From Reflection To Relevancy: Part 1

Throughout the business, soul searching seems to be all the rage these days as orchestra stakeholders attempt to justify an institution’s value to the community and the art form in the wake of declining audience numbers and diminished public status. Typically, this process eventually manifests into some sort of institutional visioning and/or strategic planning process, the results of which can be mixed. But before looking too far into the future, orchestra stewards need to look at the institution’s past and one of the most effective methods for conducting a comprehensive review is to engage an institutional history project with the aim of producing a commercial publication.

All too often, institutional histories written by the respective organization carry the connotation of an elaborate marketing document and that stereotype exists for good reason. Fortunately, there are exceptions to the rule and the Grant Park Music Festival (GPMF) 75th Anniversary commemorative book, “Sounds of Chicago’s Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival,” serves as one of the most recent examples.

Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival
Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival

In order to learn more about the book and the process that brought it to life, I sat down with co-authors Tony Macaluso, GPMF Director of Marketing & Patron Services, and Julia Sniderman Bachrach, Chicago Park District Historian. Unlike traditional book release interviews, the purpose of this conversation was to uncover the sort of practical details related to book design and production that other orchestras can use as a guide to develop similar projects for their organization.

Design and Development

One of the initial steps of an institutional history book project is to decide what the final product should look like as well as how the content will unfold. Given that the genre of institutional history books isn’t one with a great deal of universal application, these lack of parameters can make getting started tricky.

“There are not many templates to use as a guide,” said Julia. “As a result, most books like this are not well designed.”

Fortunately, Julia’s position within the Chicago Park District provided relevant experience and when combined with assistance from Jell Creative, the firm credited with design and production, and co-author Neal Samors the project got underway. As it turned out, the GPMF had recently contracted Jell for a website redesign project and given the firm’s experience with book design production; they approached Jell to see if they might be a good fit for the book project.

“Not only did [Jell] have design and production experience, but most of Jell’s staff has been attending GPMF concerts for a number of years,” said Tony. “Those qualities allowed us to make rapid progress on pinning down design elements.”

Consequently, the staff at Jell and the GPMF developed a quick rapport and they were contracted to lead design related efforts.

Timeline

Ideally, any organization with as much history as the GPMF’s 75 years would want to take up to two years to produce an institutional book such as this. Then again, pretty much everyone in this business is used to truncated deadlines and the GPMF’s book project was no exception. From the time they began working on the project in earnest to the point where it was ready for print, the project lasted just over six months. Throughout the course of the project, Tony spent approximately 20/25 hours per week working on the book but readily points out that he has a degree in journalism which provided a higher measure of efficiency with regard to interview and copywriting tasks.

"...we were always coordinating research efforts that involved not only GPMF staff but volunteers and docents along with Park District resources." - Tony Macaluso
"I spent approximately 20/25 hours per week working on the book" - Tony Macaluso

Due to the unique relationship between the festival and the Chicago Park District, a sizeable portion of related documents and records were produced and stored by the Chicago Park District. At the same time, that doesn’t mean the GPMF had any organized and cataloged archive that covered the festival’s entire 75 year history so the task of filtering through festival related material evolved into an integral managed project throughout the production timeline.

“We did have an archive in place before the project started,” said Tony. “But that material was mostly from the 1990s so we were always coordinating research efforts that involved not only GPMF staff but volunteers and docents along with Park District resources.”

"It was a real task but I loved the time spent working on the project. Looking back, I would have loved to spend even more." - Julia Sniderman Bachrach
"It was a real task but I loved the time spent working on the project. Looking back, I would have loved to spend even more." - Julia Sniderman Bachrach

Julia spent a number of hours alongside GPMF resources going through numerous boxes of material related to the festival and the performance venue to locate needed material. By the time the project was ready for the printer, approximately 60 percent of the photos and other media came from the Park District, 20 percent from GPMF archives, and 20 percent from other sources (including the Chicago History Museum, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Federation of Musicians, Members of the Grant Park Orchestra, and supporters of the Festival).

“The Park District moved a number of GPMF related boxes to a new storage facility awhile back so we went through a multitude of boxes with pictures that weren’t indexed,” said Julia. “It was a real task but I loved the time spent working on the project. Looking back, I would have loved to spend even more.”

Content

One of the early design decisions was to divide the book’s chapters up by decade.

“The festival’s outdoor nature made it easier to tie in our history with historic events that took place in Chicago during each decade of the past 75 years,” said Tony. “Add to that, the mission of the Park District intertwines the festival’s mission in so many ways that it made sense to write material based on talking to patrons and musicians and their relationship with the space as much as with the music. We quickly determined that was how they defined their relationship with the festival.”

Although there is no way to truly appreciate how well this comes across without experiencing the book firsthand, everyone involved approached their work from this singular vision. And as is the case with most projects led by a clearly defined vision that everyone can relate to, a number of elements were the product of creative thinking.

In particular, the book contains a number of crowd pictures, many of which show sweeping shots of audiences well over 10,000. That, in and of itself, may not be especially creative but it doesn’t take long to notice that the manner in which a number of audience photos are presented provides a clear image of the festival’s listener diversity.

Enhanced photo
Enhanced photo
Original photo
Original photo

For example, the book’s last page contains a photo of an audience from a 1937 performance. Although it includes several hundred faces, the quality of the original photo made it difficult to distinguish features. In order to highlight the diversity of the audience, Jell Creative examined the entire photograph then selected a smaller section to digitally enhance that represented a fair cross section of the entire crowd.

In order to generate the sort of firsthand perspective they wanted for the book’s copy, the co-authors conducted over 70 extensive interviews with current and former artists, conductors, musicians, patrons, city officials, and more in the space of just under 12 weeks. Along with those interviews, the book continuously draws on the interactive relationship vision to shape each chapter. Whether intended or not, this approach actually serves as the basis for justifying the festival’s past (and future) relevance in Chicago life as well as its contribution to advancing the art form.

Ultimately, it goes a long way toward demonstrating how a performing arts organization grows as a part of the community by not only reflecting history but how it influences it.

Tomorrow’s article will examine the costs involved with producing the book and what the authors would do differently if they could go back and do it all again.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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