In Changing Times, Rockford Arts Organizations Try To Keep Up

Oct 28, 2013

Some of the city’s older arts organizations are trying to adapt to a cultural and economic climate that is much different than when they were formed.

Joel Ross has been the artistic director for the choir Kantorei, the Singing Boys of Rockford, for 25 of its nearly 50 years of existence. He says an arts organization that wants to stick around needs to answer   several important questions:

“What is the mission of the arts organization? Is the mission of that arts organization still current? Should it change? Is it still serving the community? Is the community still supporting it?”

Ross says in Kantorei’s case that mission has always been clear: to provide an outstanding musical education to boys who love to sing, and at the same time provide opportunities to build their character. Ross says he doesn’t think that kind of a mission will ever go out of style, and attributes much of Kantorei’s success to its appeal.

But, Ross says, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge to recruit, and retain, members.

Kantorei Director Joel Ross
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

“Boys, and for that matter, children in general, and families in general, are far more committed to many other things than they ever were, and they have to start carving out what’s important in their life. They need to make priorities, and it’s becoming more difficult than ever to do that.”  

Ross says part of the answer to keeping up member ship AND growing audiences has been to get the word out about Kantorei in every way possible-advertising, holding open houses, going into the schools, putting up booths at area events, collaborations with other organizations, and using social media to connect with the larger community.

Julie Thomas is the Executive Director of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. She says the costs of maintaining a professional orchestra that plays in a large venue like the Coronado are considerable. That means filling the hall on a regular basis is important. But Thomas says in the ten years or so she’s been with the organization, the audience has grown significantly smaller and older. And she’s not sure of the answer.

“I think we are still in the process of trying to figure out how we do need to adapt to get more people coming.”

Thomas says the RSO has been using all the tools at its disposal: traditional advertising, social media, community presentations and special events. But Thomas says growth has still been elusive, and it may be time to look at more fundamental changes.

“We have had a very traditional format of six classic concerts, three pops concerts, a Nutcracker, for many seasons now. And I think some questions that we need ask are, is that the right format for us. We may find out that the answer is yes, but I think we really need to do some soul searching to figure out is that really a good fit?”                     

RSO Executive Director Julie Thomas
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

In the meantime, Thomas says, the RSO will to try to get people into the Coronado every way it can. But, she says, the organization needs help from those who value it.

“Our charge goes out to those who are currently coming, to invite their friends, to invite their family, to help others feel comfortable coming and trying out what I believe they’ll find is a really rewarding experience.”

Founded in 1884 as Mendelssohn Club, the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center is the oldest arts organization of its type not just in Rockford, but in the nation, and arguably has gone through the most changes from its inception as a group of local women playing music for each other’s enjoyment. Over the years, the club opened its doors to men, constructed its own building, began music programs for youth and a concert series. Members also started the Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra and Mendelssohn Chorale.

Beverly Broyles is the Center’s Executive Director. She says in recent years, in order to survive, the organization has looked to expand its scope even further, to grow its audience, even as it kept its core commitment to classical music.

“We have had to make changes that reflect the changes of our world, our nation and our community.”

Broyles says that meant adding a professional staff, and more recently, even bigger changes, such as the addition of Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts into the organization.

“With their inclusion into our organization we were legitimately able to expand our performance opportunities and educational  opportunities to include world music, jazz, folk, a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity.”  

The Center has also acquired several buildings, including the Emerson House and the former First Presbyterian Church next door. That’s given Mendelssohn venues for additional concerts, casual performances, and in 2013, arts camps, all across a broad range.

MPAC Executive Director Beverly Broyles
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Broyles says other ideas are being looked at, such as establishing something like the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago that would offer regular instruction in a diversity of styles and types of music.

Broyles says another important change for Mendelssohn and other Rockford arts organizations in recent years was that they began collaborating in earnest on various projects as a matter of survival during the economic downturn. Broyles says, in the past, arts groups often seemed to shy away from working together, afraid that someone might poach their donor lists. But Broyles says everyone now realizes that collaboration is a good thing. 

“It was like a light bulb going off, that we could do more, we could do better, and we could serve our community well by working together, and supporting one another.”

Broyles says the goal of all this is to reach the broadest possible audience, and become part of the fabric of the entire community.

Broyles and the others agree that’s easier said than done. But Joel Ross says you have to keep a positive attitude.

“There’s no one magic bullet. It’s putting your eggs in a lot of baskets, so that you’ll have some success. Not everything is a home run.”

Ross says it’s incredibly hard work, and you can never let up. But for Ross, Thomas, and Broyles, it’s well worth it - for them, and the community.