The Art of Sharing

A unique model for Syracuse’s small arts groups

“Can we show them the way we end our meetings?” Karen Mihalyi asked before she took her friends into her arms and embraced them vigorously as the ballroom in the CNY Philanthropy Center, on East Fayette Street, burst into applause.

The tight clutch, epitomizing the bond they’ve managed to forge among their organizations, included Mihalyi, of the Syracuse Community Choir; Norma Tippett, of the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble; Karin Franklin-King, of the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company; and Carol Charles, of the Dance Theater of Syracuse.

“We’re sister organizations,” Mihalyi says. “Relationship is such a key.”

Almost every week for the past two years, the four women have been gathering in their free time at the Syracuse Women’s Information Center, in the Westcott neighborhood, to design strategies to help their groups function as a unit. Their efforts have resulted in a partnership called the Mosaic Collective, which is based on shared audiences and resources.

In November, roughly 40 board members of the Mosaic organizations participated in a training workshop for the first time at the Philanthropy Center–a space for nonprofits from the region to meet and cooperate–to figure out ways to strengthen their associations under the motto “We are better working together.”

“What we realized along the way is that if we don’t build a strong foundation in our organizations, we can’t do the other work well,” Franklin-King says.

To show the community the outcome of their collaboration, the collective mounted a common performance Jan. 26 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, on Montgomery Street.

“The ending piece should exemplify us, something that’s unifying, is hopeful, is energetic, something forward-looking,” Tippett says.

The “Mosaic Mamas,” as they fondly call themselves, met in December 2011 through the Initiative to Develop and Engage Audiences in Syracuse Collaborative. The IDEAS Collaborative consists of a network of 43 arts, cultural and heritage organizations and six sources of money (the Gifford Foundation, the Allyn Foundation, the CNY Community Foundation, the Reisman Foundation, the John Ben Snow Foundation, and the Trust for Cultural Resources) created to empower the local arts and cultural community by expanding its audiences, maintaining its current ones, and enabling cooperation upon a new funding model.

“It’s developing strategies to increase audience engagement,” says Matthew De Bellas, marketing project manager at CNY Arts, the regional arts council.

The goal is to raise attendance at arts and cultural events by 5 percent by the end of 2014, which implies getting almost 4,000 more households from the area to become involved with Syracuse’s creative sector.

The IDEAS Collaborative emerged in 2010 as a reaction to the disastrous effect of the 2008 financial crisis on the arts world.

“The financial downturn really hit everybody,” says Heidi Holtz, director of projects and research and the Gifford Foundation. “But it hit the arts, I think, particularly well because people see the arts as something that’s not always necessary and required.”

CNY Arts executive director Steve Butler agrees that the recession affected the arts severely in combination with a reduction in government allocations to the arts. But Holtz believes it wasn’t just economic hardship that propelled the creation of the IDEAS Collaborative.

“What we saw as funders was something that was actually happening before the downturn,” Holtz says. “But the downturn exacerbated it, and that was a lot of the organizations wanting to do community engagement, a lot of the organizations wanting to build their audiences, a national trend, which was reflected here, which is that arts audiences tend to be older and aging out.”

Surale Phillips, consultant to the IDEAS network, developed a database using the mailing lists of each member organization to show the associations how their audiences overlap and what their current and potential markets are, so they can collaborate and find new ways to grow. Phillips has done similar work in other places, such as Orlando and Memphis, but those projects had different outcomes than Syracuse’s.

“Her established model fell on particularly fruitful soil here,” Holtz says, referring to the great acceptance Phillip’s system gained in the local arts and cultural community.

After Phillips gave every organization in the collaborative an individual report about its audiences, the funders had the 43 members meet at the end of 2011 and split into small groups according to their budget size to talk about common problems and possible solutions. Tippett, Charles, Franklin-King and Mihalyi sat together at the gathering and spoke about their projects and struggles for the first time. After the event, Mihalyi followed up and suggested meeting again to discuss things further, sowing the seeds of what later became the Mosaic Collective.

