Wallace Excellence Awards – San Francisco Girls Chorus

Wallace Excellence Awards provide support to exemplary arts organizations in selected cities to identify, develop and share effective ideas and practices to reach more people.  Eleven arts organizations with budgets over $1 million received these four-year grants.  Findings from their projects are reported here.  

In 2007 the San Francisco Girls Chorus became one of 11 Bay Area organizations to receive a Wallace Foundation Excellence Award.  With a grant of $489,000 over four years, SFGC embarked on a range of audience-broadening activities, and was subsequently selected to be the subject of a case study by Wallace, to be published later this fall.

The long-term goals outlined in the Wallace grant included an overall expansion of marketing efforts, designed to increase audiences by 10% over four years.  Other long-term goals, intended to increase overall participation, included:

● more collaborations with other multi-disciplinary arts organizations

● engaging prominent guest artists for self-produced concerts

● ongoing commissions of new work.

All of these efforts were proposed to help address an ongoing and fundamental challenge — how to broaden audiences for our public performances beyond “friends and family?” Although SFGC had a long history and reputation for providing high quality music education, serious concert music audiences in the Bay Area were largely unaware of our performances, or of the artistic potential for girls choruses in general, and of SFGC in particular.

With funding from Wallace we embarked on activities directed largely at classical music patrons, and began a rebranding campaign that has subsequently touched all facets of our organization — including strategic planning, fundraising, and even board development.  This work is still in progress, and has involved not only changes in marketing, but also a refocusing of organizational identity around artistic excellence in performance.

Energized by the Wallace grant and the audience-building work being done, the SFGC Board developed a new five-year Strategic Plan in 2008.  The goal guiding the investment of time, energy and financial resources during this five-year period is “To assure that the San Francisco Girls Chorus is widely recognized as a world-class performance ensemble.” Several years of audience data, marketing and program developments, along with a lot of internal soul searching, indicate that progress has been made, but much work remains to be done.

That’s where we stand today, while we also undergo a change in artistic leadership later this season. This transition has received some negative public attention in recent weeks.  Change is never easy, and it is often emotional, especially when it involves young people and their parents.  However, it’s time for all of us at SFGC to look ahead to the future, so I’ve chosen to write about what we might want to learn or try next, if we had a similar grant for the next four years.

During the same period as the Wallace grant, but outside the scope of that award, we also launched our first in-school education program, called Creating Choral Music. Now entering its sixth year at two public elementary schools, the program gives 100 third-graders and 60 second-graders the basic training and skills to sing, work together, and eventually perform as an ensemble.  For schools and community organizations that can’t sustain a consistent, weekly collaboration, SFGC offers workshop programs that illustrate the elements of music and a basic introduction to choral singing.

So here’s what I’d wish for – the opportunity (and of course, funding) to offer Creating Choral Music in more schools around the Bay Area, or to more students within specific schools.  We see these in-school partnerships as the most direct way to build, broaden and diversify participation in all our choral music programs. While performances may now be the more visible side of the SFGC coin, they wouldn’t be possible without our core multi-year training program, known as the Chorus School, that prepares our performers, often over a six-to-eight-year trajectory, to be not just good singers, but real choral artists.

Placing our faculty and curriculum in local public schools would open the door for many more students (both boys and girls) to get a solid foundation in music education. We all know about the paucity of serious musical study available in public education these past many years.  We also know that music can provide an important hook for many kinds of learning and literacy. And, most children are able to sing and can learn to be part of an ensemble anywhere, at any time — no special equipment required.  But they do need good teachers, a strong curriculum, and the opportunity to learn.

That’s where we come in. By significantly expanding the two programs we are currently able to offer, for free, in local public schools, we could have greater impact in the community and potentially increase participation in all our programs, both education and performance.  What might happen if we were able to follow an entire grade level, continuing to build on their music education sequentially, year by year, until they left elementary school?  What might those students be able to do as young musicians, as team members, as scholars, and as members of the community?

That’s what we’d love to find out.

Melanie Smith is the executive director at the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

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ABOUT THE INITIATIVE

In 2008, The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund (GFTA) embarked on a four-year funding partnership to encourage systemic and sustainable structural change in the relationships of Bay Area arts organizations to their audiences, supported by the Wallace Foundation. Community offerings during the grant period (2008-2011) included seminars, workshops, large public convenings, implementation grants, development of a regional shared mailing list, and expansion of the SFArts.org website.

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