Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Arts in Frisco, TX- Why the Controversy?

When I ask people about the arts in Frisco, TX, I am shocked when I see a visceral reaction of negativity and fear.  It is palpable.  I'll get a terse smile, a deep breath, and I can tell words are being carefully crafted before daring to be spoken.

I grew up near Chicago, IL, a city that deeply understands the great public value of arts and culture.  It's not questioned, it doesn't need to be justified; it's simply part of the daily conversation, intentionally woven into the very fabric of the city.  I have to say, I miss it.  I miss it terribly.

What has caused this black eye in Frisco's history with the arts?  What happened that has turned something so innately beautiful and unifying as the arts into fractured, broken pieces?

Let me pull back the curtain to reveal what I've learned about this complex history.

In 2000, a nationally award-winning Millenium plan was put in place for the city of Frisco.  It included a vision for the arts that states, "The City of Frisco should develop a community center for all ages, and/or cultural facilities (museum, performing arts center, etc)."  That was the vision for the arts in Frisco, 14 years ago.

In 2002, a project came to the table called the Arts of Collin County, or later renamed the Arts of North Texas.  It was a joint effort of neighboring cities to create a 2,100-seat performing arts venue as a regional cultural arts magnet.  There was a bond election at the time, and Frisco voters approved $19M towards creating this facility.

In 2006, a Comprehensive Plan was formed for Frisco created by citizens who had a vision for Frisco's future.  One of the objectives was, "Establish Frisco as a center for arts, education, and entertainment."  Other points included: "Increase cultural opportunities and choices through initiatives including more public art venues," and "Enhance the role of downtown as the cultural and social center of the city; reinforce and strengthen downtown as the heart of Frisco."

With this Comprehensive Plan in place, a new bond election occurred in 2006, and voters approved $5M towards Frisco's own "science and cultural arts facility," a separate bond from the larger Arts of Collin County project located in Allen, TX, right on the outskirts of Frisco.

In 2010, the Frisco Discovery Center was born.  It was created by converting the former aerospace building on Cotton Gin Road and the Dallas North Tollway into the Sci-Tech Discovery Center (a children's science museum), a 120-seat Black Box Theater, an "Art Gallery" (one hallway and central lobby space in the building), and a back-of-house space that could be used for special events.  Frisco Association for the Arts, the city's official arts agency, was chosen to be the managers of the entire space.

In 2011, all hell broke loose.

I can't pinpoint how it all started, but I can say, it was BIG.  Big enough to recall the 2002 bond measure for $19M that was already approved, big enough to have so much campaigning and politicking for or against the bond measure that it caused irrevocable damage to the community's understanding of the arts.  Friends became foes, lines were drawn in the sand, and the city became divided. . . over the arts.  Being pro-arts was considered fiscally irresponsible, rhetoric like "needs vs. wants" or "arts is a hobby" became pervasive, and there was no middle ground.  You either supported Frisco's infrastructure and safety, or you were a crazy arts person.  You couldn't be both.

Essentially, Frisco voters were given an opportunity to change a bond measure that had already been approved in 2002.  How did that happen?  Why was it targeted?  That in itself is disturbing.  But what's just as disheartening is that the project was less than $300,000 away from getting the shovel to the ground, and had it started before 2011, there would have been no turning back.

The end result was that in 2011, Frisco voters revoked the city's authority to issue the remaining $16.4M from the original $19M.  The City Council members stated that they couldn't support a performing arts center that was not in Frisco.  If it were located in Frisco, some councilmen assured, they would have voted for it.

Once Frisco pulled out of the 3-city project, it died.  There was no recovery.  Frisco was blamed for ruining the project and having no vision, but on the flip side, Frisco was also called a hero by those who believed it was the most fiscally responsible thing to do in an economic downturn.  And again, it wasn't in Frisco.

It's 2014.  Suddenly, a perfect storm has arrived.  A judge ruled that the 3 cities involved in the Arts of Collin County project will receive a small portion of funds back from their initial investment.  A week later, I gave a presentation with 2 other volunteers/arts advocates and the Community Development Corporation president to the 2015 Citizen Bond Committee in favor of a Cultural and Performing Arts Center IN Frisco and BY Frisco, asking for $20M in bonds to show the city's commitment to the arts and to attract a quality, dedicated partner.

