Why Smart Managers Are Looking At The Slow Food Movement

Recently, Diane Ragsdale posted an interesting article at her blog that compares the Slow Food movement and the culture sector. It’s chocked full of thoughtful observations and, in turn, has generated a healthy comment thread. Ragsdale’s post made me recall the pair of articles at Neo Classical from Holly Mulcahy in 2008 on the same topic…

Mulcahy’s articles do an excellent job at illustrating how many common problems exist between the Slow Food sector and our field such as public perception, relevancy, and branding. Moreover, she talks about how the Slow Food movement managed to successfully build international cohesion around a simple set of core values, if you recognize that sounds a lot like what our field is wrestling with, then you’re on the right track.

Ragsdale’s article focuses on some of the very same public perception points as Mulcahy and every smart manager I know is thinking about this in one form or another. So take a moment today and give all three articles a thorough examination then post your thoughts here and/or at either forum.

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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8 thoughts on “Why Smart Managers Are Looking At The Slow Food Movement”

  1. Some thoughts about this. . .

    First, the Slow Food movement has European antecedents and a political dimension that make it less than a perfect model. There are some strong European cultural themes that support this movement, and if we believe there is an “American” context for US arts organizations, it may make more sense to search for relevant social and cultural models with US roots. (Tea Party, anyone?)

    That said, there is a very important sentence in the Ragsdale article. . .”We’ve created more organizations, but have we brought more people over to the arts cause? AND WHAT IS OUR CAUSE, ANYWAY? (capitalization is mine). Even within US arts organizations, stakeholders usually have different causes/goals. And even in those cases when they do agree, their goals are not necessarily compatible with their local cultural context. (Honolulu Symphony?) One of the problems with US symphony orchestras (and likely, other arts groups) is that below the apparent disagreement of stakeholders (board vs musicians, as one example) there is a dysfunctional agreement: both parties would seek to emulate a world-class standard of performance and have lunch with Yo-Yo Ma, when they should be figuring out how to become the best possible social and creative resource for their individual community, given their resources.

    Okay. . .that’s it for me. My brain is a little rusty on this stuff as I left the arts for higher ed four years ago. In defense of the slow food model, I would add that I’ve always thought that symphonies and other performing arts orgs have missed the boat by not including support for amateur performance and for interactive (vs passive) musical appreciation (the equivalents of the DIY home cooking element of the SFM) as part of their primary activities. Granted, most throw a bone (large or small) at “education,” but for most performing groups, this is simply a means to gain support for their “core” activity: delivering performances to some sort of non-local standard.

    • I’m not entirely certain how you made the connection between Euro and US models but I don’t think either of the authors were attempting to make a point along the lines that US arts organizations should emulate Euro counterparts. Moreover, linking Honolulu’s demise to cultural incompatibilities is way off mark. Those in know realize the problems in Honolulu have far more to do with traditional board dysfunction than anything else.

      Nonetheless, I’m not certain why some believe that using traditional benchmarks for success alongside unique factors related to any given community are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, I think all of the Slow Food articles had far more to do with how organizations make meaningful connections as opposed to projecting a manufactured image.

      I do agree that professional groups should have (and could still) play a much better role with community performing arts groups in their respective metropolitan areas. However, I’m not certain how you would define that relationship as being part of the group’s primary activities.

  2. My point about the “European” aspects of the Slow Food movement is that its sucess is due to cultural compatibility, not necessarily its structure and tactics. And the Slow Food movement is not a movement driven by organizations, but by individuals and small artisanal producers.

    As for Honolulu, I know musicians and staff who have worked in Honolulu over the years, and problems there include weak leadership, poorly developed boards and poorly addressed cultural issues.

    As for the role arts organizations can play vis-a-vis their audiences, I’d be looking for initiatives that facilitate amateur performance and a more active musical life at home and in neighborhoods. Some are trying. The bigger point here is that (using US symphonies for an example) trying to get as close to the the Brahms 3 performance of the Vienna Philharmonic circa 1957 or 2007 should not be the primary goal of the organization, and at too many of the larger orchestras, it is.

    • The moment a professional performing arts organization of any budget size fails to place artistic excellence at the top of its strategic goals, is the beginning of a sure slide into mediocrity. Moreover, I don’t know any orchestra that sets a goal of reproducing any given performance, rather, they want to be better at it.

      Fostering an improved active music life within the home structure is certainly a good thing but I’m not entirely certain how performing arts organizations are supposed to accomplish that task (not to mention quantify it). As for facilitating amateur performances, what do you have in mind? Professional performing arts organizations can certainly build stronger relationships with amateur groups in a number of ways, the trick (as with everything) is resource allocation.

      Are you suggesting that professional organizations establish, manage, and fund amateur groups or are you thinking of something else?

