About the Anchorage Concert Association
The Anchorage Concert Association (ACA) is a multi-disciplinary performing arts presenter offering an eclectic mix of music, dance, and theater performances. Since its founding in 1950 as a small, classical music touring group called Alaska Music Trails, ACA has presented over 700 performances. It is now the largest performing arts presenter in Alaska with more than 75,000 audience members attending its shows each season. When the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts was built in 1988, ACA began presenting its Broadway in Anchorage productions on that stage. These Broadway shows now constitute the mainstay of ACA’s season.
About the project
Recognizing the limitations of its traditional business model, ACA experimented with expanding beyond its identity as an arts presenter to embrace a partnership model with its surrounding community. ACA employed a methodical approach to learning new “civic practice” skills and vocabulary, and to forging unexpected and reciprocal relationships with artists and community partners such as the Anchorage Police Department and Catholic Social Services. At the same time, ACA worked to carefully embed innovation into the “DNA” of the organization by ensuring buy-in at board and staff levels, and systematizing innovative practices like earmarking innovation capital for ongoing experimentation.
After celebrating 65 years of existence as a preeminent arts presenter in the Anchorage community, ACA found itself in the enviable position of enjoying financial health and stability. Noticing changes in its operating environment, however, brought a level of uncertainty about its sustainability in the future. Staff and board members began wondering how to respond to changing patterns in audience participation, shifts in the demographic make-up of Anchorage, fluctuating funding streams, and fast-paced technological advances.
ACA also found itself up against a logistical barrier to growing within their existing business model. ACA presents all its public events—up to 30 in a typical season—at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Expanding beyond 30 events per year at the Center is difficult due to the competition for that space. That limitation was inhibiting the ACA’s growth in audience, in the number of subscribers it could attract, and in its pool of potential donors. The ACA team understood that increasing its public value would mean either trying to continue its traditional presenting model outside the Center, or developing an entirely new approach to its work.
“Prior to the New Pathways program, we were looking at our measurement of success as being tickets sales and the number of people attending in the audience,” notes board member, Linda Winters. “And that’s how we looked at the community as well; we were presenting to the community.”
The ACA innovation team began to wrestle with how to move away from that model. They were guided by a challenge that they kept at the forefront of their work: “how do we further our impact and use the arts in a positive way to truly transform community?
About Incubating Innovation
Incubating Innovation is a year-long program of New Pathways | Alaska, an initiative supported by Rasmuson Foundation and delivered in partnership with The Foraker Group. In Incubating Innovation, an EmcArts or Foraker Group facilitator works with a carefully selected innovation team comprised of key staff, artists, board leaders, and community members to incubate and test innovative approaches that address complex challenges in their organizations. The program includes group facilitation, a five-day intensive retreat, a $20,000 grant to support prototyping efforts, and a variety of extended support systems specifically tailored to the organization’s needs.
After coming up with their bold new direction during the Incubating Innovation intensive retreat, ACA’s innovation team began testing out how they might proceed by first surveying their community. They talked to a wide circle of people who had an association with ACA, trying to find out what issues were most important to people. The results were unexpected. The top two issues they heard consistently cited were safety and community connectedness.
“There seemed to be a disconnect in how people felt about community,” notes Executive Director, Jason Hodges. “It didn’t matter what the age group was, what neighborhood they lived in, or what their ethnic identification was. We said, ‘Okay. We want to talk to artists and figure out how to bring attention [to these issues] and how to solve for these community needs.’”
Around this same time, ACA innovation team members attended an arts convening in Anchorage and were struck by a presentation from Michael Rohd, Executive Director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice. Rohd’s discussion of what he has termed, “civic arts practice” gave the ACA team the vocabulary and methodology to put their vision into practice.
“Civic arts practice is about co-creating art with non-arts community organizations,” says Hodges. “Artists and community organizations co-create art to bring attention and potentially transform things based on the need of that community or that community organization.” This framework and set of tools provided the ACA team with the clarity and focus they had been looking for. “That was a defining moment,” says Hodges.
