Collaboration: An Artistic Advantage

Arts groups throughout region and across the nation are realizing the benefits of working together

It wasn’t so long ago that arts organizations throughout America were happy to go it alone.

Martine Collier, president and CEO of Culture Works, cites an example.

“In 2003, I worked for the Georgia Council for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts was giving away $10,000 community partner grants,” she recalled. The idea was to encourage partnerships between two arts organizations or between arts and social services agencies.

“I could not get even one arts organization to apply!” Collier said.

In recent years, a major economic downturn has changed all of that. These days collaboration is the name of the arts game. The good news is that arts groups are finding — sometimes to their great surprise — that the collaborations aren’t just financially beneficial but can be creatively exciting as well.

That point was dramatically demonstrated last weekend when the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dayton Ballet and the Dayton Opera joined together on the Schuster Center stage for their first Signature concert. The gala evening was a direct result of the merging of the three organizations in July 2012, the first such merger in the country. Judging from the pre-talks and the standing ovations, both the audiences and the performers were thrilled.

“I took my 84-year-old mother to the Opening Spectacular,” said Alice Licata of Kettering. Licata said the event was one of the most enjoyable she has ever attended at the Schuster. But she was most thrilled with the effect the concert had on her mom, who suffers from serious dementia.

“She was literally transfixed by the performances, and the most astounding thing is she still remembered it 24 hours later!” Licata said. “That is practically miraculous! She has always loved the Philharmonic, the Ballet and the Opera, so to have them all together this way made a huge impression on her. She was nearly in tears by the end, and I’m so glad I took her.”

National trend

The spirit of collaboration for community betterment is a huge trend that’s showing up in both big cities and small towns throughout the nation, said Mary Campbell-Zoph, deputy director of the Ohio Arts Council. Collaborations are everywhere, with most arts organizations now involved in some level of collaboration, she said.

“I think it’s a whole different philosophy today about how the arts build communities,” she said. “It’s a whole eco-system of cultural activities that bring a vibrancy to a town.”

One aspect of this approach is called creative place-making.

“I think the big philosophical shift this represents is captured in the recent book titled, ‘Building Communities, Not Audiences’ ” she said. “It’s by Doug Borwick, who was in Dayton not too long ago. It’s a huge trend right now. The idea is that we can design and enhance a better community using cultural assets of the community.”

Campbell-Zoph, who began her career overseeing public programming at the Dayton Art Institute, said collaborators are finding that the new relationships not only increase efficiency but can deepen the artistic experience.

That’s been the case with orchestras throughout the country, said Rachelle Schlosser, director of media relations for the League of American Orchestras.

“We are seeing cross-genre collaborations between orchestras and the jazz, rap and the rock world; ballet and opera companies; art museums; and even cultural institutions like aquariums,” she said. “For example, one recent new work commissioned by the Des Moines Symphony was directly inspired by the artworks in the city’s sculpture park, and, in Long Beach, Calif., Steve Mackey’s ‘Urban Ocean’ was commissioned by the Aquarium of the Pacific.”

Schlosser said some of the most meaningful developments in her field are the strong collaborations forming between social service agencies and orchestras, as orchestras across the country run — or participate in — after-school programs for underserved kids, provide low-cost or free music lessons and instruments for children, and health and wellness therapy for Alzheimer’s patients, kids with autism, the elderly and hospital patients.

How the thinking has changed

Ann Fortescue, director of the Springfield Museum of Art, has worked in the museum world for 30 years in cities including New York and Pittsburgh.

In the pre-recession days, retrenching typically involved trimming back programming and staff, she said

“The rude awakenings and hard lessons of the recession are that we trimmed back as far as we could go,” she said. “We had to get creative. Part of the silver lining is that an economic downturn often fosters innovation.”

Fortescue said there’s always a point where everybody is anxious but that “they somehow manage to press the pause button long enough to think about how they can solve the problem — and then they can come up with a recipe for survival and growth.”

As a result, Fortescue said she’s watched collaborations grow from discreet program partnerships into mutually-beneficial collaborations that are not always based in programs.

Regional examples of the trend

The arts and cultural groups in Springfield are collaborating under the umbrella of the Springfield Foundation to produce a marketing piece twice a year that showcases the performing arts groups’ seasons and the visual arts groups’ exhibitions and programs.