      I’m glad we agree that the problems in Honolulu have far more to do with the garden variety type of problems that have been in this business for decades and have nothing to do with any sort of cultural incompatibilities.

      But back to the main point about the Slow Food movement, I don’t know if I would surmise that movement as one that is now dominated more by individuals than organizations but in the end, I think it’s a moot point. Regardless, I don’t see any evidence to suggest any sort of cultural incompatibility that would allow the Slow Food movement to be more successful in Euro countries rather than the US. As such, I’m still quite confused as to what you’re referring to with this point, could you expand on that point?

  3. Since Reid McLean above suggests that orchestras should include “support for amateur performance and for interactive (vs passive) musical appreciation,” I would like to mention some programs of the orchestra in which I play, the Pacific Symphony (Orange County, CA).

    Taking place right now, OC Can You Play? places 20 colorfully-painted pianos in public spaces. The public is invited to play the pianos and to hear performances by community members.

    OC Can You Sing? is a singing competition in which the finalists will perform on a PSO Pops concert featuring Katharine McPhee, and the winner will perform solo on the 2011-12 series.

    In OC Can You Play With Us?, amateur musicians will rehearse and perform along side PSO members, conducted by Music Director Carl St.Clair.

    The Pacific Symphony’s education programs offer several other interactive opportunities including Youth Orchestra side-by-side performances, Bass Days (double bass workshop), and Arts Xpress (summer arts camps for young people).

    I am also aware of the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians (amateurs playing with Symphony members) and Orchestra Academy (week-long camp for amateur players).

    I’m interested to hear about other organizations’ interactive or amateur musician programs.

  4. First, as much as I’d consider myself a suporter of the Slow Food movement, I’d leave it out of this discussion for now. When it takes America by storm, let’s give it a hard look.

    In agreement with Drew, I’d be suspect of any organization that does not have some sort of excellence for a goal, but I’m not making a revolutionary point when I say that “artistic excellence” as it has been historically defined by US arts organizations, particularly large ones like symphony orchestras, is not all that is needed to succeed in the 21st Century. It’s best viewed as a “means” (vs end) goal, coupled with audience engagement, and supported by fiscal responsibility.

    Note too that I am tired of it being used inappropriately, as in “we can’t perform to the necessary standard if we drop two permanent string positions/a second harp/two weeks of the season/two classical weeks in favor of two pops weeks/use orchestra soloists instead of big-name guests (there’s a self-defeating argument if I’ve ever heard one) etc.

    With its market population, Fortune 100 companies and influx of tourists, the NY Phil can probably do whatever it wants to do under that banner, but the rest of the orchestras in the country will have trouble. Even the Cleveland Orchestra, which is an extraordinary performing gruop and to me embodies the term “artistic excellence,” has been battling deficits for most of the 2000s (despite financial support from its Blossom Music Center, where the “excellence” is not quite at the level of Severance Hall and is frequently provided by artists like Brooks and Dunn, Iron Maiden and Kiss.)

    Finally, test “artistic excellence” against “education” and “community benefit” with new corporate donors and younger philanthropists. Initiatives like those in Baltimore and Orange County are great for audience engagement and are a fantastic way for audience members to experience the artistic excellence of their symphonies in new and powerful ways, and experience the players’ desire to share music with them. There is your excellence, plus education and community benefit. To the programs above I’d add the side-by-side concerts that many orchestras do with local youth and college orchestras, and initatives that invite audiences to provide input for season and concert programming.

    The point of all of this is that arts organizations need to start with the needs and desires of the communities they serve if they want to succeed.(BTW – I don’t have a problem with some arts organizations failing. . .there is a place for that. . .but that is a conversation for another day.)

    • An important point within your comment Reid, is that each group needs to consider their respective environment in order to best determine the sort of activity they design. that being said, resources are a large part of the equation. For example, it is much easier for a group like Baltimore to put on the fantasy camp idea than a professional per service group with a fraction of the budget and internal staffing resources.

      On a related note, I pitched that very idea to the Baltimore Symphony more than a decade ago when I lived in that area and the leadership there at the time wouldn’t even consider it. I’m very happy to see that a change in leadership has brought along a change in perspectives; as such, that serves as a good example behind how an orchestral organization of that size can make a better connection.

      What I do take issue with are people within the field who look at the Baltimore example and think the fantasy camp model is a replacement for and/or to supplant the primary concert activity of an all professional ensemble. Case in point, even though most performing arts organizations would benefit from improved community interaction, it shouldn’t replace the artistic excellence equation and the value on cultivating the sort of cultural event development that helps define the community. Here in Chicago, the Grant Park Festival Orchestra does a great job with that component and with average crowds close to 10,000 (not a typo) for each performance throughout the summer, I would say that group makes a substantial community connection by doing nothing much beyond giving traditional concerts with highly accomplished professional musicians.

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