The very next day, there were 4 forms of media asking our team's input on this issue: KRLD News Radio, Dallas Morning News, Community Impact News, and Channel 11.  The number one question?  What do you say about Frisco voting down the Arts of Collin County project in 2011?  Is it too early to be asking for an arts venue in Frisco given the history?

Is it too EARLY?  I submit it is 14 years TOO LATE!

As we get close to entering the new year, we must change the conversation about the arts in Frisco.  Art is the most beautiful form of human expression, a universal form of communication.  Art unites, it does not divide.  Art inspires, it does not create enmity.  We must remove the fear and negativity that surround the arts in Frisco.  No one likes a nagging wife who can't let go of an issue and keeps bringing up what didn't work, especially after it has been resolved.  That's how this 2011 issue is treated; we have to LET IT GO.  If we just keep looking back at this dark history, we will never move forward.

I believe that this 2015 Bond election is a litmus test in time.  Future generations are going to point to this moment, this particular bond election, and make a determination about what we value.  The character of the city is on the line.  What is Frisco all about?  Are we designing a well-rounded city?  Are we preserving our culture and creating sustainability for the remaining 40% left to build?  Or will we continue to be known as the best place to raise a professional athlete because of our public commitment to world-class sports facilities?  Will we only focus on the bones of the city (infrastructure), and neglect the heart and soul (arts), which is what gives every city its unique identity?  Will we decide a facility for the arts can wait another 5-7 years until the next bond election in 2020?  Or can we finally fulfill a 14-year vision for the arts to create a balanced face for Frisco?

These are all questions that I will be bringing to the table at our Citizen Bond Committee meetings in January 2015.  I expect opposition, but I know I am in the right place at the right time for this issue in Frisco.  And I hope that someday, the arts will become part of the very fabric of Frisco as it is in all great cities, and that we will be known as the place to be for the arts, not in spite of it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Open Classical- Part 2: Classical Open Mic Night

I interviewed Mark Landson, Director of Open Classical, about the concept of the popular Classical Open Mic Night, an innovative way of introducing the public to classical music.  Here's our conversation. . .

T:  So tell me, what exactly is Classical Open Mic?

M:  Classical Open Mic is an opportunity for anyone to come out and perform classical music in a casual, social environment.  It's a fun night where the audience and artist can interact and enjoy classical music together.  It is free and open to the public, usually hosted at a restaurant or coffee house.  We increase customers, and they provide the venue; it's a win-win!  We also supply the sound equipment, keyboard, and offer an accompanist, making it very easy for anyone to participate; just bring your instrument, your music, and play!

NOTE:  Here's the Facebook link to Classical Open Mic in Frisco, TX to view pics, videos, and sign up to play!

T:  Is it limited to only classical music?

M:  No, just mostly classical!  We want to hear music that generally doesn't get to have a voice in our current culture, but we've definitely had lots of variety: a few jazz musicians, pop vocals, originals, and even Metallica performed by a crazy Korean violinist.

T:  Ha!!  Moving on. . . so what makes Classical Open Mic an important part of Open Classical events?

M: Well as you know, the classical audience is getting smaller and smaller, and we want to change that.  Classical Open Mic builds and nurtures this audience so that the Dallas Symphony and other orchestras around the US have more patrons in the future.  Not only do we bring classical music to audiences that would never hear it to create a hunger and appreciation for it, but we also create a ladder for aspiring performing artists.  In the current classical system, there is no ladder; it's all top-down.  If you win a competition, you get to perform.  If you don't, it's almost impossible to build a fan base: you have to spend hundreds of dollars renting out a church or venue, advertise and market yourself, practice for hours and hours and hope that at least 10 people who aren't related to you show up to hear all the work you've done.  Classical Open Mic inserts a performance layer that currently doesn't exist.

T:  So Classical Open Mic is essentially an arts ladder?