The innovation team contracted with Rohd to provide a two-day, intensive training for staff, board members, and artists. The participants immersed themselves in the mindset and approaches of civic arts practice, focusing particularly on what it would mean for ACA to take on the role of arts facilitator rather than arts presenter. Becky Kendall, an artist who participated on the innovation team and who now serves as ACA’s Community Collaborator (a newly created staff role), says that the key to this shift was to begin thinking of themselves as community ‘listeners‘. “We have the ability to bring people from different subsets of the community together to address a community defined problem,” she says. “We provide a framework for dialog and collaboration, and then essentially, step back to let them begin the work of designing, and creating something that we could not have executed on our own. This has become a practice that we continue to employ from the outset of our community engagement planning.”
The next step was to bring community partners into the process. “In order for us to actually start to deal with the issues of safety and community connectedness, we realized that just having the artists in the room wasn’t enough. We needed to bring in non-arts community partners to help us address their needs and work with the artists to create solutions for how to address those needs.”
Hodges reached out to the Anchorage Police Department, Cook Inlet Housing Authority, and Catholic Social Services and invited them to take part in three interactive and facilitated community meetings with artists and ACA staff and board members.
Intrigued, but uncertain of what to expect, community partners came away from these sessions convinced that the arts have an ongoing role to play in their work. “We need creative solutions to solve social services issues,” says Lisa Aquino, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services. “And we need basic supports for our community in order for arts to thrive. We need each other. This conversation that was started helped to cement that for me.”
Sgt. Gerard Asselin of the Anchorage Police Department found his apprehension subsiding quickly during the first meeting. “I was struck with the impression that work like this could be helpful. It’s an opportunity to engage the community in ways that we have not done before. We try to engage the community through structured meetings. [The collaboration with ACA] presents an opportunity to engage people in positive and proactive ways that have nothing to do with law enforcement, but end up having everything to do with community.
Shifts in Assumptions
The ACA team worked hard to embed their learning and the new approaches they were developing into the fiber of their organization. To bring the full organization along on the journey required some fundamental shifts in assumptions about ACA’s very identity and purpose.
“All this work is about our purpose,” says Winters. “We are beyond just an organization that puts people into seats and artists onto stages. We have a purpose and a responsibility to be with the community in the solving of problems and challenges. The work that we did with the board really cemented that philosophy and brought home that this is part of our DNA now.”
Hodges and Winters made a point of bringing the prototyping work they were doing into the conversation at each of their board meetings, but for some time they were uncertain exactly what kind of impact they were having.
“We had probably at least half the board at Michael Rohd’s presentation to the board and staff,” says Winters, “and it was a ‘proud mama’ moment of seeing that the board was truly engaged in this notion of civic engagement.”
Another key method that Hodges and the innovation team used to cement this work directly into the core of the organization was to make it the organizing feature in their strategic planning process. This process transpired directly after their series of meetings with artists and community partners.
A look back at ACA’s strategic planning documents from past years showed that consideration of its relationship to its community had been slowing making its way into the larger thinking of the organization. “Like many organizations, we had the traditional mission, vision, and values as part of our core ideology,” says Hodges. “This time, we added our artistic statement and our community context to recognize that we are having an impact on this community. We have these five different focuses and for the first time, community has a very direct focus in creating strategic priorities for us.”
ACA board and staff found that the prototyping they were doing was shifting not just their vision of what they should work on, but how they worked more generally. The civic practice training they completed with Michael Rohd pushed them—individually and as an organization—to behave more as facilitators than presenters. According to Hodges, the questions they were asking themselves now centered around, “how do we find an artist, and how do we find a community partner, and how do we help them to work together? How does art help solve whatever this need is for this community partner?”
These new adaptive muscles are ones that Hodges believes will be crucial to ACA’s long-term resilience. “How do we, as an organization, think more like an artist?” Hodges wonders. “We get so caught up in being an organization that we don’t think and behave like artists. Artists are able to move very quickly and nimbly, build a partnership, and then go away into a different partnership. I was really attracted to bringing that kind of thinking and behavior into what we do so that we don’t stay stagnant.”
Obstacles and Enablers
Members of the ACA innovation team say that the inclusion of diverse voices from the outset provoked them to stretch beyond a project of limited scope and to embrace a larger vision of radical change. Hodges relates that, in assembling their innovation team, they brought together not just board, staff, and artists, but also included two community members from outside the organization entirely. These two women knew a bit about ACA but had been irregular attendees of its productions. They were considered “super-connectors” who were very active locally.
