listen to the community members rather than taking a defensive stance. People make mistakes and it is much more important that we own up to that in order to solve the issue at hand”. The community should always feel heard. If an arts organization is defensive about a project or program that was offensive to others, they should own it, apologize, and listen to correct the situation. This will ensure the long term support of those upset because they will feel important to the organization and what they stand for.
Diversity and inclusion are hot topics in today’s world. It is so incredibly important that art organizations are reaching out to a diverse group of people and also have boards and employees that represent the community the group is serving. Mr. Caen Thomason-Redus speaks about how you must cater to the community to ensure accurate representation. They believe you should also program to support the diverse population you are serving. For example, Detroit has a large black community and they seek to engage with that group by creating programs for black musicians and composers or by playing music that celebrates that culture. They want to show that they value that part of the community and want to continuously engage with them. This is a great way to ensure support from a community and show that you are interested in those that live there rather than just one group of people.
Policies within the community can often affect the work of an arts group. For the Detroit Symphony, they face the issue of zoning. Their orchestra hall is declared a historical building, so in order to change things in the hall they must go through the process of getting permission from the city. This can take time and affect programming they are trying to address. It is important that any city arts group has strong relationships with the city government and community. They can establish this by donating their time and participating in community events. A strong relationship with the city government means they will strongly consider how public policies will affect the arts group.
Gaining the community support will always be a large hurdle most art organizations will need to overcome. Mr. Caen Thomason-Redus has given some great insight on how the Detroit Symphony has been so successful in their community and I hope you can use some of this information to make your own groups successful!
All the following information was based on a webinar hosted by the Masters of Arts Leadership and Cultural Management Program at Colorado State University. I am in no way associated with the Detroit Symphony.