In the minds of the general public, opera is often seen as the most distant and elitist of the arts. (Opera lovers, don’t pile on. I’m simply articulating what is a fairly common “on the street” perception.) That is why examples of deep community engagement coming from the opera world are so compelling and so important for the entire arts industry.
Houston Grand Opera, founded in 1955, has made a strong commitment to engagement. The company’s vision includes “Breaking down social, ethnic and economic barriers” as a central premise and seeks to form “dynamic, proactive and deepening relationships with the stakeholders, constituencies and communities which it serves.” This commitment is embodied in a key division of the organization called HGOco, begun in 2007. HGOco’s website says that “Opera tells stories through words and music. Every culture has a musical storytelling tradition, providing the common ground on which HGOco builds new and lasting relationships with the communities we serve. HGOco connects our company to our community through collaboration.”
HGOco runs HGO’s educational programming. It also produces its less traditional engagement activities. Notable recently is a project called Song of Houston: Home and Place, community-building programs carried out in Houston neighborhoods. In this project, HGOco trains facilitators to “record oral history interviews of community members, and use them as a basis to create a variety of artistic projects including song, visual arts, dance, photography and writing. These artworks will be presented at community festivals, and will also be stored on durable media to serve as an archive of each community’s stories.” In the under-served neighborhoods in which the program is implemented, the local neighborhood center is the facility in which the activities are housed. It is the intent of the program that ” [t]hrough expressing the stories of these communities’ residents through art and culture, Home and Place will facilitate communication, strengthen community bonds, and drive the vibrancy of these communities.”
HGO has recently received a $250,000 ArtPlace “creative placemaking” grant to expand this work. (ArtPlace is an initiative of 11 of U.S. foundations working in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts and seven federal agencies. “Its aim is to drive revitalization across the country by putting the arts at the center of economic development.”) It’s noteworthy to me that while most of the press surrounding the ArtPlace grants has focused on the arts and economic development, HGOco’s project is more closely tied to social development on the neighborhood level. Congratulations, HGO! And “Bravo!” ArtPlace for supporting what looks to be a truly interesting and, in the context of those grants, unusual project.
[Disclosure, yet again: Sandra Bernhard, the Director of HGOco, is preparing a case study on HGO for Building Communities, Not Audiences.]