Bright Spots

I wish I had written that. That’s exactly the way I felt when I finished reading Alexis Frasz’ and  Holly Sidford’s report for The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation: Bright Spots Leadership in the Pacific Northwest. (Ms. Sidford was also the author the report, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change for the Committee for Responsive Philanthropy that highlighted the “shocking” news that most arts funding went to wealthy organizations.)

But, not being a researcher, I could not have, so my hat is simply off to the reports’ authors. Bright Spots serves the function of being a management principles treatise for arts organizations along the lines of Jim Collins’ Good to Great. (Indeed, many of the principles articulated sound like arts-centric versions of Collins’ essential truths.) It also has some excellent brief case studies, “Bright Spots” doing well in difficult times.

What tickles my fancy about so much of what is contained in Bright Spots (surprise!) is the fact that the Bright Spot organizations cited almost all have community engagement at the core of their missions, explicitly or implicitly. Of the five basic Bright Spot principles identified, one is “Deeply Engaged with Community.”

Bright Spot organizations “operate in and of their communities, and they possess a deep understanding of their interconnectedness with others and their role as civic leaders.”

“They engage with community issues not for audience development reasons but as an investment in the shared social and economic fabric of which they are a part.”

“Bright spots see partnerships and collaborations as a way to achieve more for the community and their mission at the same time. Partnering is a core value, not a way to realize efficiencies of time or money (which is often doesn’t, anyway). Bright spots think less about ‘mine’ and more about ‘ours.'”

. . . . And the people (at least this one) all said, “Amen.”

OK, some juicy excerpts:

Trey McIntyre Project (Everyone is writing about them. I will one day. But for now, this will suffice):

“To convince Boise to make a commitment to
 it, TMP first made a passionate commitment to Boise.” One result isdancers get free YMCA memberships; free haircuts; free M.R.I’s, X-rays, and orthopedic surgery; free hotel accommodations for guests; and a free education at Boise State University.(! Emphasis mine. Artists, take note.)

Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

Annual or biannual Town Hall meetings offer time for OSF staff and locals to discuss the upcoming season, programs, and any concerns or questions. As part of its commitment to the inclusion of diverse people, ideas, cultures, and traditions; OSF organizes CultureFest, a celebration of multi-ethnic cultures.

A result? “[W]hen the main supporting beam in OSF’s main indoor theater cracked 
in mid-season and alternative plans had to be created over night. . . [t]he community completely rallied to this emergency. . . .and amazing things happened. The Parks Department acted in two days to authorize our use of a downtown park, and expedited all the attendant permits and contracts. The business community stepped up, and many, many local residents called or came over to see if there was anything they could do. Of course, no one in town wanted to see this important economic resource threatened, but the overwhelming tenor of the responses was one of neighborliness and good will. We had an unimaginably difficult and exhausting summer, but we feel wonderfully affirmed by the people of Ashland and we are inexpressibly grateful to them.”

Sun Valley Center for the Arts:

“We are interested in being of and for this community, rather than just ‘serving’ this community. We aren’t delivering art because it is good for people and a nice thing. We believe that the arts are helping connect people, that they are necessary for our humanity and our understanding of our world. . . .[W]hen programming things we always question, ‘How 
is this relevant to the people and the life in this town?” [Emphasis mine]

I am particularly struck by the way they responded to reaching the town’s construction workers and craftsmen for a show of fine woodwork by George Nakoshima. They threw a kegger! “Sun Valley bought a keg of beer and invited the guys to come in after work. Poole says, ‘They were down on their knees examining his work. It was the most engaged audience we could have hoped for.'”

Icicle Creek Center for the Arts

“It’s not enough to say, ‘We want to survive.’ We have to be able to answer the question, ‘Why?’”

Portland Center Stage

“When we set about to design a new building for the theater, we wanted it to help us reinvent our relationship with the community.” PCS built its theater in a renovated Armory, which has now become an important community gathering place, open 10 am to midnight, six days a week. . . . “[I]t connects us to multiple conversations in the community. On a daily basis, this informs decisions we make about what to put on stage and who we want to work with.

You get the idea. It can be (and is being) done and it pays off for the arts. Engagement is not just a buzz word or a path to funding. It’s a way of thinking and being that presents a means of ensuring a vibrant future for the arts, breaking the logjam separating us from the broad community. Thank you Alexis Frasz and  Holly Sidford for recording these stories. (And thanks to Karen Gahl-Mills of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture for breaking my own logjam with respect to Bright Spots. Inertia had it sitting “unopened” on my shelf.)



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  1. Leonard Steinbach says

    Terrific that you are sharing this report which I fear has not been given the distribution due. I currently teach the Business of Museums at Johns Hopkins Grad School of Museum Studies, and Cultural Management/Museum Studies at City U of Hong Kong….it is required reading at both to pretty good student acclaim…..that’s when to get them! (I pair this with Michael Kaiser’s “Ten Rules” from Art of the Turnaround”

    Let’s hope it goes viral in the cultural community…every director should read it….

  2. Alexis Frasz says

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for thoughtful comments on the report, it is always really helpful to hear what resonates. Your point that “Engagement is not just a buzz word or a path to funding. It’s a way of thinking and being that presents a means of ensuring a vibrant future for the arts, breaking the logjam separating us from the broad community.” is right on, and the key to what makes the Deeply Engaged with Community principle more than just another marketing tactic. Incidentally, this has been the principle that has been most difficult for people to grasp as we’ve presented this work in different arts communities. So, the work you are doing in speaking to this issue is critical.

    It is interesting that you point out the similarities between our findings and Jim Collins’ work. We noticed this congruence as well, even though our conclusions were drawn purely from the data we gathered from interviews with the organizations we studied and not from a review of theoretical literature. We tested preliminary drafts of the report with cultural organizations, and they felt strongly that we keep the report focused on our research findings rather than theory. They felt like the results were particularly compelling because they were rooted in the real experiences of peer arts organizations, rather than extrapolated from organizational theory developed in the business world. That said, I think that the parallels are remarkable, in part BECAUSE the findings were arrived at in two different fields with two different methodologies.