Active Arts

Introduction Process Impact


About The Music Center

Located in downtown Los Angeles, The Music Center is owned by Los Angeles County and managed by a non-profit organization in a unique public-private partnership. The Music Center opened in 1964, and its 28-acre campus is home to Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre, and Mark Taper Forum. In addition to leasing its facilities to its resident companies—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Center Theatre Group—The Music Center presents professional dance, conducts arts-in-education programs, and programs a variety of public policy and advocacy forums.

About the Project

Active Arts® at The Music Center is a programming series that offers diverse participatory (DIY) art-making opportunities at The Music Center campus in downtown Los Angeles. Currently, Active Arts includes: Dance Downtown (lessons and dancing to live music for dancers of all levels; A Taste of Dance (instruction in dance forms from diverse cultures); National Dance Day Celebration (dancing as a part of a national health/fitness awareness initiative); Drum Downtown, Public Practice, Ukule-Along, and Ukulele Christmas Orchestra (music-making for recreational musicians); Friday Night Sing-Alongs (mass group singing); Holiday Sing-Along (holiday-themed group singing); 24/1 (photo storytelling); and Activators (a robust dedicated volunteer program).

Starting Conditions

“For our 40-50-year history,” says Director of Programming, Ming Ng, “we built on the one percent, the best of the best. We present the best of the best, and we know how to do that really well.” But what was needed, Ng adds, was space for “the other 99 percent.”

At the same time, the world had changed significantly since 1964. As Thor Steingraber, Vice President of Programming from 2011 -2013 explains, “The way people consumed culture in 1964 and the way they consume culture today are not anything like each other… People want authorship of their own experience. They want to be able to talk; they want to be able to eat; they want to be able to tweet; they want to not be told what to do. They want their experience to be porous so they can come and go as they wish.”

The problem was where to begin. Luckily, leaders at The Music Center saw a tremendous opportunity: burgeoning amateur practice outside the institutionalized performing arts and the Center’s expansive, largely unused, outdoor spaces. Thinking boldly about how they might create opportunities for art-making that had more to do with emotional connection than with technical mastery, they asked themselves a key question: Could amateur and recreational arts—usually occurring in non-arts spaces—exist side-by-side with the work of venerable institutions, creating a wide spectrum of vibrant cultural activity that would enrich civic life and build a deeper sense of community?

The answer, says Music Specialist Ed Barguiarena, was in the plaza and in the people. “It was really giving back to the community,” he says. “We wanted to give people a chance to meet other people who have a similar interest so there’s a chance to have a spark with someone else.” And so, in 2004, Active Arts was born.

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About the Arts Innovation Fund

To support its experiment, The Music Center received two grants through The James Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund: a three-year grant of $800,000 in 2007 and a four-year grant of $900,000 in 2010. Through the Arts Innovation Fund, the Foundation supported 19 of California’s premier cultural institutions as they sought to advance their artistic vision and deliver innovative, aspirational programming. Grantees were encouraged to create new work, experiment with new aesthetics, or develop new programming; reach into their community to broaden, deepen or diversity audiences; lead effectively through innovative management, board and staffing structures; and build valuable knowledge for the arts and culture sector.


While Active Arts was not designed using a prototyping model, its focus on curiosity, rigorous experimentation, constant testing and evaluation, quick response, and originality has much in common with a formal prototyping framework. As Ng says, “We experiment along the way. We test what works, and we test what doesn’t work.” Barguiarena adds, “We’re kind of solving it in real time. We’re not looking at (historical) trends, we’re looking at what’s happening today.”

Operating “in the moment” sometimes requires some tough decisions. Indeed, when projects—even popular ones—proved inconsistent with the program’s core values or philosophy, staff responded quickly. Get Your Chops Back—a project for amateur musicians—is a good example. One successful Get Your Chops Back project was a flute choir that grew rapidly over two years to include 80 flute players. As enjoyment increased, the group began to present recitals for each other. The problem, says Ng, was that “they started to take it out of the process mode… When it becomes too much about the product—and by product, I mean a recital format that people are more attuned to than the process—then it steers out of our core mission.”

