November 12th, 2012
In Detroit, music and arts organizations are pooling their resources to buy management expertise. That's how Erica Battle, a certified public accountant, stepped into her position as executive director of the Detroit Children's Choir. Here she talks with Chorus America about the shared services model that has been successful in Detroit, her new role, and her recent experience at October's Chorus Management Institute.
You have no music background and yet you were appointed in 2012 to be the executive director of the Detroit Children’s Choir. How did that come about?
I work for a music ensemble called Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings (DCWS), which has pioneered a unique model for arts management. DCWS, along with Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, is part of a collaborative that shares office space, accounting, technology, and staff while maintaining our individual identities, missions and boards.
The model has been so successful that organizations have come to us over the years to help them with their back office operations—marketing, development, leadership, strategic planning, and governance. The Detroit Children’s Choir came to us as they were preparing to make a big transition. Carol Schoch, the group’s founder and director, was planning to accompany her husband to China where he had been transferred. They asked us if we were interested in providing back office operations. We were, and I was asked to come in to be the choir's point person. So I became a consultant to and executive director of the Detroit Children’s Choir. We just hired an artistic director for the choir on October 1 and are getting ready for Carol's departure for China.
I am a certified public accountant but have a degree in art history, so I'm not all left-brained! Though I have no choral experience personally, I have worked with children in community theater projects.
This shared services model sounds fascinating, especially in these challenging economic times for arts organizations. What are the advantages of this way of operating?
We are finding in Detroit that lots of groups are coming together to go after grants to fund projects. That's the way it started for us. About 20 years ago, Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings decided they wanted to hire an executive director, but they really couldn't support one. So they did a grant in conjunction with the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival to share an executive director. Since then we have been able to build a staff with a lot more expertise than you would typically be able to pay for in these smaller arts organizations. Because we collaborate and support several organizations, we are able to hire someone like myself with a background as a CPA. It has been very beneficial for us and we now are providing management services for four other small organizations—the Detroit Children’s Choir, Birmingham-Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra, Pro Musica of Detroit and the Motor City Brass Band.
There are a ton of arts organizations in Detroit and this shared services model is catching on around town. A lot of small arts organizations get started because someone has a passion for her or his art. For example, a group wants to start a choir or a little community symphony. If the organization starts to thrive, the artists ended up spending significant time managing the operations, and less time with the actual art. Our goal is to help with the management side, allowing the artist to focus on continuing their great art.
If you have a good development model, for example, it works across the board. You can take that knowledge and help organizations that do not have that sophistication. Why recreate the wheel if you have something that works well?
What impresses you about the Detroit Children’s Choir?
Many mission statements for choirs say something about being the “best choir,” but our mission is really about bringing children together from all over Detroit and crossing over social, cultural, and economic barriers. That was the basis of starting the choir seven years ago.
Originally we started choirs in several Detroit schools, because the funding for arts education has been a little hairy over the years. Our school programs are important to us because we are serving some areas where choir is the only thing kids have to look forward to in a day. They live in neighborhoods where parents often don’t have the means to involve their kids in soccer practice or other activities.
We are modeled after the Chicago Children’s Choir, so following their lead, we also started three neighborhood choirs where kids come after school. For those choirs, we bring kids from the suburbs as well, to get everyone together. Four years ago, we started a touring choir of about 20 kids who do special events to get people familiar with the organization. They rehearse at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s (DSO) educational facility. The DSO is very interested in promoting youth education in the arts.
All of the choirs are exposing kids to music education they would not get otherwise. I know that when you put kids together on a project, and they work hard on it and take it to a high level and then perform, the growth they experience is invaluable.
You attended Chorus America's Chorus Management Institute in Indianapolis in October 2012. What did you learn there and how has Chorus America been helpful to you?
The institute was great because it picked four important areas for managing a chorus, and provided in-depth knowledge that was really spot on. The presenters reinforced themes that we often get away from, such as the importance of building your board and the importance of donor development. Also, I am not a big marketing person, especially with the social media aspects, so it was good for me to hear more about how essential that is.
Anyone running an arts organization would benefit from the Chorus Management Institute. I think you could go back year after year and get something new and helpful.
Any words to the wise for managers of struggling chorus or arts organizations?
They should be networking and meeting people. Find out what is out there and go ask for help. And take the time to do professional development like the Chorus Management Institute. You will walk away with so much knowledge and be energized and ready to move forward.
Watch the Detroit Children's Choir performing "I'm a Believer" on YouTube.
Read more about the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings shared services model for arts management on the Crain's Detroit Business website.