Lessons from the Ballpark

Blogging comes with an “occupational” hazard. Everything you do ends up having the potential for becoming a blog post, often when you least expect it. (Wait until you see the upcoming essay that began at a Jimmy Buffett concert!) Last month I was minding my own business attending a minor league baseball game with friends, thinking not a whit about the arts and community engagement. Then something remarkable happened. Between innings, a young girl who had endured multiple open heart surgeries that saved her life was recognized, along with her family and doctor. She then ran around the bases as part of a program by the ball club called “Home Run for Life.”

This girl’s story had nothing to do with baseball. The program is clearly an effort on the part of the team to connect with its community. So that got me thinking . . . .

What was the mindset that led to this promotion? Clearly, it was about the team’s interest, for pragmatic reasons to be sure, in being seen as a responsible, caring member of the community. What really got the wheels turning was trying to imagine something similar happening in the arts. Some of you may say that such a program would not be appropriate for an arts organization, and I am certainly a stickler for focus in adhering to the mission. This specific example is probably not a helpful model. But it’s the mindset that led to the “Home Run for Life” program that intrigues me. What sorts of activities might come from a view of the “arts self” wanting to connect with the community, even ones that were not directly related to the arts?

After I started down that road, I began to look at the other activities at the ballpark that evening. There were fan participation activities, singalongs (including, of course, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), contests, and fireworks at the end. Many of them were silly to the point of being embarrassing. Many (most?) had little or nothing to do with baseball. I would certainly not advocate for toddler races in Symphony Hall! But in the light of my earlier post (Things Change) about the way arts events have become much more staid, more static experiences in the last hundred years, might not a “community-centered” approach to programming lead to some healthy change?

By the time we got to the end of the game I had taken yet another turn. What is it about minor league baseball that encourages the activities we witnessed? My immediate assessment was that it is a for-profit entertainment venture. As such, it behooves the management to engage in every way practical with as much of the community as possible. As a spectator who is not particularly interested in baseball for itself, I go (on the occasions when I do) because it’s fun, it’s entertaining. And the beer is not too expensive, especially on Thirsty Thursday.

Not-for-profit arts organizations are mission-driven, making them different animals from minor league baseball. In the baseball games, it’s OK if for many attendees the experience is not “about” baseball. We are still paying for the tickets. Our arts events must be about the arts; however, they must also, because of the 501(c)(3) structure, be about serving the community. I would further argue that apart from that legal argument, the arts should be community-focused, but you’ve read me saying that many times before. It is in the realm of community connection that many arts organizations have little experience. The details of game-day activities in minor league sports may have nothing to offer. But the perspective of being community partners should offer us some new thoughts about ways to connect and serve.



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  1. David B. Pankratz says

    Excellent post. Multiple choice quizzes also an engaging activity in the minor (and major) leagues. In addition, arts education could learn a lot from youth soccer about how to maximize parental engagement.

  2. hc says

    i am an administrator at a large cultural institution and haven’t spoken publicly regarding the condition of the non-profit arts, but this blog has inspired me to get involved. engage, methinks. so… what i cannot continue to not understand is the following mindset: “Some of you may say that such a program would not be appropriate for an arts organization, and I am certainly a stickler for focus in adhering to the mission.” How in the world could anyone who lives in a contemporary marketplace find this an example of not forwarding mission? Isn’t part of forwarding anything taking care of it? Today’s culture demands of its leaders the daunting task of getting through to others in a world where the getting through is filled with distraction. That’s part of the challenge of taking care of it. So to further a cause, you must engage the viewer or patron, stakeholder, etc. It makes perfect sense that this organization captured the hearts and minds of so many in a partnership that allowed for such touching visibility. This innovation is part of taking care of your organization– indeed of furthering the mission. The question isn’t should we do it or not, the question is how does each leader in an institution create sensible partnerships that involve getting in front of targets such that we win the hearts and minds– make connection– create empathy and understanding. Doing so is not a loss of focus; it’s a smart expansion of public interest toward a worthy mission.

  3. Joan says

    In the arts, the ones who engage with meaning and society, bringing focus to a particular form, set of skills and ideas, expanding the public’s awareness of a broad and lovely sense of life and meaning, are the artists and the art work themselves, the creators, the makers, and the work. That is why we spend 15 years learning our trade BEFORE we selling it, why make what we do. And that is why the audience comes, in order to bring their experiences publicly to the event., and to let the art allow them all to share life lived, more fully. Our morality is undeclared, hidden within the exercise of the art. Any other external reference to any niceness, rhetoric, good deed, or other event outside of the ballet, opera, concert, art show, or book/poetry reading would become part of the whole event and by definition this would alter the art created by the artist. Everything “goes black” for a good reason, so that the art itself is all that is there. The art performed is the meaning of that event. Sports don’t offer meaning and self-awareness as their subject. Doing a sport is likely important personally to the sports person. But the team isn’t trying to present that private meaning to the audience in the game, in the event itself. Not by a long shot. Fights engineered during games. Million dollar salaries. Language fir for the gutter. The songs and the girl’s admirable run don’t interfere with any message or sport presentation’s voice. As you say, they make it more palatable and enhance it.