Not to long ago an arts administrator colleague of mine described engagement i the community this way, “If your concert hall burned down, how would you reach the community for the year or two it took to replace it? That’s Engagement.”
It is true. Increasingly in the Arts we must articulate our case for support beyond the core product on the stage. If we are to be truly important to the community we must engage the community deeply, purposefully, and as a centerpiece of who we are and what we do.
What happens when the city is burning? How do we engage at that time?
This is a question the Baltimore Symphony asked itself recently. You know the stories, you saw the terrible video. Protests. Vandalism. Fires. Exposed generational inequity in our cities despite boom times in our economy and better times than ever to live in an urban core. Baltimore erupted.
No institutions get public welfare like professional sports in the United States. We build stadiums for billionaires and leave the profits untaxed in the name of civic pride and questionable economic development. We can debate the value of these investments. But what we cannot debate is the debt these sports organizations owe to the tax payers and citizens who pay the freight.
And so what did the Baltimore Orioles do with mayhem in the streets? They closed their Baseball Palace, and played their folly in front of no one, in an empty stadium. I am a fan of baseball and appreciate both Camden Yards as a beautiful facility and the importance of sports in Baltimore. As an Indianapolis resident I realize how low the Colts were in leaving town in the 80s, kicking an already depressed city when it was down. But this act, to lock out the residents of the city to the Ball Park, to play in fear, to turn their backs on the community, that was unforgivable.
For shame to the Orioles. I love sports. I do. But this has to stop. Either these teams engage in the community and care about what’s going on or the public cash ends. It simply will not do.
Let’s looks instead for inspiration to the Arts. What did our Friends at the Baltimore Symphony do? They played an outdoor concert for Peace. They played in the heart of the city, for all to attend, to bring a community together. The BSO cannot solve inequity. They are deeply engaged in their community but they cannot bring jobs or justice to the poorest neighborhoods. But they can – and did – play for their community when the community needed them the most. They did the thing that only they could do. What else could be ask of any organization?
It is an extraordinary story. What does your organization do be vital and relevant?
In a crisis for your community, what will you do? What is important TODAY, right now? How are you helping?
That’s your case. That’s what is fundable. That is your inspiration.