The Mosaic Mamas started working together by helping one another interpret the audience reports Phillips had given their organizations. The Dance Theater of Syracuse didn’t get one because its mailing list is very similar to the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company’s, Charles says.

“To gain understanding of the IDEAS Collaborative itself and all those marketing materials, it was almost like a study group,” Charles says.

Once they learned what demographic groups do or would be likely to attend each organization’s shows, the Mosaic Mamas began laying out ways for their associations to interchange their audiences. For this purpose, the four women attend each other’s events and encourage the people within or related to their organizations to go, too.

The associations also participate at one another’s shows. For instance, dancers of the Dance Theater of Syracuse performed at the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble’s “A Family Christmas Pie” concerts, one in DeWitt on Dec. 14 and the other one in Liverpool the next day. The organizations have also cooperated at the human resources level, for example, by sharing an intern.

After studying their association’s markets, the Mosaic Mamas took another step in their collaborative effort and applied for a $20,000 grant through the IDEAS Implementation Fund–thought as a safety net for organizations to innovate without worrying about operational costs–which was provided at the beginning of the year.

“This marketing effort was to allow us to gain the tools to learn to fish, so we could develop our own resources,” Charles says.

They’re using the money to structure and train their boards in all sorts of issues related to the management of nonprofit organizations, such as marketing and accounting. The Mosaic Mamas have also used the money to create a common website–which was launched about two months ago–and to organize Sunday’s sample show, pushing the Mosaic project forward.

“Here we are, struggling all the time,” Tippett says.

Aiming to reach out to a younger demographic, the four women have also applied for assistance with social media from comm.UNITY, a Syracuse University-based initiative that provides public relations and marketing services to nonprofits. The student organization has recently created a common Facebook page and Twitter account for the collective and will update its website regularly.

“I think that us helping them is going to be helpful because most of their audiences are older, so what we’re trying to do is help them to capture a younger audience,” says project leader Maddie Simons. “That’s why we’re doing a really heavy social media campaign.”

Simons says it is also giving the collective a hand with developing an electronic newsletter and filming video for last weekend’s “Taste of Mosaic” performance.

“What the community will see in January will be a sample, where every organization is going to come together at one time and present in front of the shared audiences what exactly we do. . .   as a tangible manifestation of the partnership that we’ve created,” says Paul Robeson’s artistic director, Ryan Johnson-Travis.

The Mosaic Collective has taken the principle of IDEAS Collaborative to a new level of cooperation, hoping to serve as an example for other arts groups in the Syracuse area.

“Our vision is to become a model that other small arts organizations or the arts community as a whole would latch on to,” Franklin-King says.

Both Phillips and Holtz say the degree of interconnection in the collective is something unique in the arts world.

“I’ve been in this job for eight years, but I’ve been in the arts in Syracuse since the early 1990s, and I’m not aware of any circumstance where four small organizations are working this intensively to blend this broad spectrum of activity,” Holtz says.

The name “Mosaic” comes in part from the lifestyle segmentation system Phillips uses in her audience analysis. But “Mosaic” also symbolizes the diversity of walks of life that converge in the collective.

Mihalyi created the Syracuse Community Choir in 1985 with the purpose of promoting peace and inclusiveness through singing. The vocal group draws people of all ages. The mission of the Dance Theater of Syracuse is educating dancers ages 2 through 18, helping them to develop as artists. The Syracuse Vocal Ensemble brings together professional singers from Central New York. The Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company produces theater rooted in the African-American tradition.

Such diversity is mirrored by the backgrounds of the Mosaic Mamas. But in spite of their differences, working together on the Mosaic project has brought them together as friends, something that they hope their organizations will imitate.

“You just don’t know what kind of gifts come out of collaborating and building true kinds of connections. The gift for me that was unexpected was how much I care about the three of you and how much I care that your organizations survive,” Mihalyi says, looking at the other Mosaic Mamas.

Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro is a multimedia journalist and a graduate student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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