In a nontraditional move for the orchestra industry, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has formed a dedicated community engagement department, with the goals of educating and enriching the Memphis community with innovative projects and services while at the same time attracting new audience members for the concert hall.
Rhonda Causie, center, with key collaborators Joseph Nelson and Susan Miville. Causie will lead the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s new community engagement department.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“The job of the new department is to build some infrastructure that will allow Memphis to understand the work that we do, and maybe it will help us get more support for it, because the projects can’t run on grant funds forever. They have to reach a point where they are sustainable,” said Rhonda Causie, who will lead the new department as vice president of community engagement. Other department members are Joseph Nelson, director of community partnerships, and Susan Miville, director of education.
The MSO was established in 1960 and now includes more than 400 musicians, staff and volunteers.
After Vincent deFrank Hall Downtown was torn down in 1996, the symphony had no place to play until the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts was completed in 2003.
“We had so much audience attrition during those years that when the new hall opened in 2003 it was a wonderful thing, but we had lost so much of our core audience that we were not able to really recover,” said Causie, who previously served as MSO director of grants and innovation. “We began to recognize that we would need to go out and build a new audience, and we could do it with a community service structure.”
In 2007 the orchestra began forming a network of community partnerships with key organizations across the Mid-South, including Youth Villages, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis and Community LIFT, which teamed with MSO during the past year to produce the successful Memphis Symphony Soul concert series at the revitalized Memphis Music Magnet community center. The MSO/Community LIFT pairing came about after both had applied for the same grant from ArtPlace America.
“We noticed that our applications were centered around the same neighborhood, so we were able to combine two applications with the Memphis Music Magnet at Soulsville plan,” said Eric Robertson, Community LIFT president.
“We consider the partnership to have been very successful,” Robertson said. “The project was part of a larger plan for the community, and the relationship with the symphony helped to animate the neighborhood and create a buzz about events and music on a regular basis, as well as to expose the neighborhood to people that normally would not visit there.”
Attendance for the shows exceeded expectations, bringing out an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people to the various events.
The idea for community work in Soulsville dates back to 2007, when the MSO was selected as one of seven orchestras (out of 300 applicants) in the country to participate in the New Strategies Lab program in Princeton, N.J.
“From that workshop we emerged with two key projects: developing a leadership program for FedEx and music mentoring at the Soulsville Charter School, and we are very pleased that those programs continue today,” said Causie, who points out that MSO players are union contract employees of the orchestra, so a revolutionary move was necessary to ratify the union contracts to allow MSO to pay their musicians for their community work.
MSO musicians now have the autonomy to decide what type of community work they would like to do, whether it is coaching kids or playing for seniors at an assisted living facility or doing arrangements for education ensembles at schools.
“We believe the community work we do is vital and it changes lives,” Causie said. “The amount of community work we do has grown so much over the past eight years, to the point where we decided it was time to dedicate some staff to it.”