Monday, November 7, 2011

Collaboration and the Creative Arts

Guest post from Essential 2010 graduate and Engage attendee Karen LaShelle.

Tuesday morning I had the pleasure of attending Leadership Austin’s Engage breakfast discussing the capacity of the creative arts in Austin. As the director of a local nonprofit arts organization, Theatre Action Project, and someone who has been involved with a number of initiatives to research and plan for the sustainability and growth of the creative sector, it was a truly fascinating discussion. And, I was pleased to see such a packed house at 7:30 am!

The conversation began with a great question by moderator Leslie Rhode to kickoff the discussion: “Does the arts community have the support it needs to grow as Austin grows?” Panelists discussed the various and typical barriers to growth for local arts organizations, such as low attendance and weak philanthropy. It seems we artistic folks discuss these predicaments at every gathering when brainstorming how to save the arts... yet, it doesn’t seem like these problems are going away any time soon. But then a new idea emerged that seemed to offer tangible possibilities for sustaining the arts in Austin: focus on collaboration.

What are the untapped opportunities for creating partnerships between the arts and the business sector? The truth is that the arts community and the business sector NEED each other, and perhaps neither legion locally has quite realized this yet. Arts organizations need funding and patrons, and arts leaders could benefit from the help of savvy business professionals. Businesses need Austin to maintain its cultural life and to produce an innovative, critically-thinking workforce... plus, they need venues to market their brand! The arts are undeniably a critical part of what makes Austin alluring to young talent from across the country, and the arts and arts education are foundational to fueling innovation, creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit. If this potentially symbiotic - and mostly untapped - relationship between these two sectors can be fully articulated and carried out by arts and business leaders, the arts community can grow and thrive AND business will prosper, too. Long Center ED Jamie Grant offered, "we need to think of these as business to business relationships that are about marketing opportunities, not philanthropy," which seems like the heart of it. Arts orgs can’t ask for money just because we know the arts are important. We need to help businesses see how we can help them, too.

Refocusing some (we won’t give up on expanding the audience and donor base, too!) of our efforts towards collaborations seems like a critical step in sustainability. I know that this was certainly an “A-Ha” moment for me. I plan to spend time thinking about the mutually beneficial goals Theatre Action Project can discover with local businesses. As we reach youth and families in seven school districts every week with our dynamic arts programs, we might just have something to offer businesses who want to reach a new audience.

Karen LaShelle is Executive and Artistic Director at Theatre Action Project.

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