The Man Who Decided To Raise Artists Instead of Chickens

It was with some sorrow that I learned this week that a great man who has literally been part of the grassroots effort to provide arts experiences to young people died last week. Albert Appel who, with his wife Clare, founded, or he might say floundered, into establishing an arts and music camp just turned 98 on July 5. A tribute to his life appears on the Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus website.

When I say he was literally part of a grassroots effort, it is because when he and his wife started giving music lessons to neighbor kids back around 1960, he was running a farm with 20,000 chickens, feed crops, and other animals. Gradually, the chickens began to be replaced by children. Again, literally. When I worked on the concert presenting side of the organization back in the early 2000s, two of the camp dorms were still refurbished chicken coops and were referred to as North & South Coop.

Albert, and his wife Clare, who had passed away before I started working there, are an admonishment against making assumptions about the artistic interests and capabilities of farmers. Albert trained to be a farmer, but he also played violin. He actually met Clare when friends told him they needed a violinist to fill out their string quartet.

The way Albert liked to tell it, he and Clare started the camp because kids would come over for music lessons and would never go home so he started charging their parents to let them hang around his house.

When I moved to South Jersey to take the job in winter 2000, I was told I could live in Albert’s house until I found a place of my own. I was given two room that used to be offices for the camp. As you moved through Albert’s house you could see that they had continued to add on to the house to accommodate camp activities. There were also some out buildings behind the house that got used. Finally, they moved a lot of the operations across the road–into the chicken coops, among other buildings. However, some of the original rooms continued to be used as living quarters for the camp counselors and staff during my tenure there.

The founding philosophy of the camp was that every kid has the capacity for creative expression. Come to think of it, working there may have serve to form my own views along those lines. A camper’s day was spent pursuing one major and two minors. The major was the area they identified as their core interest or area of experience and the minors were things they hadn’t really done, but wanted to explore. The subjects ranged from acting, dancing, music, ceramics, painting, photography, creative writing, video production.

Due to security concerns, folks like myself who didn’t work for the camp program weren’t generally allowed on the grounds past the administration building. However, I frequently helped distribute the mail and even without hearing them say it, it was clear that for a lot of those kids camp was a place they felt they could be themselves surrounded by people with similar interests versus who they had to be at home and at school.

But as I said, I wasn’t directly involved with the camp. My job was to run the operations for the concert series and music festival as well as to support the school outreach efforts. I count myself lucky to have lived in Albert’s house for a short time because even after I moved out, I would get invited to join him and his second wife, Peimin, when they were entertaining guests. Often it was groups like the Corigliano Quartet who were staying over in preparation for school residencies.

Albert would often pull out his violin to play or talk about his children’s music lessons on various instruments. Nearly all of Albert’s children play an instrument to some extent or another. His son Toby is a violist on the Julliard faculty. One story I recall involved inducements for him to practice piano. There are also a couple wild stories about Albert I heard from his kids.

Albert was definitely a character. Even though the livestock and poultry mostly departed the farm, all campers were required to work in the camp garden and the vegetables all made it to the kitchen for meals. Albert often gave the gardeners a hard time about how they were going about planting. A farmer can never really retire. He was just as passionate about creating an environment for people to cut loose with creative expression. At 80, he was pulling out his violin to play beside the campers. You would also hear the low drone of the instrument across the fields in the middle of the winter.

Obviously at 98, his death wasn’t unexpected but it is still saddening. Though at his 80th birthday party, he kept joking that if he had known he would live as long as he had, he would have taken better care of himself and he might have already made it to 90. Apparently someone was taking good care of him if he was so seriously pushing 100.

His legacy runs much deeper than thousands of kids attending arts camp over 60 years. As I mentioned, when I worked there the other nine months of the year were devoted to a concert series, school outreach programs and a pretty active conference calendar. Shortly after I left, Appel Farm started offering afternoon and evening arts classes to kids and adults and were the arts content provider for a local school district.

Now they have added a Families to College program that works with the whole family to provide an environment aligned with increasing the chances of success for college bound students. They are also involved with providing a charter school STEAM program. In a rural portion of southern NJ, programs like these can have big impacts.

I am sure there has been some positive impact on the economy of Elmer, NJ and Salem County that wouldn’t have existed if Appel Farm Arts and Music Center wasn’t there. But when we talk about the value of the arts, few would have the patience to wait 90 years, or smaller increment thereof, to see the result of giving 8 year old Albert music lessons. (Or his wife Clare for that matter, I am told she eclipsed him in passion for the camp’s mission.) And yet, there are thousands upon thousands of people who will attest to the immeasurable value of their experiences.

Always Wear Clean Underwear Theory of Management

Collen Dilenschneider most a recent post about the factors that influence a cultural organization’s reputation. In order they are: Favorability, Mission Execution, Onsite Experience, Stability, Social Impact, Leadership, Testimonials, Business Results and Contributions to Education.

