“Don’t be the dance band on the Titanic.” Harry Chapin
At the beginning of the summer, I attended the national conference of Americans for the Arts, an arts advocacy organization based in Washington D.C. I was sent by a new local arts organization I work with, a consortium of arts organizations and businesses trying to form an arts/business umbrella group called SAMBA (Southland Arts Management and Business Alliance). We hope to become an arts advocacy group and more for our community, the southern suburbs of Chicago, an underappreciated region which has a wealth of culture.
The goal for my attending was to learn something to help our group’s formation or bring back an inspiration to move us along. Big Wigs were at the conference, from Chicago’s own former ballet dancing mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, to Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I attended several inspiring workshops; met and networked with some wonderful people and listened to the above mentioned Big Wigs and others speak passionately about the arts. I attended a concert of high school kids playing the Blues and was amazed and moved by a Native American welcome dance and drum circle. I was surrounded by art and artists, not necessarily what I was used to and not necessarily in my comfort zone, and had an experience I won’t soon forget.
What really inspired me and caused me to think, and think hard about my own choir and SAMBA, was a simple speech given to Newbies at the beginning of the conference by Robert L. Lynch, the CEO and President of Americans for the Arts. Bob, as he asked us to call him, talked about one of the first times he attended a national conference. The late Harry Chapin was a speaker and spoke about how arts organizations should try not to be the dance band on the Titanic. Now Harry, you may or may not remember, wrote a song about the dance band on the Titanic. The band kept playing, watching the icebergs, as the Morse Code guy kept tapping away. They kept playing “Nearer My God to Thee” to keep everyone calm and comfort those not able to get on a lifeboat. Bob hinted it was a pivotal moment in his career, and it struck me as a wholy profound statement.
I gave my report to SAMBA several weeks later, speaking first of an inspirational artist who created public art in New Orleans after Katrina. I also spoke about a useful (to us) workshop given by the cultural director of Boise, Idaho. Finally, I spoke of that Harry Chapin quote. Many of my fellow SAMBA-ers were as struck as I was. What should not being the dance band on the Titanic mean to arts groups? And what should it mean to choral groups (no matter the level) in particular?
I am sure the Titanic was a super-luxury liner carrying the crème de la crème of passengers (and others not so hoity-toity), and the dance band had to be pretty wonderful. I am also sure one of the Titanic’s touted features was advanced safety measures, such as watertight cabins. But I am also reasonably certain more than half of the passengers lost their lives due to someone’s lack of planning. They did not have enough lifeboats for the number of passengers they had on board. The Titanic carried 2,224 passengers and crew on her maiden voyage yet only carried enough lifeboats for 1,178 people. Wow.
We artists and musicians—no matter the level or where we live—plan. We plan our next concert or gallery show. We choral conductors work on rehearsal plans and strategies and repertoire. Our concerts or paintings or sculptures turn out to be pretty great and we think that should keep us from sinking. But what about whatever and whomever is holding us up? If they are not doing well and we haven’t helped or planned with them, who’s to say when they go down they won’t take us with them?
Arts advocacy—all the arts—should be important to us. If our group does well, all of us will do well. It’s important to support other arts organizations; even other choruses and choral programs…..there could be icebergs ahead!