M:  Yes.  It is an audience-building tool that allows artists to take more control over their own career and development.  It is modeled much like the pop music world which often times starts with playing at an open mic.  There’s a stair step, a hierarchy to build your fan base in the pop world.  Why can't that happen in the classical music world?  We have literally thousands of musicians out there who could be performing regularly but with no venue, no first step, no bottom-up approach.  We need to create opportunities for classical musicians to gain fan bases by performing regularly, networking, and connecting with an audience.  That's what Classical Open Mic does.

T:  Ok, that's great for the aspiring performer.  But let's say I'm a suburban mom who listens to Justin Timberlake while I work out and maybe some Adele with a glass of wine at night because during the day I've been accosted with Dora the Explorer songs.  Not that I'm describing my life AT ALL, but how would you convince me to come out to a Classical Open Mic night to hear boring classical music?

M:  First, I KNEW you were a Timberlake fan!  But secondly, I'd say you need to come out because it's fun!  Classical Open Mic at its core is a social activity; you get to hang out with old friends, meet new ones, and get to know the artists performing in a very casual environment.  It's always a great time and uniquely different at each one.  Yes, there is classical music, but we are taking the stigma out of it by bringing it dressed down, not dumbed down.  When you get to be up close and personal with talented musicians just a few feet away from you, hearing what they create and watching their fingers fly, I think you might change your mind about classical music!  It's good for your soul; it takes you on an intelligent journey of emotions and gives your mind space and freedom to imagine without limits; you might be surprised at how much you love it if you are open to it.

T:  So I'm hearing you say that Classical Open Mic is both beneficial for the musician but also the audience?

M:  Classical Open Mic is great for the community at large.  It's an outreach program and the strongest one we have.  It brings people together from all walks of life, races, and ages.  Music unites people and when you have a community that values the arts, you have a stronger community.

T:  What about professional musicians who have made it to the top 1%?  Is there a reason for them to come and play at a Classical Open Mic?

M:  I would ask them to attend and perform not because they need to build an audience for themselves (which probably already exists), but to inspire a future audience for classical music in general.  If we have symphony musicians and performing artists volunteer their time to play at a local Classical Open Mic, it's a bit like having a professional football player come to a student game and play on the field with them.  They are essentially celebrities offering community service to nurture the next generation of classical musicians, both performers and supporters.  As our current listening audience is slowly dying off, this is a perfect way for professionals to connect with the public, sharing their talent and ultimately resulting in people who fill seats at their orchestra concerts!

T:  Speaking of the next generation, how about kids?  Are they welcome to attend a Classical Open Mic?

M:  Definitely!  We have had lots of parents eager to expose their children to quality classical music without the inconvenience of a high-priced ticket or the stuffy environment in a concert hall!  And another benefit of bringing your kids to Classical Open Mic is that they get to interact with professional-level musicians which inspires them to continue learning on their own.  We need to change the idea that music lessons are merely for the purpose of recitals, competitions, or formal concerts; many students drop out of lessons or playing their instrument once they reach 12th grade because there is no model for what comes next.  Either you pursue the very difficult career path of music, or you will stop playing regularly as you find another career.  We want to change that!  Classical Open Mic offers a place to continue playing and listening to others, and it shows the next generation that music is a lifelong gift!

T:  I completely agree with you and you know how much I love Classical Open Mic.  It has allowed me to play in ensembles again which I haven't done for decades, and I've also returned to practicing great classical music that I've missed so much!  It's feeding a part of me that has been starving for years.  Let's circle back to something you said earlier: if Classical Open Mic is the first rung on the new performing artist's ladder, what comes next?

(To be continued. . .)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Open Classical- Part 1: A Game Changer in the World of Classical Music

I discovered Open Classical on my birthday last year, Sep. 10th, 2013.  I had no idea what to expect when I arrived with my violin for Classical Open Mic night at Buzzbrews in Dallas, but I was curious to see what it was all about.  I couldn't have asked for a better gift on my birthday!  It was an incredible convergence of quality classical music, a casual atmosphere, and great fun!  Open Classical has literally changed the course of my life in the last few months, and as I've brought it to my town of Frisco, TX, something very exciting is happening; an arts community has begun to form!