Ng describes the decision to drop the flute choir as a difficult one because of the program’s popularity. Yet, she adds, “After we stopped supporting the program, they went out and made their own flute group, and they’re continuing to perform. It was a win-win because our motivation was to put that catalyst in front of them.” She laughs when she says, “Get Your Chops Back had a good four to five-year run, but it’s an interesting program partly because we no longer do it.” So did the Center simply abandon Get Your Chops Back? No, says Ng, “we reinvented it and landed at Ukulele Orchestra.”

Obstacles and Enablers

Venturing into this new territory wasn’t always easy for the Music Center, and the staff acknowledge challenges in three specific areas: programming, staffing and institutional resistance.


Much of Active Arts programming is unpredictable, which is especially challenging. Ng admits that “as arts administrators, we tend to do what we know how to do, but there are certain situations with Active Arts where we find ourselves not really knowing what to do.” For example, a new photography storytelling initiative launched in 2010-11 stretched a program that had not yet ventured into visual media. In its first year, 24/1 featured over 1,000 images of Los Angeles captured by amateur photographers, but the learning curve was steep. Managing images and housing them on the Center’s website, crowd-sourcing nearly 6,000 votes, and developing a new iPhone app proved exhausting and tested the staff’s adaptive capacity.

The good news is that 24/1 continues to thrive. A second photo storytelling contest entitled, “What’s on your plate today?” generated 103 story entries, 566 photographs and over 18,000 votes, 12 percent of them from outside California. 24/1, say staff, has “gone global.” The program is now completely virtual. They are cautious, however, saying that “our work in the virtual world is very new in comparison to our place-based work, and we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, which has resulted in slower than expected progress.”


Staff turnover—some resulting from budget cuts—has been a significant challenge for the Music Center in key areas such as marketing, development and programming. While new faces bring new ideas and complementary expertise, turnover can be disruptive and lead to loss of momentum.

The values of Active Arts are not necessarily second nature to teaching artists, and Barguiarena says that another challenge is “untraining teachers” to make them more adept at working with amateurs. “As soon as you put professional artists in front of a large group,” he says, “they go immediately into performance mode. In a way, we’re asking the teachers to be as selfless as they can… and it’s not about performance at all. Even the fact that they’re not gearing toward a performance for the participants represents a change for them.”

Institutional Resistance

Steingraber admits the difficulty of innovation, saying that he and his staff are “in a constant state of persuasion” on behalf of Active Arts. “I think the way innovation takes root is faith. Period, full stop. A program like this does nothing but spend money… and so a whole lot of people—the board and executive leadership included—have to make a huge leap of faith that the money they’re putting out onto the plaza where it just kind of goes away in the wind of people singing and dancing is going to be worth it.”

Yet having everyone on board is a must. “Unless you get people on the same boat with you and rowing in the same direction and as hard as they can, innovation doesn’t work,” says Ng. The staff has worked hard, she adds, to enlist board members who now consider Active Arts a core institutional program. A big help, says Chief Operating Officer Howard Sherman, is a new tag line—strengthening community through the arts—which was recently added to the Center’s mission.

The focus on new language is important, Steingraber says, because it is so difficult to explain what Active Arts is all about to traditional audiences. He admits he continues to struggle with describing its core mission and desired outcomes to funders, organizations and even board members, suggesting that an entrepreneurial staff may not have been prepared “for the INtrepreneurial demand of getting an organization to change internally in order to meet this strange program that doesn’t exactly fit into a box.”

Exacerbating the problem of case-making is the difficulty of developing meaningful evaluative measures to track the impact of participatory art-making, support program development and improvement, educate stakeholders, and attract investment. To assist in this process, The Music Center has engaged WolfBrown to help develop appropriate and effective tools to measure impact both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Operating under the radar helped Active Arts grow its institutional roots. “It was a scrappy little program when we started,” says Ng. “People paid attention, but it didn’t really threaten anything. Once people started to see the value of it, they came on board.” Maintaining an innovative spirit also enabled The Music Center to overcome obstacles. “The challenge is always going to be there,” adds Ng, “but for us it’s just a matter of ‘here’s this challenge and here’s the next one.’ It’s discovery all the time, and we don’t assume we know how to do it correctly even if we’ve done it 10 or 20 times. We always assume there might be a better way to do it, so we are constantly innovating.”

