Changing the Tune in Charm City
Arts Management Institute Tackles Unique, Universal Challenges with Baltimore Art and Cultural OrganizationsBy Karen Shih ’09 | photos by Thomas McConlogue, the Maryland Film Festival, the Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Abbey Theater
Inside the cavernous hall of the Baltimore War Memorial, the lights dim. Colorful projections dance across the marble columns and the silhouettes of performers seated across the stage. Then, from the back of the hall, a hooded figure enters in a metal cage, pushed down the center aisle by horned attendants.
He casts off the robe to reveal a bedazzled jacket, heavy eyeliner and a conductor’s wand, kicking off an unusual evening of classical music intertwined with original rock opera pieces. Headbangers crowd in front of the stage as musicians play everything from a Tchaikovsky violin concerto to “America the Beautiful” to “Valhella,” featuring a giant puppet of the devil.
That eclectic performance in April 2016 by the Concert Artists of Baltimore (CAB) and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society was part of the inaugural Light City Baltimore, a weeklong art and music festival that drew more than 400,000 people.
“If we hadn’t had the right artistic and administrative team in place, we couldn’t have made this happen,” said Tonya Robles, CAB’s former executive director.
CAB was able to create this show in the middle of a full season—and just a year after shrinking its performance schedule amid staffing and budget problems—through the guidance of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.
The institute, dedicated to educating arts managers throughout the United States and the world, brought its two-year “capacity-building” program to Baltimore in 2015, taking 20 cultural and artistic organizations through a deep dive into their finances, staffing, board governance and more.
For many of these organizations, just keeping up with bills, selling enough tickets to the next performance and producing a major fundraiser once a year was a challenge. The DeVos Institute presented a daunting new goal: planning long-term to create bold, creative exhibits and performances.
“The problem in our industry is that when the going gets rough, we end up thinking safe,” says institute President Brett Egan. “The problem with thinking safe is we end up producing art that’s easy to ignore.”
From the Wild West to the DeVos Institute Cycle
Here’s a show nobody could ignore: Abbey Theatre’s performance of a play at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin, Ireland, which houses convicted murderers and drug traffickers. It drew positive press coverage in the country’s two largest newspapers, which in turn brought new board members into the theater’s orbit and increased ticket sales for the next show by 15 percent. Thanks to a new integrated marketing and fundraising plan advocated by the DeVos Institute, the theater was primed to take advantage of its newfound visibility. Working with new board members, the theater brought in much-needed private funding—essential as the organization struggled to overcome public funding cuts.
That’s the type of success story that follows the DeVos Institute as it works with organizations all over the world, from Croatia to Vietnam, Detroit to Los Angeles.
“This business is still like the Wild West,” says Egan. “The vast majority of arts organization managers have never taken a formal training program for our business, which isn’t the case for other professionals. Our framework helps them consistently get the most done with the least resources.”
The institute, founded in 2001 by Michael Kaiser when he was president of the Kennedy Center, moved to the University of Maryland in fall 2014. Working in Baltimore was a priority for the university, so the leadership decided to bring its expertise to Maryland’s largest city.
The free program drew organizations as diverse as the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and CAB. The DeVos Institute offered five in-person seminars on topics like long-term artistic planning, fundraising and marketing; online master classes with take-home planning assignments; and monthly consultations with a DeVos expert.
While each organization and city has its unique challenges, the institute uses a circular framework that tackles the universal problems that all arts organizations face. The institute’s belief: Creating transformative art is possible only through aggressive marketing, cultivating a “family” of supporters and harnessing the goodwill of the family through fundraising. Though it seems basic, organizations get so bogged down in daily struggles they fail to see the big picture.
“Once organizations start planning two, three or even five years in advance, you’ll have those big ideas. Your staff, communities and donors then have a chance to think big with you,” Egan says.
“Putting out the Fire Burning Most Brightly”
For nearly three decades, Concert Artists of Baltimore has relied largely on the talents and charms of one man: Ed Polochick, one of its co-founders and the artistic director.
“Funders love him, musicians love him, patrons love him,” Robles said in June 2015. “If it weren’t for his dedication, artistic commitment and force of personality, Concert Artists wouldn’t be here today.”
The group consists of a professional chamber orchestra and chamber chorus, which come together for four full “Maestro Series” concerts per year. CAB also produces several smaller “Mansion Series” concerts featuring just the orchestra, and both the orchestra and chorus perform with groups like the Moscow Ballet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
But as it became harder to raise money in Baltimore in recent years, following the nationwide recession, even Polochick couldn’t keep CAB in the black. Having a strong administrative team became more important than ever.