I recently interviewed Mark Landson, director of Open Classical Dallas, to find out in his own words what people should know about Open Classical.  Here are the highlights from our conversation. 

What is Open Classical?

Open Classical is a non-profit organization committed to bringing the community together around great classical music.  We produce and promote events that place classical music into the heart of everyday popular culture.  Classical music is the social glue used to bind people together from all ages, races, and walks of life. 

Why Classical music?

Classical music is an incredible art form that speaks directly to the soul.  It takes you on an intelligent journey of emotions and allows you to tap into something outside yourself.  Classical music helps you understand the world on another level and immediately connects you to those around you.  Listening to classical music also gives your mind and soul space to think, to imagine, and to create without limits or boundaries.  Every measure of a classical piece is not dictated by someone else and the message of the music is not spoon fed to you; instead, the beauty of classical music is in its abstract nature, the freedom for each individual to hear it, get lost in it, and make sense of it in his or her own way.  This kind of experience nourishes the soul, and because listening to classical music creates a healthy, balanced life and connected community, it should be a fundamental part of our culture.  

What is the purpose of Open Classical?

The ultimate goal of Open Classical is to open more doors for classical music in our culture.  We want to create more opportunities for classical music to be played and in doing so, grow new audiences who can enjoy, appreciate, and support classical music and musicians.  Right now, public access to quality classical music is too complicated, too elitist, too top-down.  If you want to hear a good classical musician play, you have to schedule a time when you are available for the next orchestral concert, pay a hefty admission ticket, and drive miles away to get there.  It's no wonder that classical music audiences are shrinking in size and age, and all at the expense of the most beautiful music ever written.  The problem is not with the music itself; it's with the current structure surrounding classical music.

What do you think is the cause of the diminishing classical audience?

One of the contributing factors is that in the classical music world, the decision of who gets to have a musical career comes from the top.  If you want to become a piano soloist, you have only one way to get there: win a major piano competition like the Cliburn International.  Without that, your chances of becoming a famous pianist are slim.  If you want to be a part of a world-class professional string quartet, you have to win the Fischoff National Chamber music competition.  Right now, there is no middle ground for the thousands of professional-level musicians who all have the same dream of performing and sharing their talent.  Either you make it in that top 1% or you end up feeling like a failure even after practicing for countless hours.  There are scores of disillusioned music majors who leave with a degree in their hand, beautiful works of art they have crafted, but no place to play.  What happens to them?  Some hobble through for a few years trying to make a living by performing, but most will eventually take on a completely different career (someone has to pay the bills!) and their instrument sits alone collecting dust.

The classical music structure has been the same way for 75 years, and it's not working.  Orchestras are declaring bankruptcy and music is being silenced.  Students don't seriously consider a career in music because their chances of success as defined by the system are so slim.  We have essentially choked the life out of classical music by doing the same thing over and over.  However, if you look at the pop music world, it is completely the opposite.  They are well known for innovative practices and staying current, resulting in rising stars, millions of album sales, large audiences, and plenty of radio time.  They adapt and change with every decade since tastes change, trends change, and what was valued in the 70's is no longer valued in the 80's, etc.  Change is embraced, not feared.

How does Open Classical change the game of Classical music?  

Open Classical offers the public multiple entry points into the world of classical music.  A ticket to the symphony shouldn't be the only time you hear classical music.  We believe that classical music can be played and enjoyed as regularly as pop, jazz, or rock and performed in the same venues as these other genres.  As classical music begins to take root in our culture from the bottom up, we nurture future patrons for the arts and keep this important genre alive for the next generation.

This will require innovative practices that break the chains of the elitist attitudes we often find in the classical music world.  For instance, some believe that if we are listening to Beethoven, the audience must remain reverentially quiet and come dressed ready to meet the queen, and definitely no noisy children allowed.  Unfortunately, that's not very inviting to much of the public and it's not going to gain new audiences!  However, if we take away the stuffiness surrounding classical music, we are left with the genius of the music, which by itself is powerful, wonderful, and life-changing.  We need to expose the simple beauty of classical music to the public in new ways so that they learn to love it and want more, and that's at the heart of Open Classical.