Lessons from the Ballpark
Last month I was minding my own business attending a minor league baseball game with friends, thinking not a whit about the arts. Then something remarkable happened.
Between innings, a young girl who had endured multiple open heart surgeries that saved her life was recognized, along with her family and doctor. She then ran around the bases as part of a program by the ball club called “Home Run for Life.”
This girl’s story had nothing to do with baseball. The program is clearly an effort on the part of the team to connect with its community. So that got me thinking...
What was the mindset that led to this promotion?
Clearly, it was about the team’s interest, for pragmatic reasons to be sure, in being seen as a responsible, caring member of the community. What really got the wheels turning was trying to imagine something similar happening in the arts.
Some of you may say that such a program would not be appropriate for an arts organization, and I am certainly a stickler for focus in adhering to the mission. This specific example is probably not a helpful model. But it’s the mindset that led to the "Home Run for Life" program that intrigues me.
What sorts of activities might come from a view of the “arts self” wanting to connect with the community, even ones that were not directly related to the arts?
After I started down that road, I began to look at the other activities at the ballpark that evening. There were fan participation activities, singalongs (including, of course, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), contests, and fireworks at the end. Many of them were silly to the point of being embarrassing. Many (most?) had little or nothing to do with baseball. I would certainly not advocate for toddler races in Symphony Hall!
But in the light of my earlier post about the way arts events have become much more staid, more static experiences in the last hundred years, might not a “community-centered” approach to programming lead to some healthy change?
By the time we got to the end of the game I had taken yet another turn.
What is it about minor league baseball that encourages the activities we witnessed?
My immediate assessment was that it is a for-profit entertainment venture. As such, it behooves the management to engage in every way practical with as much of the community as possible.
As a spectator who is not particularly interested in baseball for itself, I go (on the occasions when I do) because it’s fun, it’s entertaining. And the beer is not too expensive, especially on Thirsty Thursday.
Not-for-profit arts organizations are mission-driven, making them different animals from minor league baseball. In the baseball games, it’s OK if for many attendees the experience is not “about” baseball. We are still paying for the tickets.
Our arts events must be about the arts; however, they must also, because of the 501(c)(3) structure, be about serving the community. I would further argue that apart from that legal argument, the arts should be community-focused. It is in the realm of community connection that many arts organizations have little experience.
The details of game-day activities in minor league sports may have nothing to offer, but the perspective of being community partners should offer us some new thoughts about ways to connect and serve.
(Editor's Note: A slightly varied version of this post appears on Doug Borwick’s blog Arts Engaged.)