To Go or Not to Go: Connecting with Satellite Communities at the Beck Center

Introduction Process Impact


About Beck Center for the Arts

Beck Center for the Arts, located in the western Cleveland, OH suburb of Lakewood, presents a variety of plays and musicals on two stages and offers more than 200 classes, lessons and programs in the arts. Its three and one-half acre campus includes three buildings, a courtyard, and a contiguous parking lot. The Creative Arts Therapies Department serves over 1,500 patrons with and without special needs, and the Outreach Education Department provides programs for 2,000 school children, both at their local schools and on the Beck Center campus. Beck Center also hosts exhibitions by local, regional and international artists along with student and faculty exhibits.

About the Project

Beck Center was interested in broadening and deepening their community connections. They tried three approaches to this endeavor, including working in partnership with the Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC) to establish a “pop-up” shop as a way to extend their reach in an arts-friendly inner-city neighborhood. Through its Storefront Incubation Program, TWDC provided a free space for Beck Center to offer visual arts and theater classes, along with gallery space for exhibits. Beck Center also implemented a number of activities designed to increase communication between staff and teaching faculty as well as between faculty and parents of participating children.

Girls in the youth theater class share a laugh; image courtesy of Wetzler Studio.

Starting Conditions

For more than a hundred years, Cleveland’s middle and upper-income population has been moving away from the city to ever more distant suburbs. The migration has had significant effects on organizations located in communities like Lakewood, a mature inner-ring suburb located just ten miles from downtown Cleveland. Lakewood’s densely populated community has become increasingly impoverished. By 2010, nearly 50 percent of students in the Lakewood City School District were considered economically disadvantaged, and more than 15 percent of residents were living below the poverty line. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Beck Center faced a number of challenges including declining ticket sales and lower class enrollments as Lakewood—like many other urban communities—suffered from slow economic decay.

Beck Center has been providing services at its Lakewood campus for over 80 years, but changing population patterns meant that its facilities were not always readily accessible to large parts of its population. Experiments, which included programs at satellite locations in the 1990s and 2000s failed for a variety of reasons, and in 2006, the Beck Center Board entertained the idea of moving the organization to a suburb farther west. Public resistance caused Beck Center to recommit to Lakewood and investigate ways to use the land and facilities more resourcefully.

Boys paint during visual art class at the Beck Center; image courtesy of Wetzler Studio.

With concerns about developing a more sustainable business model, the staff and Board began asking themselves some serious questions: How could they extend the Center’s geographic footprint to include more people while bringing programs closer to financially disadvantaged constituents? How could they develop a model of long-term program participation beginning in early childhood? And how could they increase earned income and other revenue to support programs?

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Thanks to a large number of loyal patrons—those who had been served by Beck Center and parents of children currently participating in Beck Center’s programs—staff believed the organization was well positioned to answer these questions. They took a three-pronged approach to exploring possibilities for better connecting with the community.

Eager to re-investigate how a model satellite partnership might work, Beck Center joined with TWDC to establish a pilot arts education program in Tremont and to use gallery space to show the work of Beck Center artists. To support the initiative, they set up informational exhibitions and interactive arts experiences at several well-attended community events, including weekly farmers markets, Taste of Tremont as well as the Arts and Culture Festival. They also surveyed residents about their preferences and experiences relative to arts education. During the summer of 2013, Beck Center offered five, multi-level classes during two, five-week sessions. The sessions were structured to provide as many entry points as possible for participants. As such, teachers were chosen for this opportunity based on experience in the classroom, ability to be the face of Beck Center away from its main campus, and their match to this community. In turn, classes were designed to be welcoming of novice and intermediate level students that opened the door to new artistic opportunities.

Initial information from surveys and from TWDC led Beck Center staff to believe that there was significant demand for adult art classes in Tremont, a location Ed Gallagher, Beck Center’s Education Director described as a “hip, artsy, destination community with lots of restaurants and nightlife.” “Unfortunately, the cool artsy vibe didn’t translate into people wanting to sign up for programs,” Gallagher said. In the end, less than 10 people registered for the programs, so all but two of the classes were cancelled. Of those who did register, most lived closer to Beck Center than to Tremont, and they repeatedly asked the same question: “Why don’t you just do these programs at Beck?”

Other aspects of the Center’s experimentation proved more fruitful. Building communication, staff believed, would depend on Beck Center’s capacity to connect more effectively with staff, faculty, parents and caregivers. Through the use of surveys, the staff was able to better evaluate the experiences of early childhood arts education students who are a key demographic of Beck Center constituents. They also began a more extensive training program for faculty in order to improve the education experience across a broad age spectrum. These training sessions have included focused presentations on the topics of classroom management, teaching methods, retention practices and working with individuals with special needs.

