I’d like to take a different approach to consideration of mission in this post from the previous two. This one is less directly about the relationship between mission and community engagement (although two of the examples deal, very explicitly, with that). What I’m interested in here is the power that can come from factoring market realities into adopting a mission. Identifying a valuable market niche and staking your mission there can yield great results. I am presenting this in Engaging Matters because a vigorous focus on community engagement is still a relatively rare stance in the arts world and it can serve as means of setting one’s organization apart from the pack.
The well-known case of the Oakland Symphony in the 1980’s begins with a clear sense of mission rooted in the realities of Oakland. Aware of its inability to compete head-to-head with the San Francisco Symphony, Oakland chose to focus on “exceptionally well-performed new music not played by the San Francisco Symphony,” to “cater to a local audience,” to commission new work, and to maintain “a . . . limited performance schedule.” As they achieved success, they sought to become something different, something that more directly competed with the San Francisco Symphony. In other words they sought to become “another major orchestra.” This departure from what was a reasonably well-functioning market niche was one of the many factors that played into the orchestra’s demise, famously documented in Autopsy of an Orchestra. The phoenix that has arisen from the Oakland Symphony’s ashes, the Oakland-East Bay Symphony, has adhered to and refined the original vision of the OS. OEBS sees itself as a community-centered orchestra and works from that position.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the shadow of the performing arts juggernauts of Manhattan, has staked a claim on contemporary, especially avant garde work. This clear sense of identity, along with brilliant leadership, has created an institution that is the envy of its Manhattan peers and an international force in contemporary arts.
And Ballet Memphis, about which I have written before, taking stock of its community and the fairly crowded ballet world (on the national level), chose to be a community-focused institution. The demographics of Memphis led the Memphis Symphony to a similar mission and together they serve Memphis well.
Mission is not an abstract, academic notion. Properly conceived, a mission serves as a life raft in the sea of troubles . . . and “shiny object ” temptations of artcentric goals. It should be the basis of every significant decision an arts organization takes. It should be informed by the realities of the market in which the organization exists, and not simply the desires of the founders, artistic director, or the board. I think one reason that I, as an advocate for community engagement, find reality-based missions so important is that there are a lot of “generic” arts organizations–the symphony, theatre, dance company, or museum that could be in any city in the country (or world). One reason they struggle is because of their lack of connection to a place. I would argue that a community-focused mission is one way for an arts organization to differentiate itself from the crowd and, perhaps, make it stand out artistically and be more sustainable.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?