Memphis has some good ideas about Arts for All

By Dan Fitzmaurice

The Oregon Trail card is a passport to the arts.

When Laura Young lost her job, she lost the chance  to arts events in Portland, too. The tickets were just too expensive.

But she also received food stamps through the state’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance(SNAP) program, which she relies upon to buy groceries. And now, a new program started by local classical music groups has opened up the doors for Laura and the 1-in-5 Oregonians who receive SNAP to attend concerts and plays they couldn’t have afforded otherwise.

“I always read about the arts offerings in The Oregonian and was so excited to buy affordable tickets to attend some shows with the Arts for All program,” Laura wrote ArtsWatch. “I think it’s important that my granddaughter, who lives with me, experiences performing arts of all kinds live. I have always loved to support the arts and hope the program will continue to grow.”

Laura and her granddaughter took a short pilgrimage away from their normal routine for unforgettable afternoons with the Oregon Ballet Theater and Portland Center Stage this year. The tickets were five dollars each.

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In 2008,  a dream team of classical music organizations, including such cultural pillars as the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and Portland Baroque Orchestra, united as Go Classical PDX. They decided to meet regularly and work collectively. “We listed all these things that our own organizations all did independently and ranked them,” said Ingrid Arnett, then the Community Relations Director for Portland Youth Philharmonic and currently a volunteer spokesperson for Arts for All. One issue flew to the top of this list: access.

Borrowing from the institutionalized discount or “concession” ticket pricing in Europe for students, seniors, and those who receive government assistance, they unveiled Music For All in January 2011 to provide $5 tickets to their concerts for SNAP recipients.

“We were thinking, ‘who are the people we want to reach?’ We all have extra inventory: tickets! We don’t like to just give it away, but we’d love to see new people coming in who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” explained Thomas Cirillo, executive director of Portland Baroque Orchestra.

During the worst economic recession in decades, they took a bold step to weave new, under-served audiences into the rich fabric of Portland’s classical music culture. Go Classical PDX members created valuable connections with the City of Portland, the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), and the Department of Human Services (DHS), the agency that distributes SNAP benefits, at the Portland Plan Arts Town Hallin July 2010. These combined forces pooled financial and knowledge resources to create a carefully worded informational brochure, instructing users to call participating music groups to reserve seats in advance, pay $5 per ticket, show their Oregon Trail Card—an electronic transfer card used to purchase food with SNAP—to redeem tickets at the box office, and enjoy the show.

DHS distributes this promotional material: Everyone who receives an Oregon Trail Card is personally handed the glossy Arts for All brochure. Six months into the project, these music organizations—who by design do not recoup their costs—filled over 1,400 unused seats.The Oregonian called this Music for All pilot project “one of the quiet success stories in Portland’s arts community.”

Word spread to other organizations and more than 30 groups from all arts disciplines formed Arts for All last October. The program has now concluded its first full programming year, removing the financial barrier to Portland’s art, music, and dance institutions.

Did it work? It’s complicated; barriers to cultural access are numerous—including education, programming,
geography, and marketing—and have deep roots. Those barriers are also ethnic and racial, not just financial, and they extend to areas outside the arts.

A May 2010 review from the Coalition of Communities of Color(CCC) reported that “Multnomah County has a particularly toxic form of racism and institutionalized racism that renders experiences of communities of color worse than their national comparisons.” Thirty percent of Portlanders and 45 percent of Portland Public School students are ethnic minorities. Mayor Sam Adams called the findings a “sad, shameful, and very compelling reality.” Since then, the CCC has released several more community specific studies for their “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile” series, each one as shocking as the last.

In January, the Mayor announced that the new Office of Equity and Human Rights and the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), the primary distributor of government arts funding, would draft pioneering diversity benchmarks for the staff and audiences of Portland arts organizations. And in February, those benchmarks were announced. The City of Portland and RACC have begun by diversifying their organizations internally and have asked arts groups to submit data about the racial makeup of their staffs in 2013 and audiences in 2014. This baseline data will influence their comprehensive city-wide arts equity plan. Future funding from RACC will be dependent on the compliance of arts groups.

“This is a hard thing to do,” Mayor Adams said. “We don’t have it figured out. But we will.”

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While Portland struggles with the access problem, another smaller city has worked on the same problem for 15 years and brewed some ideas that Portland might consider. Fifteen years ago, a group of enthusiastic local arts organizations and Arts Memphis, the Memphis, Tenn., equivalent to RACC for this historically arts-focused region, began a small program nearly identical to Arts for All called ArtsAccess. The tickets in this case were free.

There was one problem: hardly anyone was participating. Lauren Boyer, coordinator for the program, explained that the organization responded to this alarming data with a market-research study and identified several barriers that Portland’s Arts for All may experience. And Memphis came up with several simple solutions.

  • Barrier: Participants felt uncomfortable showing proof of government assistance and box office staff were often confused identifying them. Solution: Arts Memphis developed the ArtsAccess card, which looks intentionally like the two-for-one discount card their donors receive, and no different than RACC’s Work for Art card. Qualifying individuals can show proof of government assistance at four box offices strategically scattered throughout the city and receive the ArtsAccess card, which is then valid for two years.
  • Barrier: Participants were allowed to redeem only one free ticket per performance. Who sees a show alone? Solution: ArtsAccess cardholders can now redeem four tickets per performance. For free.
  • Barrier: Memphis’ arts groups, who are already donating the ticket cost and paying any associated fees, were less than pleased that participants sometimes did not show for their reserved seats. Solution: each card contains a unique tracking number and participants are banned from the entire program for one year if they miss two reservations.
  • Barrier: ArtsAccess brochures are available at a wide variety of locations, but Arts Memphis wanted to reach every single customer possible. Solution: They collaborated with arts groups to organize several free, pop-up arts events in strategic neighborhoods. Attendees were treated to a variety of live performances and received an ArtsAccess card without having to show proof.