Robles arrived in 2014 to find organizational disarray, despite CAB’s sterling artistic reputation. Turnover was rampant, starting with the executive director position and trickling down to stage managers and graphic designers. The organization’s website was woefully dated; it was still paying its staff and 100 or so rotating musicians with paper checks; and it was on probationary status with the state arts council, putting it at risk of losing grant money.
The organization struggled to plan more than a year ahead. Since arts seasons tend to run from fall to spring, most groups announce their new season at the end of the current one to give patrons time to plan and subscribe. But for years, CAB was unable to announce a new season until after Labor Day, putting it at a financial disadvantage.
That’s why Robles jumped at the chance to participate in the DeVos Institute program.
She saw tangible change just a few months in. She and Polochick created a five-year artistic plan and drew from that to announce CAB’s 2015–16 season at the same time as its peers.
“What the DeVos program allowed us to do is to not be so driven by the urgent crisis of the week,” she said. “We had been running from one concert to another, putting out the fire that was burning most brightly.”
By March 2016, CAB was able to expand its digital and print marketing. Its payroll was streamlined and new staff members were hired, including a production assistant, a box office staffer and even an assistant conductor to step in for Polochick when he wasn’t available. And the Light City show was just a month away.
But Robles was also realistic: Ticket sales throughout the season were lower than she’d hoped—a ripple effect from the unrest in Baltimore following Freddy Gray’s death a year earlier. (Besides arts organizations, news reports noted declines in attendance in 2015 at other popular city tourism attractions such as the Maryland Science Center, Maryland Zoo and National Aquarium.) Administrative hurdles sprang up constantly, like losing financial data after a computer disk crashed. And there were whole facets of the program she hadn’t even started, like figuring out how to re-engage her board.
“I was a bit naïve going into the program,” Robles said. “It’s not a quick fix. It’s more a long-term investment of our time and effort.”
Success in Charm City
If you step off the train at Penn Station in downtown Baltimore today and walk just a few blocks north you’ll see the historic Parkway Theater, defunct since the 1970s, reborn as the SNF Parkway Film Center.
This is the new home of the Maryland Film Festival, another participant in the just-finished DeVos program, which after 18 years finally has a year-round location to play independent films and host educational discussions. The organization opens the theater with its 2017 festival from May 3–7.
“A huge component of DeVos’ work with us was helping us be strategic about our capital campaign” to raise $18.2 million, says Adrienne Peres, director of development and marketing. “Our adviser also gave us a key piece of advice: Your theater opening should [last] a year. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate and create multiple events and programs. We never thought about it that way.”
Turn back and walk a few blocks south, and you’ll soon run across the Engineers Club, a mansion where Baltimore Concert Opera (BCO) now hosts its “Thirsty Thursdays” shows.
“This was an idea we had for several years, but DeVos gave us that extra confidence to go forward with it,” says Executive Director Julia Cooke. She and a board member reached out to young professionals, particularly at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to build a new audience base. The BCO paired alcohol and opera highlights to create shows like “Arias, Ambers and IPAs” and “Vino and Verdi”—and sold out every time.
“We’re succeeding at something everyone’s trying,” she says.
Across the city, DeVos program participants can share stories like these. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company produced its highest-grossing production in its 14-year history. Arts Every Day, which brings art programs to Baltimore Public Schools, received several major gifts for its 10th anniversary. The Jewish Museum of Maryland hosted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Paul Simon exhibit, which garnered coverage from The New York Times.
“The DeVos program is able to provide a level of insight and expertise that’s honestly at the level of McKinsey and those top-quality consulting firms,” says Peres. “Their advice has been invaluable.”
Relevance, Today and Tomorrow
For Concert Artists, the past two years have included triumphs like Light City and its 30th anniversary season—but also major setbacks like Robles’ sudden departure in summer 2016.
Her leaving brought CAB’s progress to a halt, as the organization scrambled to fill her position. Despite that, the work she and Polochick did with the institute has laid groundwork that will benefit the organization for years to come.
“The real impact of DeVos was organizing us in much greater detail and scope than we had before,” says Polochick. “Before, we just rolled along based on institutional memory. But if it’s not on file in a way everyone can see, people like the staff, volunteers and board can’t buy into it. Now they can.”
That’s ultimately the goal of the DeVos Institute. Egan and Kaiser want to see these organizations stay around for decades, sharing innovative new work with wider audiences.
“All arts organizations are continually facing the same question: How will they make their art and programs increasingly relevant to quickly changing demographics and social needs?” Egan says. “We’re working with every organization on ideas that can transform the way people think about the discipline, the way people think about their communities—and even their own lives.”
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