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ACA’s Intrepid Trio

In a second story office suite located in a building so plain even Siri has difficulty locating it, Jason Hodges sits on a worn leather couch. The office walls are covered in massive sticky notes adorned with numbers, phrases and colorful Venn diagrams, while the floor is inhabited by stray papers and empty boxes. Across the room, Becky Kendall and James Fredrick laugh as they try to make sense out of the words scribbled on a particularly colorful sticky note.

“I have no idea what that one says but I remember at the time that we all thought it was a brilliant idea,” says Fredrick before breaking out into another hearty laugh.

It’s the kind of organized chaos that is the perfect breeding ground for innovation.

As the Executive Director for the Anchorage Concert Association (ACA), Hodges has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to revolutionize his organization. And now he has the perfect team in Community Collaborator Becky Kendall and Community Engagement Director James Fredrick.

Over the past year, the intrepid threesome has been working with community partners and visiting performers to provide the Anchorage community with one-of-a-kind workshops, pop-up concerts, discussions, lectures and art shows.

“We’ve been on this trajectory for the last six or eight years but it’s just now that I think it’s really coming together,” explains Hodges. “It was sort of a long process of innovation and experimentation that led us to ask the question ‘how do we get more art in front of more people?’”

In the past, the ACA followed a nationwide model of busing school-age children in to see special matinee performances. The hope was that if the children returned home with discounted ticket vouchers, their parents would feel obligated to purchase tickets to the evening showing of the same production. Built upon the old marketing adage that if you get the kid, the parents will follow, this spray and pray strategy has been the status quo. But as the U.S. arts sector began declining in the early 2000s, arts organizations everywhere were feeling the economic strain of low-ticket sales. By 2012, the average number of arts events attended per a person had dropped from 6.1 to 4.8. Even bleaker, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 33 percent of Americans had attended a “benchmark” cultural event over the course of the year. The loss of patron-based income meant that world-renowned organizations like the Metropolitan Opera had to start relying on contributions from deep-pocketed donors.

A faithful few may have kept some arts organizations afloat but as donor bases grow older, the need to foster the next generation of fine arts diehards is crucial. The problem is, budget cuts to fine arts programs at all educational levels means that there isn’t an incumbent group of donors. Simply put, today’s children aren’t invested in the arts the same way they were even 10 years ago.

So how does an organization like the ACA attack a complex problem that directly affects their bottom-line? They engage.

When the all-women mariachi group Flor de Toloache came to Anchorage last September, the group didn’t just perform a formal concert at the Performing Arts Center, they took to the streets. There was a community festival and celebration of Latin heritage at Out North. They did interviews with KNBA and led discussions about being women in a male-dominated musical genre. Their visit even coincided with the opening of a temporary gathering space called Libreria Donceles. And if all goes according to plan, this is only the beginning of Anchorage’s newly formed relationship with the group.

“We are hoping to make this a multi-year thing so we can involve the Latinx community even more. We don’t want it to be just us planning and curating events. We want the community to have a tangible connection to the events—we want the community to have some ownership over how they interact with visiting artists,” explains Fredrick.

While Flor de Toloache may be a multi-year partnership, not all of ACA’s engagement activities are structured the same way.

“It really does depend on the individual performers,” says Kendall. “Some performers really love to do outreach and are great at working with kids. Others may prefer to work with adults. Some might be great at teaching and maybe others are better at making connections through small, intimate performances. I think that’s why it’s so important that outreach be collaborative.”

One collaboration that seemed to be a perfect fit was with the Songwriter’s Association and visiting singer-songwriter trio The Sweet Remains. After spending the better part of the day recording footage for their new music videos at Surreal Studios, the trio sat down for a private performance and Q&A with a group of working Anchorage musicians. The intimate event enabled the songwriters to ask specific questions about marketing their music and strategies to create catchy hooks. It was a decidedly different vibe from the outreach done by visiting brass band Lucky Chops a month later.

Teachers themselves, the members of Lucky Chops were stoked to visit West High’s acclaimed symphonic band. While there, they performed a short set, fielded questions and even watched the West High band strut their stuff.

Although not every visiting artist opts to do outreach, the majority do, and the Anchorage community is benefiting in tangible ways.

“When we listened to the kids play there was this one saxophonist who really stood out. I just remember thinking ‘man, that kid is really special,’’ recalls Lucky Chops saxophonist Daro Behroozi. “As it turns out, he had written me a letter years ago asking for playing tips. I sent him some and it looked like he may have used them!”

Of course, exchanging playing tips doesn’t necessarily generate ticket sales but Hodges, Kendall and Fredrick are more focused on the long game than the short.

“When we were an organization that was really on the ropes and near collapse, the measurement of success was how many tickets were we selling—how many butts were in the seats. But now we are shifting our thinking and coming up with a new way to measure success. It’s allowing us to learn what community impact looks like,” says Hodges.

This spring, the ACA will be taking another exciting step forward as a nearly year-long partnership with Catholic Social Service’s Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) and California-based contemporary dancer Tamika Washington comes to fruition. Washington’s nonprofit, the Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Foundation, works to provide a creative outlet for minority artists in southern L.A. Through numerous mini-residencies, Washington has been teaching dance, music and art to RAIS clients.

“This work is really outside of the scope of what the ACA traditionally does but in some ways its representative of the shifts we are making in how we engage with the community. These kinds of partnerships allow us to civically engage and to use art as our medium—it’s truly something that is near and dear to my heart,” Kendall explains.

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