Strategies for Tomorrow in Cleveland

Karen Gahl-Mills is the Executive Director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, one of the nation’s top five sources of local public funding for arts and culture.  We invited Karen to respond to our Stories from Cleveland Audio Postcards.

As a representative of the local public arts funder in the county surrounding Cleveland, I listened to these audio postcards with great pride.  (Full disclosure: all of the organizations featured receive general operating support from CAC.)

I am glad that this program is exploring the important question of how we build the audiences of tomorrow, for it is a question that is often difficult to address while we are engulfed in the urgent work of the day-to-day.  On balance, I found these responses inspiring and informative, but let me also share a few critical comments with the hope that they might inform the work that will continue for the coming months.

A trusted local business leader often reminds me of something worth repeating here: Cleveland’s future – and our region’s future – is certainly going to be different than its present.  With significant (by some counts, $10 billion) investment in community development happening right now, we need to think ahead to a future where those investments are realized.

My first observation is a concern that, collectively, the organizations may be trying to solve tomorrow’s audience building problem with today’s strategies.  It’s terrific to hear so many organizations voice their understanding of the need to work outside their institutional walls and in partnership other organizations and with the community.  That’s a great start – to address today’s issue.  But we must ask ourselves:  will the methodologies that we are just starting to employ to better understand the audience of today be appropriate for a community that includes younger residents?  More ethnically diverse residents?  More visitors?  We must challenge ourselves to think of the region as it will be in the future, not as it is now, and then think about the strategies that this future will require.

I also note that, for some organizations, audience building is focused on the institution, not the audience.  I see many organizations that are internally focused, pushing their strategy toward the audience with the hope that the audience will like their offerings.  What would happen if institutions flipped this around and focused on the audience?  What would happen if your organization worked to pull the audience in by demonstrating that your institution is an engaged member of the community?

I do not mean that the art should be compromised toward that which the public will “like”; that’s a race to the bottom that no one wins.  But I firmly believe that organizations that are engaged members of their community, willing to get involved in community issues that extend beyond their institutional walls (and their traditional artistic offerings), have a much better chance of building the ownership relationship with future audiences that organizations need and crave.  When organizations operate at the intersection of community need and institutional purpose, good things happen.

Thinking ahead to the audiences of tomorrow is important work.  Kudos to the Cleveland Foundation and EmcArts for creating a dynamic platform where that work can begin.  And kudos to the participating organizations for the time and effort that they are devoting to truly engaging the future.

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Karen Gahl-Mills was named Executive Director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture in November, 2009. Under her leadership, the five-year old agency remains one of the nation's top five sources of local public funding for arts and culture. In total, CAC has granted over $80 million dollars to more than 180 local arts organizations throughout Cuyahoga County. Ms. Gahl-Mills’ career began in Los Angeles where she worked as part of a team creating national and international advertising for many well-known global brands. Her work then led her to Chicago and back to her roots as a musician, first as a development officer for the celebrated Ravinia Festival, summer home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and then as Managing Director of The Rhythm Cafe, an advertising music production company. Ms. Gahl-Mills went on to serve as executive director of the Westchester Philharmonic and then as President and Executive Director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Gahl-Mills holds a Bachelor of Music degree from DePaul University and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.