Commentary: Collaboration Makes The Arts Better | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Collaboration Makes The Arts Better

Jul 20, 2014

I recently joined a group of arts leaders at the Nine Network to discuss how organizations in Grand Center could collaborate more effectively. As part of the meeting, they asked us to name some of the ways collaborations have created value in the community. This question took me back to my first day of business school at Washington University, when we talked about the concept of value: how the benefits an organization produces are greater than the costs of the organization. It is a classic case of one plus one equals three.

One metric commonly used to measure value creation is money. It cost me $5 to make a widget, and I turn around and sell it for $7. But as I sat there pondering this in class, I realized that one would need metrics other than money to judge the value created by arts organizations. The benefits to the community and the value they create are not easily measured, especially when thinking about collaborations between arts groups.

Robert Orth as Howie Albert and Aubrey Allicock as Emile Griffith in Champion
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Last year, I was fortunate to work with my good friend, Timothy O’Leary at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in the creation of a new opera in Jazz called, “Champion,” composed by the great jazz musician, Terence Blanchard. The collaboration between Opera Theatre St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis produced a work that neither one of us would’ve been able to create on our own. And I am happy to tell you, it was a great success.

It is easy to measure the value of that collaboration in some very tangible ways, like the number of tourists who came to St. Louis to see the performance, and the economic impact of the creation and production of the opera. But it is a little more difficult to measure the value that the positive reviews and news coverage from writers around the world will have on the St. Louis region.

By working together, we showed the world that great, innovative art can come from the Midwest. However, the greatest value is about the change that takes place inside the audience as it experiences the art; and it is clear that collaboration between arts organizations is enhancing that value.

As an example, Circus Flora’s inspired pairing with the St. Louis Chess Hall of Fame and Museum this season gave us “The Pawn,” one of the best performances I have ever seen from St. Louis’ circus. The Saturday that I saw the performance was at the end a particularly hard week at Jazz St. Louis and that weekend was full of the minor emergencies that all homeowners are used to. But, for a couple hours, my whole family was transported to The Pawn’s world and I was shielded from the cares of mine.

How does one measure the relief benefit to the mental health of someone with an iPhone-email addiction being so enthralled with a performance that they finally leave the phone off for a couple hours to enjoy a shared experience with their family and the rest of the audience? Similarly, how does one value the inspiration to young minds that are opened to new worlds, new possibilities and new ways to see their world?

Circus Flora is no stranger to interesting collaborations. I never would have thought that I would see circus performers on the Powell Hall stage with the great St. Louis Symphony. But those two organizations created something wonderful and unique and, like “The Pawn,” their collaboration is working to open new worlds to circus goers and symphony patrons. It is changing lives, and that is the essence of the true value of the arts and why collaborations are so powerful and profound.

From time to time I get the benefits of an unexpected conversation with the wonderful Agnes Wilcox of Prison Performing Arts, as she is our next-door neighbor at the Centene Center for Arts and Education. In talking about her approach to the arts, she said that we are in the business of transformation. Agnes and her team collaborated with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts to produce such projects as “Staging Old Masters” and “Staging Reflections of the Buddha.” These outlets provide a concrete example of the power of the arts, as theater is improving the lives of former prisoners.

But it happens in much subtler ways as well. The transformative power of the arts that takes place in those who experience its power and beauty is the true value of the arts. By working together to create great art we have the ability to transcend our time and space. I truly believe that 100 years from now some young person will experience a performance of Terence Blanchard’s Champion and be moved to tears just as many at its premiere were.

Their life will be changed because the story of a man  they never knew was beautifully told at a time long before their existence. That person will find something in the music that will change their life for the better. And it will happen because two different organizations decided that they were better together than apart. It is almost impossible to measure the value of that, but because we have all had our lives transformed by the arts, we all know how real that value is.

Gene Dobbs Bradford is executive director of Jazz St. Louis.