“That was not so common pre-recession,” Fortescue said, adding that even though arts organizations know more about their audiences these days, they’re still starved for information about what motivates them.

“We recognize that by working together — particularly with marketing — we stand to gain audiences we might not reach by ourselves.”

Other types of partnerships

Another kind of collaboration involves physical plants.

“Because we’re stewards of collections — whether they are art objects or historic archives or library collections — museums need specialized controlled environments,” Fortescue explained. ” And that’s a higher facility operating expense, and so museums are looking at ways to establish partnerships that can enable them to operate the facility and gain something in addition.”

That’s the logic behind the sign on her museum that now reads: “Springfield Center for the Arts at Wittenberg University.”

“The museum was not using its entire building and Wittenberg university had need of some additional space for the theater department, so the university and museum worked out a purchase agreement whereby the university owns the building and the museum leases back just the space it needs,” Fortescue said.

Fortescue predicts that communities are going to continue to see more examples of collaboration.

“We’re going to see innovative things and unexpected collaborations and like any industry, we’re going to copy and adapt things that work well in other situations,” she said. “It might not always be a merger; it could be a shared service. And I think as they collaborate and form these new partnerships, the arts organizations are showing one another that they can do this without losing their identity — and that’s very important.”

Being proactive

Rick Jones, executive director of the Fitton Center for the Arts in Hamilton, decided to organize a group of Hamilton’s arts leaders about a year ago with a working title of Creative Coalition. The group consists of leaders of the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, Miami University Downtown, Hamilton City Schools, Hamilton Civic Theater, City of Sculpture, the Fitton Center, and soon Artspace and possibly Butler Tech School of the Arts.

“The first several months we discussed issues on a higher plane than the programs produced by each organization,” Jones explained. “My mission with this group continues to be to facilitate discussions that are vision and mission based to keep them from digressing to the programmatic, administrative or other more concrete issues.”

Jones insists that by holding discussions “at the 30,000 foot perspective,” members will begin to see the truth of why the work of the organizations is so important to their community — economically, educationally, socially and culturally.

An artist’s viewpoint

As a result of a Music Alive grant — a partnership of New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras — composer Stella Sung is beginning a three-year residency with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. Over the next three seasons, she’ll create a one-act opera, a chamber work for dance and music for educational performances. Sung also will become part of an educational program that creates works that integrate dance, vocal and instrumental music and reach more than 50,000 students annually.

Sung says her work is rooted in the collaborative process but insists it’s not an easy path.

“Collaborations require a considerable amount of patience, flexibility, shared common vision, open evaluation, trust and hard work but the results can be marvelous, ” said Sung, who is the former Composer-in-Residence for the Orlando Florida Philharmonic Orchestra and is currently Composer-in-Residence for Dance Alive National Ballet in Gainesville.

She has worked on film documentaries, animation and is currently working on her first opera, which will have its world premiere at the University of Florida next April.

“Opera — as well as the musical — is perhaps the quintessential musical genre of collaboration as there are so many aspects to production that require many talents and skills from a variety of people that must all come together to form a common vision,” Sung said.” I am not only the composer, but also a co-production manager for this production.”

Sung said her new collaboration with the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance will open new doors of creative thought and artistic exploration that will be looked at throughout the United States and perhaps abroad as well.

University collaborations

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company is also demonstrating just what can be done when an arts group and a university get together. The company has formal partnerships with the University of Dayton, Central State University and Wright State University.

“We provide services to their students across several disciplines, to enrich extra-curricular and campus life,” said DCDC executive director Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders. “In return, the universities provide earned revenue to the dance company. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only dance company with such deep institutional partnerships.”

With UD, for example, DCDC participates on campus in the annual Black Catholic Mass and the school’s Celebration of the Arts. Other DCDC collaborations involve community church choirs. In the spring, the company will collaborate with the Bach Society of Dayton for a new dance work.

Hawes-Saunders said the university partnerships are a source of income; the other collaborations help the non-profit dance company expand its audience, garner performance revenue, increase marketing opportunities and gradually build a donor base of individuals. For four years now, this new business model has held the company in good stead during the most difficult period of the Great Recession, she said.

Summing up

Arts organizations will never go back to the old ways of doing things in isolation, Martine Collier said.

“There’s a new normal — not just in Dayton, but nationally,” she said. “It took a sea change, but if anything positive has come out of the economic downturn, it’s the collaborations that are taking place.”

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