Conscious that feelings of ownership empower faculty to grow their programs, there was an increased focus on creating improved connections with parents and caregivers. Beck Center staff also focused on increasing the frequency and quality of interactions with faculty through agenda driven meetings, social gatherings, recognition events and the sharing of more institutional information. Staff purposefully circulated a variety of resource materials on early childhood education, and the President and CEO sends a weekly update on Beck Center activities to faculty. Beck Center initiated a mandatory faculty meeting twice per year that includes training workshops and invites faculty to social events aimed at building deeper relationships with them and each other. Finally, Beck Center worked with a small test group of faculty who communicated directly with parents and caregivers through visits and phone calls.

Shifts in Assumptions

One of the central questions staff pondered during the Innovation Lab process was the degree to which programming should be expanded beyond the Lakewood campus. Staff believed that the organization was best suited to concentrate activity in Lakewood, but since population was continuing to shift westward, they wondered whether this assumption was correct. And they wondered whether the facility itself might be a deterrent to participation.

Beck Center's Professional Theater program performs "Young Frankenstein;" image courtesy of Wetzel Studios.
Beck Center’s Professional Theater program performance of “Young Frankenstein;” image courtesy of Wetzler Studios.

Initially, staff was enthusiastic about the possibility of partnerships in Tremont. Their underlying assumption that “pop up” sites might be the answer to their problems was soon challenged as the experiment in Tremont progressed. “During the initial phase of program development,” Beck Center President Lucinda Einhouse said, “We were presented with information about the Tremont community that resonated with board and staff, providing us with the confidence that this venture had many positive opportunities. The fact that this was a low-risk opportunity inspired us to move ahead perhaps more quickly than we would have otherwise.” Unfortunately, while feedback from the Tremont community was overwhelmingly positive and suggested there would be widespread participation most students who signed up for classes were not from Tremont. In the end, staff said, “Feedback was outstanding, yet numbers of paid registrants was minimal. What we learned is that maintaining a physical space outside of Beck Center’s Lakewood campus for education programming is not a sustainable endeavor.”

Obstacles and Enablers

The enthusiasm of staff and support of the project’s goals, as well as the free rent provided by TWDC certainly helped get Beck Center’s experiment off to a good start, but these advantages were not enough. The experiment was foiled by inaccurate assumptions about the neighborhood, insufficient local resources, an abbreviated timeline, and lack of demand. Part of the problem, Gallagher suggested, was that Beck Center had only two weeks to get classes up and running and to publicize them. By the time classes began, Beck Center had only been active in Tremont for five weeks—insufficient time, Gallagher said, to make the program successful. “We already have an arts campus with 225 classes per week, and this project just didn’t draw enough attention,” he added. While the Tremont experience did not play out as expected, he noted that Beck Center has learned a lot.

The training component of the project was much more successful, supported by strong program design led by experienced educators, willing participation of faculty, board and staff, and a broad-based curriculum that appealed to most faculty. All teaching faculty, as well as hourly staff, received a small stipend for participating in the training workshops, and this proved to be a significant incentive. Following the session, Beck Center conducted a survey to gather feedback from participants, and that feedback was used to guide plans for a second workshop that occurred in August 2014.

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By the Numbers

While classes did not draw a large number of participants, dozens of people signed up to receive Beck Center’s online newsletter, something staff said helps marketing efforts. In addition, approximately 10 Center artists sold work in the Tremont gallery, and 70 staff, faculty and board members attended the faculty training workshop. The workshop was a huge success, according to Gallagher, with 90 percent of staff and faculty participating. Outcomes included faculty reporting an increase of skills and tactics to take into the class for more effective teaching, faculty across disciplines meeting each other for the first time and interacting in a meaningful social and professional environment and attendees stated that they were more informed and connected because of the event.

New Pathways to Mission

Beck Center felt that its project impacted communication and decision-making in a very positive way. In particular, the work with the faculty proved to be transformative as the talented, diverse, and part-time teachers became an increasingly cohesive group which opened the door to discussions and collaborations within the Center. Moving forward, there continues to be a goal of increasing faculty engagement and empowerment through a regular schedule of meetings, social events and professional development opportunities. “We have reshaped our team so there is a much greater sense of collaboration and teamwork, thanks in part to much better and more frequent communications,” Gallagher said.

Winners of the Esperanza Scholarship competition

Beck Center has not abandoned the idea of offering off-site programs, but they are definitely not opening a satellite location in the foreseeable future. As a result of the Tremont experience, staff is working with a long-established city recreation program in Rocky River to teach pre-school art classes. “So far this model has been more successful because we are going in under a highly visible, established organization and simply providing services. We know that a stand-alone place is not what we need or what we can sustain given staff time and resources,” Gallagher said.

While the partnership in Tremont did not produce the results Beck Center had hoped for, staff said it did significantly increase the organization’s visibility. Now, the organization will focus on increasing major gifts fundraising, and recently received a grant from a local foundation to hire a consultant to assist with its major gifts and individual donor campaigns. The goal of this work is to prepare the organization to conduct a capital campaign to improve its facility and maximize its potential to serve patrons through the Lakewood campus. Without the experiments enabled by this program, said Beck Center leaders, they would have been less clear about which path to follow.

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