This issue features a reflection on the City Museum, a discussion of the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network, and a consideration of the changes small regional organizations undergo as they grow.
John Carnwath, Re-Discovering Creativity at City Museum
Dr. Thomas Wolf, The National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network
Jane Culbert, What Happens When You Go National?
Re-Discovering Creativity at City Museum
By John Carnwath
When I recently stumbled into the City Museum in St. Louis, I was fascinated and overwhelmed. I showed up at the City Museum with my three young children and very little idea of what to expect. We decided to go solely based on a recommendation we had received just the day before. Approaching the entrance of the 10-story building one is greeted by a strange mash-up of neo-gothic towers, an old fire engine, the fuselage of two airplanes, and innumerable other architectural and industrial components, all held together with a maze of rebar catwalks, ladders, and slides linking elements suspended several stories above. Upon entering the former shoe factory turned museum/art installation things only get weirder.
The building is filled to the brim with bits and pieces of the city’s history: stone archways, water towers, industrial machinery, street signs, amusement rides, a collection of insects, a bank vault, the “Big Boy” that once stood before the burger joint, … and not a label in sight.* The found objects are exploited for their functional value (which may be quite different from their original purposes) or serve as aesthetic flourishes in ways that defy logic and ignore conventional categories. With no information or sense of direction — “No maps” seems to be a motto of sorts — there is nothing to do but explore. Upon entering, I felt like an archeologist in the distant future sifting through the remains of our long-forgotten civilization, and in that role, I found my life experience and education gave me no advantage over my three-year-old. Some switch in the brain turns off when you stop trying to make sense of things, leaving both me and my three-year-old open to exploration and a deep sense of creativity.
There’s a part of me that sees a missed opportunity for learning in forgoing explanatory labels altogether, and I also found myself wondering what objects and stories are being left out. In eliminating all contextual information, I wondered whether the consequences of not telling stories that have long been pushed aside may be greater than the consequences of refusing to re-tell stories that are already well established. But it was immensely refreshing to delve into that spirit of creativity for a while, and I’ll admit that since visiting I’ve been googling objects I saw at the City Museum to find out what they were and where they came from. So in a sense the exploration continues, and the learning may be all the more robust since I had to work to find the information. The City Museum just had to provide the inspiration.
(*That’s not entirely true: some rooms are set up as more conventional galleries on the top floor and I saw one QR-code which presumably links to some information.)
The National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network
By Dr. Thomas Wolf
Ann Hobson Pilot is the recently retired principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She is also, as of this past spring, Dr. Ann Hobson Pilot, having received an honorary doctorate from the Cleveland Institute of Music. I have known Ann for over fifty years, performed with her, and followed her extraordinary career. But I was not prepared for what I learned about her when I listened to her inspiring speech to Cleveland Institute graduates during her investiture ceremony. Ann is African American and her story, including the prejudice and overt racism she had to overcome, is something I hadn’t really understood. Like so many successful African American classical musicians of her generation, Ann spent the majority of her professional life treating everyone with respect and dignity but could not routinely expect the same treatment from others.
Today there is another generation of African American classical musicians who have become activists in the effort to create a level playing field for all musicians regardless of their background or the color of their skin. One of these activists, Stanford Thompson, whose organization Play On Philly provides opportunities to hundreds of young African American musicians, recently sent me an email describing the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network (working title), a loosely affiliated national network of organizations committed to furthering equity and opportunities for aspiring classical musicians from underrepresented ethnicities. As the email explained, in a series of planning meetings, “participants advocated creating a national ‘trade association’ (perhaps incubated inside an existing organization) that would work in two parallel paths: The first is teaching and training the student, and mentoring and supporting the young professional, with the goal of widening the pathway for musicians of color so they can be successful in the field. The second is overcoming the structural inequities that are imbued in policies, practices, and systems in our organizations that prevent opportunities to be given to deserving and aspiring musicians of color.”
Such efforts are badly needed in the classical music field where persistent inequality has been stubbornly impervious to change. As the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network and organizations like it develop, participants can be grateful to Ann Hobson Pilot and her generation of successful African American musicians for forging a path of achievement and success.
What Happens When You Go National?
By Jane Culbert
Many local organizations that become successful begin to think about growth and expansion beyond their original geographic footprint. The enticement of expanded visibility, a larger market base for programs, and new constituents and donors are often irresistible. But there are also downsides to expanding into new geographic regions. A small local organization is often composed of a tight-knit group of individuals. Can one maintain that committed bond and build that kind of connection with those who are far away? As programs grow, can new geographically dispersed constituents become the kind of long-term, loving supporters whose friendships and joint activities represent hallmarks of a small community organization?
That is a question I continue to struggle with. For nearly 15 years, I have been a volunteer and board member for a youth-based arts organization in northern New England. This organization’s program encompasses residencies, a summer camp, and a show that tours New England with exclusively youth performers. Like some of the other board members, I first became involved when my daughter started attending camp (15 years ago). When she began touring with their summer production, the experience was not only a bonding one for the touring youth but also their parents, most of whom were from New England. We became good friends and active volunteers – attending shows, hosting performing artists in our homes, and gathering together at the end of the season to celebrate our children’s successes. We also became strong supporters of the organization, providing both human and financial resources in support of the confidence-building, life-affirming work we saw occurring.
Over the 15 years, as competition for slots in the touring company has grown, so has the quality of performances, leading to enhanced visibility and youth from across the country applying to participate. It has been an exciting period of growth, but all of this has come at a price. Parents of kids from California, Texas, Florida, and other far-flung states do not have the sense of community that my group of New England parents had and continues to have. When it came time for a capital campaign, who did the organization have on their prospect list for bigger contributors? Not surprisingly, it was our gang of New England parents from ten years ago, the same group filling some of the board slots. The other parents love the organization too – their kids have loved the experience they have had. But they do not have the intimate relationship, the familiarity with the bumps and exhilaration of day-to-day touring challenges, the built-in commitment and connection to the organization that we – the local team – had.
The most obvious way to think about the problem is to blame the shift in organizational culture on new people from outside the region. Why can’t they step up? But if I were truthful, perhaps it is we old stalwarts who need to stand back and make way for this growth, even at the risk of there being bumps in the road. Inevitably some of the intimacy will be lost. But like children, organizations grow up and the very intensity of the early relationships give way to something that is more robust in other ways. This early period of intense community involvement has built an organization that is strong enough to expand and serve families across the country.