Probably the most significant enabler of Active Arts’s success is the corps of volunteer Activators who not only work on events, but also tell staff honestly what they think of new ideas. Activators are “people who have participated in an event, have gotten turned on by the process, and now want to come and get their hands on it,” says Barguiarena, who is quick to say that people who come to Active Arts events probably don’t interface much at all with Music Center staff. “The first person you see will probably be an Activator,” he adds, “and part of what’s great about that is that it makes the interaction with the Music Center less formal… they’re a buffer, our friendly face.”

The Music Center now has a brain trust of 40-50 regular Activators, but managing them takes ongoing training, education, and leadership development. The Music Center is implementing procedures to promote skill-building among Activators, including a new peer-to-peer screening process for prospective volunteers. Plans are now underway for a new 18-month Activator-led campaign to engage multiple communities in participatory art-making on a grassroots level.

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By the Numbers

Since 2004, Active Arts has held 450 public events for 77,300 participants with the support of over 5,700 volunteer hours. With a goal of establishing cross-sector partnerships in up to 18 Los Angeles neighborhoods, Active Arts has also “gone mobile,” according to staff, collaborating with like-minded organizations in Downtown Los Angeles and Little Tokyo, East Los Angeles, Historic Filipinotown, North Hollywood, San Pedro, South Los Angeles, and Van Nuys. Partners include a wide range of YMCAs, housing corporations, cultural service centers, senior centers, and others. With the development of a new website and the success of 24/1, the Music Center has also increased its virtual audience, including audiences outside Los Angeles.

New Pathways to Public Value

Thanks to Active Arts, The Music Center has changed the way it thinks about programming, focusing now on the participation potential of any given program. That puts the audience directly at the center. “When we design our programs,” Barguiarena says, “the only thing we’re concerned about is the experience of the person who’s coming and the quality of artist we have taking part.” And that experience has to be fun, insists Steingraber, who describes that experience as “face to face, dance shoe to dance shoe, instrument to instrument.”

In the end, Active Arts is about creating what Steingraber calls “social glue” and what Ng calls “social bridging.” As opposed to social bonding, which aims to develop connections between similar individuals, social bridging is messy. Steingraber says, “it’s about de-siloing programs and finding out what happens when you bump up Active Arts” with the traditional dance events inside the venues, and “what happens when those two audiences bump up against each other, what happens when presentation and participation bump up against each other, what happens when you take something traditional and put it outside, what happens when you take something outside and put it inside.”

Music Center staff see Active Arts as “the intersection of three things: participation, innovation and place-making”—a kind of “village green where people come together to have honest conversation and understand each other.” It has created an important new pathway for The Music Center to fulfill its mission by expanding its footprint. As Ng says, “It’s taking these programs and spilling them out onto the streets and sidewalks and plazas and parks. A place isn’t a place until people inhabit it and use it and figure out what the space means as a human-inhabited space.”

For Steingraber, Active Arts is, at its heart, a creator of empathy.” Today, after nine years, staff are beginning to see a future path that is defined more by community organizing than traditional arts presentation—a pathway that will enable The Music Center to fulfill its mission on the ground and in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. A game-changing moment came when the County gave The Music Center carte blanche use of nearby Grand Park—thanks in large part, say staff, to “the history and success of Active Arts.”

Focusing on participation has changed things for The Music Center in many ways, but Steingraber says there is still much work to do, noting, “We are constantly redefining the institutional outcomes we’re seeking and that will allow Active Arts to continue to grow.” For Ng, the real impact will occur when Active Arts begins to influence programming in venues across the campus. “We’re not there yet,” she says, “but we’re going to go there because we have to.” Sherman agrees. “Part of me thinks that the words ‘Active Arts’ could go away because they should be so ingrained in the fabric of what the facility is that you no longer need the moniker… We want this facility to have a real different feeling about it, and a real different place in the community’s heart.”

Pride and hope abound at The Music Center thanks to Active Arts, but Steingraber cautions against complacency. “It takes a long time for innovation to take root,” he says. “We’re still a sapling, and we can never let down for a minute.”

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