“Having to explain to them what we do and the nature of their simple and innocent questions, forced us to rethink how to respond. They would ask, ‘why does that matter? Why is that important?” And we would say, “Oh, why is that important?” Those connections and getting outside of ourselves were perhaps the most valuable pieces of the whole process.”
This confluence of diverse viewpoints and approaches was not comfortable for all participants. “That first meeting with the artists, for me, was overwhelming,” says Winters. “I went in feeling like there was going to be a clear direction, and I walked out thinking, ‘Oh, dear Lord. We have no clear direction. This is like a buckshot being shot out of a gun and it’s just gone everywhere.’” The team found that it was a struggle to maintain momentum before they could confidently articulate the direction that the prototyping might take them.
“There was an awful lot of animation and a lot of ideas and very creative folks in one room,” says Winters. “For a banker type like me, it created quite a bit of anxiety. I did not see a clear path through it and I thought for sure we may have just stepped into the muck of things.” The innovation team found that stepping “into the muck of things”—that is, sitting with the ambiguity of a large-scale change process—demanded patience and a tolerance for uncertainty that may feel more familiar to artists than organizational leaders and administrators.
Again, ACA’s practice of building innovative practices into the structure of the organization helped to keep the project moving forward and the organization committed. Recognizing that money is both a key enabler of change and, in its allocation, a driver of organizational behavior, Hodges worked to create an Innovation Capital line item in ACA’s budget. Cautiously proposing an initial set-aside of $25,000, Hodges was surprised when the response from the finance committee was, “is that enough?”
“It proved that the board was on board toward with having us think differently and more expansively,” says Hodges. “We have financial capital to be testing new boundaries and testing new waters.”
“I look at that line item as though it’s fixed in the budget,” agrees Winters. “The board is behind it 100%. It probably needs to be bigger.”
As their prototyping gained traction and grew in scope, it became clear that the main obstacle slowing down the progress of the innovation team was staff capacity. Executive Director Hodges steered much of the initial project with support from Community Engagement Director, James Fredrick. Going forward, ACA decided that they needed a new part-time staff person, a Community Collaborator, to join the engagement team to work closely with ACA’s expanding list of community partners. Having served on the innovation team, local artist Becky Kendall proved to be the right choice to step into that role. She immediately began working with touring artists as well as local artists in order to have larger community impact.
Working as an entire staff, ACA also undertook an effort to determine which of their existing organizational assets and skills they we could use to address community need. Up until that point, they had viewed their internal assets as those skills that allowed them to present shows at the Performing Arts Center. Now they wanted to look at those skills (marketing, communications, production, etc.) through a different lens and see how they could rethink them to support artists and community organizations in making a difference in the community.
New Pathways to Mission
As they began to prototype, ACA quickly recognized the broad scope and long-term trajectory of the new direction they were exploring. In addition to pursuing the initial community collaborations begun with Catholic Social Services and the Anchorage Police Department, ACA is now also applying its civic practice lens to all aspects of its work. One new strategy has them working with touring artists in Anchorage up to a year in advance of a presentation. Touring artists have the opportunity to meet with community partners, to understand community need, and to define and co-create a performance with those partners.
“We didn’t put on a show [during our prototyping period],” says Hodges. “We were doing a lot of building up of muscles. Everything we did in New Pathways set us up for that work that we did at our strategic planning session, and that brought all of these threads together to move us forward for this next way of being in our community.”
ACA sees this work of fostering new and important collaborations between artists and community members as key not just to its own relevancy and resilience, but also to the health of the arts ecosystem at large.
“I think that in 2027, artists will be part of the solution,” says Hodges. “Artists will be solving for community need and will be sought after as opposed to having to beg for a place at the table. Art will be something that is important and valued by everybody as opposed to what is perceived as ‘the elite’ right now.”
Winters emphasizes this long-range view: “The impact of these relationships and partnerships is really down the road. It’s going to be this type of thinking and this type of innovation that keeps us relevant 15, 30 years from now.”
Written by Louise Brooks. Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts.