In a (very) recent post (Shut Up and Listen) I alluded to the article that Sandra Bernhard has written about Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco for Building Communities Not Audiences. I also promised (some might say threatened) to follow up on it. One of my very real concerns about the current burgeoning (and gratifying) acceptance of community engagement in the arts community is that it is somehow understood either as an organizational add-on or simply as a marketing technique. The former can lead to a last-hired, first-fired sense of impermanence (and thus a lack of institutional support–”Other things are more important, of course, and so, when push comes to shove . . . .”) for engagement work. The latter can lead to a superficiality that undermines the effectiveness of engagement. The community “sees us coming.”
Ms. Bernhard’s article about HGOco makes a compelling case that, from its origins under the leadership of HGO’s Music Director Patrick Summers and former General Director and CEO Anthony Freud, HGOco (the “co” comes from Company, Community, and Collaboration) has been central to HGO’s work. The two men
[S]hared an acute awareness of the changing dynamic between an opera house and a 21st-century city. They understood the changes of perception, both internally and externally, necessary for an opera company to be seen as relevant to today’s community and not regarded as an out of date, expensive, elitist art form. . . . The two men sought to use [HGO’s] resources as means through which HGO could interact and connect with the community on multiple levels. Their work began to change the perception of opera in Houston from an art form reserved for a few to a cultural resource that speaks to everyone by telling the stories of who we are. . . . Under their leadership, HGO developed two principal subunits, one to produce the company’s subscription series and the other, HGOco, to produce other work. Functioning together, HGO and HGOco would create internal and external partnerships to connect the company to the community . . . .
[Referring to a specific HGOco project,] Mr. Freud led [it] with the expectation that everyone in the company, regardless of job or position, would be involved. [The work of HGOco] was defined as . . . a part of the mission of HGO and supported by every member of the company as an important work of art that connected the company to the community. In Mr. Freud’s view, the health of HGOco depended on the health of Houston Grand Opera and the health of a 21st-century opera company in a 21st-century city depended on the support of HGOco projects that connected its communities to the city as a whole. . . .
The new paradigm required the vision of the leader, the continual messaging of the mission, and the expectation that everyone would be involved in every project: no exceptions. As with any cultural change, there were those who did not fully embrace or understand the change. The new paradigm was supported in word and deed by the CEO and would slowly permeate every fiber of the company. HGOco became a part of the language of the company and the language of the company included HGOco.
Since its inception, HGOco has led many projects in which new work is commissioned. That new work is always an outgrowth of awareness of community issues and grows out of dialogue with the community, focusing on the telling of stories through music and words. Recently HGOco has been awarded a $250,000 ArtPlace grant (reported earlier in this blog) for its Home and Place program that collects on-the-ground stories from three distinct under-served Houston neighborhoods and “operizes” them. (It’s great fun to make up words.) This appears to be the big-arts-institution equivalent of the projects about which I reported in Shut Up and Listen (El Puente, Casita Maria/Dancing in the Streets, and Chimpanzee Productions).
And the results? HGOco is a highly visible face of opera in Houston, winning friends among all the city’s diverse constituencies. It provides practical benefits by expanding employment options for HGO’s musicians, designers, and production crews. It contributes in small ways to current ticket sales (where HGO productions have community themes that HGOco promotes), but its real purpose “is future-focused. Its work will have the long-term effect of winning people to the value of opera in ways not otherwise conceivable. It is also establishing connections with populations previously uninvolved with opera that represent the future of Houston and of the United States.”
The specifics of the HGO/HGOco story are not directly applicable to every arts organization. However, the principle that engagement is possible and that it yields positive results is a valuable take-away.