Serving The Community, It’s Like Dating

Continuing with my answers to questions asked by readers, last week Karen asked:

“I’m very interested in how small arts organizations effectively serve their community, particularly in long term collaborations. While I focus on the symphonic and choral space, I’m sure a lot of the wisdom on the topic can be applied broadly.”

Short answer- If I knew that, I would force Drew McManus to make me a partner in his consultancy and we be raking in the money.

The truth is, no one knows because there is no one right answer. Every arts organization is different and the dynamics of each one’s relationship with the community is different. One of choral groups you work with Karen, is associated with a religious entity on a university campus so their goals and target community are quite different from those of symphonies’ with which you work.

Each is going to have a different definition of what effective service means. For some it may mean getting people to attend. For others it might be people paying to attend. Even if the amount of the payment is $5, that small difference will have some significant implications about how the company interacts with the community.

Your question calls attention to the fact there are a lot of arts blogs and articles out there that sing the praises of the idealism of serving the community, but no one really admits that when it comes to the practical aspects they can’t tell you how.

Because we are basically talking about relationships with other people, it is really akin to trying to get advice on how to get someone to love you. There are tons of articles written on the subject every year, but no one has the answer.

The best anyone can ever come up with is “be yourself” and “don’t be a jerk.” The rest is all generalities: be funny, but not overbearing with jokes; get the other person to talk about themselves, but don’t be distant; find common ground, but have different interests that the other person will find intriguing, etc.

In many respects much depends on chemistry, in this case the one you have with your community, not the person you really like.

Everyone knows you don’t want to have your concerts in the slums because the impoverished don’t get invested in classical music— except there is El Sistema.

Why did it work in Venezuela? Can it work here?

Who knows, but there is an example of a long term collaboration. Somehow it endured nearly 40 years with the backing of the Venezuelan government. I suspect it was a few years before it reached the point where the national government became interested in becoming involved.

My advice is to think about who you really want to serve, regardless of whether there is any money in it or grant funding to support it. If you can make it work under those conditions, great. Otherwise, you probably need to compromise and shift your focus a little to those things there is money in.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, well if we spend resources on this thing that makes money, we will have the ability to help the people we really want to help. Then you are in a situation where you are cultivating relationships trying to serve community B so that you can serve community A which requires cultivating a different set of relationships.

If you have the time and resources to do that, you can probably swing working to serve community A for no money.

I am not saying that you can’t have varied programming and a wide appeal or that your other activities can’t generate revenue to support your long term collaboration. It is just that a small organization really needs to have a singular focus, otherwise they end up unable to achieve any of their goals effectively. (And I would hazard to guess this might be generally true for many organizations of larger size.)

If you are ready to be in it for the long term, then your collaboration with the community starts with developing relationships. If you decide that you want to really focus on bringing music to kids in a specific school district, you want to have relationships with the teachers, principal, superintendent that you are constantly reinforcing and renewing.

Most importantly, if at all possible, find a way to connect with the families in the district. Not only those with kids in the schools, but those with kids who have graduated and who will potentially be giving birth to those enrolling.

Show up at PTA meetings, participate in conversations on the Common Core standards for arts. Be in a position to be a partner and advocate for the community you have chosen to serve.

Go to Chamber of Commerce and Rotary meetings, talk about the group with which you are partnering, but also just meet people and talk about the weather. Get to know people and get known so that when you are in the paper for something your group has done, people already have a relationship with you from the time you brought that great pie to the potluck last New Year’s Eve.

Not only do you make a great pie, but you are doing good things for the school too. That’s great because I (as the person in your community) have to pay property taxes to support the school even though I don’t have kids. I am still resentful about the taxes, but also a little proud that my community has good schools so at least my taxes aren’t being wasted.

That is sort of my ideal vision of what a long term community partnership might look like. It is easier to do in a small city versus a large one because those relationships and connections with people not directly involved with your organization and the community are easier to create and maintain.

Having a relationship that provides a connection to people not directly involved with your organization or the community you serve is an important element in my mind. The goodwill you generate reinforces the sense of identity and worth for your organization and the community you serve.

Think about communities with strong athletic teams, whether it is college or professional. Whether you go to games or not, you walk into stores, you see branded merchandise for sale, bars have the games on television. If you are a student at the college, you get the sense that the whole community supports you even though you aren’t on a team, just by the benefit of your membership in the group.

Even if you don’t go to the games or have ever set foot on the campus, if you go visiting elsewhere and the people there are cheering for the grudge rivals of your hometown’s school, there is a good chance you will feel a tinge of responsibility to be loyal to your hometown team even if you don’t openly say anything.

I think that is the sign of an organization that has made a connection with the community when a person who has made no conscious effort at investment feels a sense of loyalty and duty to the organization.

Of course, unconscious investment ain’t paying the bills so you are always in the process of trying to convert people to being actively involved. You just don’t know if it will be a concert or a really good pie that tips the balance.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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