Success is Local

Working together for a common purpose seems like a natural way of doing more with less duplication. With those ends in mind, organizations in the Jewish arts and culture sector have recently tried to form professional networks through two separate initiatives. Both experiences suggest that any systemic solution ultimately has to reckon with local realities.

A few years ago the Foundation for Jewish Culture, under the innovative leadership of the gifted Elise Bernhardt, adopted a strategic plan that calls for forming cultural networks through strategic collaborations. The intention was to “create cultural events designed to connect the creators of art, literature and scholarship with the institutions who will promote them within their Jewish communities.”

At around the same time, the legendary impresario Michael Dorf – whose Downtown Arts Development was recognized by Slingshot for its pathbreaking work in bringing Jewish culture to Lower Manhattan – organized a pioneering conference on Jewish arts and culture as part of his Oyhoo Festival. Both events raised excitement about a new era in Jewish arts and culture.

Exemplifying the FJC’s approach is a series of invitation-only “convenings” through which it has brought together leading figures in Jewish music and from Jewish film festivals. (Disclosure: I served on the advisory committee for the New Jewish Music retreat.) The music conference dealt with big-picture aesthetic and cultural issues like preservation and cross-genre innovation, concluding at one point: “It is time to construct a more encompassing historical narrative of the cultural production of Jewish music, so that we may better understand and create ‘new’ Jewish music today.”

The working group on film festivals and new media looked into online projects that extend the mission of film festivals and create Internet resources for the benefit of festival organizers and the public. At the top of its list of recommendations for possible action is the establishment of a professional association for Jewish film festivals.

Michael Dorf also has a vision for a new professional association: International Jewish Arts Presenters (IJPA). The idea wasn’t the outcome of a process; it’s his personal vision, which he unveiled at his 2009 Schmooze Conference, of a Jewish counterpart to the very successful Association of Performing Arts Presenters. It would enable local Jewish-arts presenters to collaborate on an ongoing basis in organizing performer tours, lowering the costs to each presenter and widening the range of touring artists. He invited Schmooze attendees to join last January, and has relaunched the idea in recent email announcements.

For its part, the FJC has advanced the contemporary conversation about Jewish culture and brought together professionals who hadn’t previously known one another, which may lead to future collaborations. It maintains contact with many arts presenters in North America to continue to share professional information, which can likewise encourage joint efforts. The Foundation de facto recognizes that not every arts presenter is in a position – by virtue of finances, staff, audience potential, or desire – to be an active part of such discussions. At the same time, by disseminating its findings widely, the FJC serves the field as a whole.

The IJPA is to serve the field by being open to any presenter or producer of Jewish-culture events. It will be a grass-roots, membership-based organization, assuming it attracts enough participants and funding to be viable, and in that sense it is a more entrepreneurial alternative to the FJC’s activities. But it faces the same reality: many if not most Jewish arts presenters face serious constraints that make it hard for them to be enterprising. Most operate at a deficit, often with JCC or other subsidies that will be harder and harder to come by, and they will be leery of new commitments.

In the arts as in any aspect of Jewish life, it is the local organizations that most directly touch the public. Many, however, are having less success attracting donations and selling tickets than in the past, which for them may render national propositions moot. Yet nationwide solutions can’t work unless and until there are local partners willing and able to participate in them.

For local arts presenters to remain viable, many may need to rethink their target audiences, programming priorities, marketing strategies, and sometimes leadership. Management may decide, however, that it’s not worth the trouble to deal with change and possible conflict. It’s easier to sidestep a major reassessment and yield to inertia, accepting reduced support and waning attendance and hoping for the best. It may even lead to curtailing or abandoning cultural programming to avoid rocking the boat. Neither outcome counts as a success.

What’s true for arts presenters is equally true for synagogues, schools, and social-service organizations. Irrespective of the new ideas at the national level or among individual innovators, each local nonprofit needs to address its own strategic issues squarely and systematically in order for national solutions to have a chance. This includes a willingness to work through change and possible conflict in the near term to provide a solid basis for the future. Providing local leaders and managers with the tools to do that is a critical need not only in Jewish culture, but also in Jewish institutions generally. Indeed. it may be our biggest challenge, and our biggest opportunity as well. The alternative is to see continued decline in local communal institutions that can’t manage change.

As the saying goes: think globally, act locally.

[Special thanks to Andy Horwitz of the Foundation for Jewish Culture and David Franklin of Oyhoo for sharing their expertise, insights, and knowledge of these issues.]

Bob Goldfarb, a former vice-president of the Arts Consulting Group, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Bob lives in Jerusalem and is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.