As part of last June’s conference of the League of American Orchestras in Seattle, I got to sit in on a pre-conference session of League members’ Education and Community Engagement staff. It was great to be around a group dedicated to the work I believe is so important to the future of the arts. While there was much of value for me in that session, one participant question has haunted me for the weeks since. In a Q & A period, one woman asked how she could reconcile her passion to improve people’s lives through the arts with her orchestra’s mission. To me, the question was an incredibly jarring one. If arts organizations’ missions are not, centrally, about making lives better, what is their purpose? And yet, I and I assume almost everyone there understood exactly what she meant. Our organizations, and it may be particularly our orchestras, can get so focused on the arts product that taking time to consider, much less respond to, the needs of our communities is deemed wasteful or inappropriate. This artcentricity is a bit more obvious when it’s called out like this, but until it is, it’s such an unconscious part of the world view that it’s invisible. (See Frames of Reference.)
I call frequently for a reconsideration of mission in the arts, from product-centered to community-centered. (The Metamission of Arts Institutions, Examining the “Mission Model.”) Acknowledging that that arts administrator’s question reflects an on-the-ground reality can serve as a catalyst for movement in rethinking core purpose in the arts.