The Anchorage Concert Association (ACA) is the largest nonprofit presenting organization in Alaska, presenting everything from Broadway shows to Americana to spoken word. In 2014, ACA took part in the New Pathways | Alaska program, sponsored by the Rasmuson Foundation and facilitated by EmcArts in partnership with the Foraker Group.
A year after our initial profile of ACA on ArtsFwd, we wanted to catch up and see how their work has been progressing, so I reached out to Becky Kendall, whose position of Community Collaborator was created as a result of ACA’s work in the New Pathways program.
Ben: Looking back to 2014, where was ACA as an organization before taking part in New Pathways?
Becky: Our organization had reached a really stable place financially by that point, and we felt ready to start experimenting with new approaches to our work. We had begun designing different special events outside of the traditional theatre experience, but did this without much intentionality or understanding of the impact we wanted to have. It was at this time our Executive Director Jason Hodges was introduced to Richard Evans and EmcArts, and his message really resonated. We understood how to put on great shows and bring in an audience, and we were ready to discover what role the arts could play outside of traditional audiences and how it could affect positive change in social and civic spaces.
Ben: What were some of the challenges you were facing going into the program?
Becky: Our business model at the time was limited in terms of how we could engage more of the community. We didn’t really think beyond tickets sales, subscriptions, and donations. It was also a time of significant staff turnover, which contributed to a situation where we had a lot of good ideas for projects, but without the real capacity to turn those ideas into reality. We were also starting to see some declines in audience numbers for our “benchmark” art forms – dance, jazz, and classical music. We had a hunch, though, that the answer to many of these challenges lay in deepening our connection to the wider Anchorage community.
Ben: In our experience, the experiments and prototypes you start out with almost always change focus and direction as you learn and try out new things over time, and what you end up doing may not look much like what you started with. Have you found that to be the case at ACA?
Becky: Our first initial experiment was about developing new audiences through “pick your price” performances. This led us to conversations around practical and perceived barriers of the traditional theatre experience. This in turn led to a deep conversation around differences between audience engagement and community engagement, and what role we serve in our community beyond what we do in the theater. Though we left that initial experiment behind, this shift continues to inform all the work we do and it was an important first step.
Developing the new position of a Community Collaborator, which I now hold, gave us the added capacity that was instrumental in doing the work. In addition, implementing the innovation fund into our annual budgeting and adding Innovation and Creativity as a core value in our strategic planning documents have helped to ensure the longevity of this approach. The framework for building innovation, an external community focus, and expanding participation through small experiments have become woven into nearly all aspects of the organization.
Ben: In your work, you highlighted the concept of community connectedness as being central to where you wanted to grow. Has that continued to be an area of focus?
Becky: Community connectedness is a strong theme throughout our work and our vision. We are in the process of a long-term project with Alaska’s Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services (RAIS) and Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT) that we’re calling Home | Connecting Communities And Breaking Down Walls. The work LWDT is doing centers around making this specific community feel more connected to civic life. The challenges identified by RAIS are connection and accessibility and specifically within that, transportation. Using movement, music, and storytelling, these artists are co-designing events and experiences that provide connection to this community, elevating their stories and trying to effect a real change in the way they navigate the city. Bringing an artist or an arts-based solution to nontraditional partners and their self-identified challenges is part of the new approach to our work.
Ben: In what ways do you see innovation “sticking” in terms of how ACA operates as an organization?
Becky: At its most basic level, a lot of the terminology has stuck, especially around innovation and challenging assumptions. This continues affect the way we think of challenges of varying sizes, and feels like a major shift from how we used to operate. At both a staff and board level, we have integrated this methodology into our process. This has been effective for us in everything from marketing and ticketing to incorporating innovation and creativity into the core values in our strategic plan. We still use the Visual Explorer cards to help us examine new challenges, and of course, we keep on practicing “small experiments with radical intent.”
Ben: What kind of obstacles have you faced in sustaining an innovative, experimental approach to your work, and how have you dealt with those obstacles?
Becky: Early on, organizational capacity was a big obstacle in really pushing this work forward, but fortunately, we were able to build a lot more capacity by creating my position of Community Collaborator. Developing common language—defining the words for our own context and making things work for our unique community—can still be difficult, though.
As we began this work, we thought of civic practice projects as being highly executable once we had the right partners. What we discovered is that a lot of our time has been devoted to just developing the right relationships. As we have progressed, we better understand that we must be flexible in our expectations and how we measure success. Finding new metrics and ways to evaluate this work continues to be a challenge.
Ben: What’s on the horizon? What’s the next big thing you’re excited about?
Becky: Anchorage is a city that is rich with cultural diversity and takes pride in that. We are excited to invest in our community partnerships in so many different ways. We have projects of varying degrees of scope, some that last a season, and some that have a multi-year commitment around a particular cultural group or community need, and with each we get the opportunity to dive in with a different mindset than we had before. We know that if we want our audiences and the artists we put on stage to better reflect the community we live in, we need to invest in a diversity of opportunities to engage with people. And that is what we’re doing.
Ben: Sounds like you’ve got some exciting and challenging work ahead. Thank you so much for giving us this update – we’ll be sure to keep watching ACA for what comes next!