Dilenschneider starts out saying it isn’t about the Yelp/Trip Advisory reviews so I knew testimonials wouldn’t be listed near the top. I was really surprised to see that Mission Execution came in second and before Onsite Experience. My first thought was that we would need to rethinks the types of questions we were using on surveys because so few are oriented toward mission execution.

Now to be clear, Dilenschneider says this isn’t about your ability to recite your mission statement on command, but how well you have internalized and manifest your mission.

“But this measurement and its rank suggest that knowing what you stand for matters – and knowing that you take action surrounding what you stand for matters, too.”

As you might anticipate, she says many of these categories are inter-related. The perception of organizational stability is shaped by leadership and business results, the latter of which is basically financial stability.

Two of the significant observations Dilenschneider made speak to the need to always be working on cultivating a good reputation as a hedge against times of crisis. Or to metaphorically employ my grandmother’s advice – “Always wear clean underwear because you never know if you will be in an accident.”

The entities with better reputational equities prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better during it. … it seems those that had better reputation-related metrics prior to the pandemic are doing a better job keeping them for now. This may be because those institutions had already made investments in social media, for instance, and had established a reputation for engaging audiences digitally before they had to… Entities with better reputations may have similarly already been promulgating educational resources, also resulting in their coming to mind compared to entities that may be only really starting this effort now.

The web may now play an even bigger role in maintaining a positive reputation that inspires attendance. …The web – and social media, in particular – played a critical role in motivating attendance and shaping reputation prior to that pandemic. With more time spent online and fewer folks out and about, digital engagement and seeing stories from others may influence the perceptions of all of these factors influencing reputation to an even greater extent.

Choose Wisely

I have had a little bit of survey fatigue so I haven’t been keeping up with Colleen Dilenschneider’s ongoing updates on audiences willingness to return to cultural organizations. As a result, I didn’t catch her post last week on the growing importance people are placing on mandatory face masks until recently.

What I felt was a more important reading of her post is that the conditions under which people will feel confident about returning to cultural organizations is increasingly more within the control of the organizations themselves.  In particular I base this on the fact that availability of a vaccine has dropped from the most important factor in April to the fifth most important factor. Face masks didn’t appear as a response on their surveys until about six weeks later in May. It started in the top three and as of last week, was the top factor. (my emphasis)

Or perhaps people are simply accepting that returning to normal activities might mean learning how to safely live alongside the virus for a time. The creation, approval, and distribution of a vaccine resulting in herd immunity may be many more months, or a year or longer away. This reality may be why masks now top the chart compared to the availability of a vaccine.

There has also been a dramatic decline in the percentage of people reporting that the government lifting restrictions means that conditions are safe to return to pre-pandemic behaviors…Now it’s seventh… and may still be decreasing.

As of this month, your organization’s own decision to be open is a bigger factor contributing to feeling safe than the government lifting restrictions. This is a big deal, but it’s not surprising. Cultural organizations are trusted entities at the same time that trust in the federal government is low. Many organizations closed before they were mandated to do so in an effort to flatten the curve. A notable 34% of likely visitors trust that you’ve duly considered safety and accordingly revised operations when making your decision to reopen.

If nothing else, these results emphasize the importance of regularly communicating with your community and generating a well-considered plan for an audience experience.

A Professional Knows Their Value

Seth Godin offers a pretty good definition of amateur, professional and hack in a recent post. While I haven’t fully considered all the implications of his definition, I feel like it makes the best distinction between professional and amateur I have come across because it avoids explicit or implicit comparisons of quality, dedication, training/education that are often present in discussing these terms.

The amateur contributes with unfiltered joy. There’s really no other upside–create your work because you can, because it helps someone else, because it makes you feel good.

The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like it. The professional understands the market, the customer and the price to be paid for work that’s worth paying for. But the professional isn’t a hack.

A hack is a professional who doesn’t care.

If I have one quibble, it is that his definition of professional is tied to economic value of a product. Granted, the classic definition is that amateurs do things for the love of it and professionals get paid, but we all know that often professionals are asked to do things for exposure or told they shouldn’t expect payment for something they enjoy, and that doesn’t make them any less of a professional.

At the same time, I appreciate the way the definition of a professional includes a sense of dedication that goes beyond the love of the creative process and implies the professional has done the work to educate themselves about external factors surrounding their work. There is the idea that one’s work has market value and all the complicated discussions we have about the quality of work having no relation to market price, but also the sense that the professional knows when their work is being devalued.

Godin’s distinction between hacks and both amateurs and professionals is that the latter two groups have a longer view about the role and value of their work in the greater ecosystem:

Serviceable is for hacks. Memorable and remarkable belong to professionals and hard-working amateurs.


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