Building a cathedral

In one of her former lives, The Nonprofiteer worked for a law school whose dean gave the same speech at every commencement.  The school graduated two classes each year so she had plenty of time to memorize the central metaphor.  "Three workmen at Chartres were approached by a traveller who asked, ‘What are you doing?’  The first workman said, ‘I am laying stone.’  The second said, ‘I am putting up scaffolding.’  But the third said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’  And so," the dean would conclude in his most sonorous voice, "Build a cathedral, my friends!"

On the secular side, a tale is told of strategic planning at the Xerox Corporation.  "What are we doing?" the leadership asked the staff; and it kept asking the question until the answer was not, "Making copy machines" or even "Producing copies" but "Manipulating documents."  (Hence the slogan, "Xerox–the document company.")  Voila: a whole new set of products and markets that nonetheless fit into the niche of skills and expertise Xerox had created for itself. 

Both stories came to mind when the Chicago Sinfonietta presented its piece for orchestra and cellphones.  (See yesterday’s post.)  (And please note that The Nonprofiteer holds no brief for the Sinfonietta and knows nothing about its actual personnel or processes; she is speculating based on the outcome.)  Here’s a classical music organization, doubtless facing the same pressures as all the others: aging audiences, a public less educated about the product, challenges to its relevance.  But instead of descending into the shouting match that’s always just waiting to erupt in groups dedicated to classical music–"dumbing down" versus "making accessible"–the organization apparently asked itself, "What are we doing?" and answered not, "Presenting the classical repertoire" or even "Playing music" but "Helping people learn to listen."  Other arts groups should consider how to understand their missions with equal breadth.

Build a cathedral, my friends. 

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One Response to “Building a cathedral”

  1. Jim Hirsch Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. The Sinfonietta has spent a good deal of time thinking about how to engage more people in classical music, what the realities of our market are, and what it is that we do well. When you combine these elements, it became clear to us that we might be able to succeed by programming a combination of traditional classical music repertoire and more adventuresome pieces like the Cell Phone Concertino. This has created our own niche in the market. Something I refer to as “symphonic-based experiences” that grew out of our internal work on positioning and branding. What is our actual business? As you pointed out, its not playing music or presenting classical repertoire, though we certainly do both. We are in the business of developing sustainable relationships.

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