Susan Schadt, president & CEO of ArtsMemphis, has profound memories of their first pop-up event this summer:

“I walk up to the community center at an inner-city youth community center wearing my jeans and my orange Art Memphis t-shirt. This big, burly, black police officer walks up to me right away and says, ‘I want to tell you we are so proud you’re bringing the arts here. You know what I usually do here on Saturday mornings? Break up fights.’ I mean, I got chills hearing that.

“Later I was standing next to someone him in the back during an opera performance, and he whispers to me, ‘I love opera. I grew up in New York City where my father was a police officer and got free tickets from a lot of arts groups. He used to take me all the time, but I haven’t seen opera since I left New York.’ I took him inside right and signed him up for an Arts Access card. He couldn’t believe it! When you see that on the ground, it changes your life.

“This is totally different, we have never taken the arts to the community. I remember we had apartment managers saying they heard about this pop-up and wanted to pick up ten, fifty, one-hundred cards for their low-income renters. That is the way this is going to grow, at which point we can get together with community leaders and fiscal sponsors with real evidence that this program is critical to Memphis.

“It’s a lot of work for us; it’s a pure and simple advocacy role that we play for these customers. I mean we have so much product as I’m sure you do in Portland, too, and to keep it all in this little silo in East Memphis just doesn’t work! It’s not responding to our community, which is definitely in need of positive energy.”

Arts Memphis is smaller than RACC, but it fully embraces its innovative, barrier-breaking model to develop cultural accessibility. Lauren Boyer’s phone number is listed on the new ArtsAccess card in case anyone—participant or organization—has questions. Every summer, she supervises a full time ArtsAccess intern to prepare the promotional materials and helped arrange the pop-upevents for the year.

“This is about celebrating a community,” says Kerry Hayes, ArtsMemphis board member. “It’s a one-Memphis idea.”

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This year, Arts for All in Portland sold 5,826 tickets for seats that otherwise collected cobwebs. RACC is funding and printing a series of Arts for All brochures translated into several different languages, and it’s coordinating a translation telephone serviceto reach even more Portlanders next season.

Memphis’s ArtsAccess is still tabulating its total ticket sales but distributed 6,000 ArtsAccess cards this year (each one good for hundreds of performances, four tickets apiece) and expect their creative solutions to significantly boost attendance and influence in the Memphis community. Both are consulting with other organizations who want to create similar programs around the country, because accessibility to the arts is a problem almost everywhere.

Portland’s Arts for All began as a small program put together by several classical music groups. Pat Zagelow, executive director of Friends of Chamber Music, recalled their humble beginnings: “We all went into this all saying it has to be really simple, a grassroots thing. It has quickly become a very important piece but it is a still a very small piece. It’s possible after a couple of years the numbers could drop off. Who knows.”

Many other small, grassroots efforts along the same lines have been made, too, from the Ethos Music Center to Milepost 5.  Could we, however, create a big solution that might finally  give all people access to our performing halls and museums?  The future of Arts for All right now is in the hands of already overworked arts managers, including Pat Zagelow, Thomas Cirillo and Ingrid Arnett. Cirillo, for example, sees the potential pitfalls to volunteering his time for this growing project: “Now that the program is well established, I’m trying to reduce my role somewhat.  I love talking about it, but Portland Baroque Orchestra has been growing so I have to pull back a little bit.”

Would RACC eventually be a likely landing spot for Arts for All? Executive director Eloise Damrosch says RACC believes in the program: “Arts for All has proven a fantastic way to increase residents’ access to arts and culture. As RACC and arts organizations work together to eliminate old barriers like cost and language, we hope that more people can and will take part in the extraordinary events that our arts community has to offer,” she said. A RACC take-over of the program isn’t out of the question, perhaps, but it’s not part of the plan now. “RACC supports the program, but we currently don’t have the bandwidth to manage it – and they haven’t asked us to,” Damrosch said. “If they DID ask us to, we would have to talk about that. In the meantime, we ARE hosting the website, and taking the lead on translating their brochures into other languages, and fielding calls through a special translation assistance telephone line.”

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Tarah sits in the busy but eerily quiet waiting room at the DHS office on SE 39th and Powell to determine her eligibility for SNAP. One of her delicate hands clasps the strong fingers of her boyfriend, Isaiah; the other presses a smartphone against her ear. She can’t find any apartments that accept rent from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families(TANF) cash assistance program. This young, hopeful couple has hit bottom.

Neither of them knows about Arts for All, but they accepted the brochure and listened while I explained the details. “Shit!” Isaiah exclaims, “I like ballet. We should do this tonight!”

There were over two dozen others applying for a variety of government programs during this hour at this DHS office, one of more than twenty locations in the metro region. Thousands of children rely on free or reduced lunch programs in our public schools. An uncounted number of individuals and families shuffle from one homeless shelterto the next.

The economy is sick right now, but the divide between the poor and full participation in the culture has been growing for decades. We’ve named the problem, and maybe we have the beginning of a solution in the City’s initiatives and Art for All.

Dan Fitzmaurice is a diehard arts advocate with a particular fondness for classical music. 

Editor’s Note: Dan Fitzmaurice participated in an ArtsWatch arts journalism class at the Attic Institute this spring. This is the third story we’ve published by students in that class.

One Response.

  1. Melissa says:

    Great article on an important program in Portland. It was interesting to read about the ArtAccess program in Memphis. The barrier/solution approach is one we can all learn from as a community, and work together to improve access to life-giving resources like the arts. We need them more than ever now, and we need them to get stronger and stronger so that they’ll be successful for a long time. Thanks for this story and for this site!

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