In the fall I had several marvelous conversations with Yale Masters student Ian Tuski. He asked to interview me for an assignment, and had a series of questions dealing with nonprofit arts management, community service, and my role at Austin Classical Guitar.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations, and I anticipated that Ian would write a great paper, but what he shared with me I found truly inspiring, and so I asked if he would mind my sharing it.
I love that he not only captured the content of our conversations, but also the spirit of what I was trying to convey. That is such a rare talent! And I’m particularly excited that, in the course of this project, he was able to take various lessons and actually apply them in a practical setting in his community-based work.
Here’s the interview. Enjoy!
For my informational interview I chose to speak with Dr. Mathew Hinsley, Executive Director of Austin Classical Guitar, who describes his role in the organization as a leader, storyteller, advocate and educator. This array illustrates the multitude of roles an Executive Director of an arts organization must play and the versatile skill set it demands.
I found it most illuminating to hear Dr. Hinsley describe his role as someone who moves information in a way that is sensitive to the needs of diverse communities. He is constantly thinking about the best way to communicate to different communities news about the organization and how the organization is fulfilling its mission. This discussion brought us to one of the most essential skills Dr. Hinsley says he constantly uses in his job: empathy. When one is charged with the task of relaying information and summoning support from myriad communities and sources, it is essential to understand the different points of view and perspectives of everyone from a major donor to the parent of a young student in order to have one’s mission heard and believed in.
When I considered how to empathize with diverse audiences in my own work as an educator and performer, I thought of how to program concerts differently depending on the venue. For example, for a concert in a non-traditional venue that is meant to attract first time classical music listeners, it is best not to program long works or entire suites. Furthermore, depending on the neighborhood, it is a good idea to print programs and flyers in various languages letting potential audience members know all are welcome and to distribute them often. From a teaching perspective, it means tailoring one’s pedagogical approach to meet the needs of a given group of students. Austin Classical Guitar is helping teachers worldwide achieve this with their graded guitar ensemble curriculum, which boasts repertoire from Africa, Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Ireland and many other countries. For example, when teaching a new student who recently arrived from another country, I find it helpful to teach the student how to play music on the classical guitar that he or she will recognize. This music is more likely resonate with the student, spark his interest and serve as a bridge to the exploration of more classical music.
When the topic of conversation switched to fundraising, I was eager to hear what Dr. Hinsley had to say since the concept had always mystified me. Along with his Director of Development, he said that fundraising is an important function of his job. According to Dr. Hinsley, fundraising is about connecting with people. You should always be ready with information about your organization and where specifically you need support, but you should not go into a meeting or event expecting to receive money. Rather, the priority should be to learn about the other person and secondly to speak passionately about the work your organization does. It was eye-opening to me that on average Mr. Hinsley is out of the office twice a day to meet with potential donors. This led to an important realization I had during the interview: funding the arts is about process. It often takes years to see a return on your investment in a potential donor.
This aspect of the conversation will be particularly useful for me going forward as I previously thought of fundraising simply as the isolated act of asking for money. However, now if I decide to expand my own community-oriented guitar ensemble concerts in New Haven or another city, I will focus my energy on seeking out individuals who might be interested, inviting them to a concert and making them feel welcome, with money being the last thing on my mind. Already this new approach has been helpful. In the last concert I organized, it took much of the pressure off me when I was speaking to audience members since I focused solely on learning about them and then explaining more about my mission with community concerts.
When fundraising for classical guitar education and performance, Dr. Hinsley says he often faces challenges unique to this field. It is difficult to advocate for something that does not yield an instant return and that is seen as unessential by some. Furthermore, since classical guitar has to compete with opera houses and symphonies for funding and attention, one has to craft a message that makes classical guitar relevant, defines a need and shows how you plan to fill it. This part of the conversation forced me to think about what exactly the classical guitar has to offer that is unique. Being that it is portable, cheap and popular means that classical guitar can serve as a bridge to introduce new audiences to classical music. Because it is prominent in so much music from so many different places, classical guitar tends not to have the elitist image that an orchestra or opera does for some people. As discussions amongst various arts leaders continue about the future of classical music, I think it is necessary for guitarists to be outspoken about why we are uniquely equipped to act as a bridge to new audiences and able to attract new students.
Another aspect of the interview that I found fascinating was learning how successful relationships with donors, constituents, board members, employees and volunteers are built on trust. One way to build trust is through steady attention to detail. The more times you present an event where programs are neat and available, well-made posters and fliers are distributed, audience members are greeted warmly and the artist performing is of a high caliber, the more donors will trust that their contributions are being put to good use, audience members will want to return and corporations and other non-profit organizations will want to collaborate and support your mission. This principle was a guiding force behind the last concert I organized in New Haven. Understanding that I at times overlook details, I paid attention to having flyers distributed in both Spanish and English weeks in advance of the concert along with having formal programs that not only stated the works performed, but also included the mission of the concert. Furthermore, as I spoke to the audience before the concert began, I made sure to clearly convey that the concert was less about me and the other Yale students performing and more about the experience of the students sharing their music with members of their community, forging relationships, building confidence through performing and learning how to talk to an audience by introducing pieces.
The conversation then turned to a topic that is pertinent to those interested in being a community-oriented arts administrator who is also a professional musician: how to keep those two aspects of one’s career separate. As an avid and well-respected classical guitar performer, Dr. Hinsley has been careful to make sure “Matt the administrator” and “Matt the artist,” are separate entities. It may be tempting for some administrators to invite certain artists in the hope of being invited to the festival or guitar society that said artist runs. This concern with personal gain is antithetical to Dr. Hinsley’s vision for his work and organization and goes along with everything he had been saying in the interview until this point. If he were concerned with personal gain, he would not be empathizing with the needs of the communities he serves and would be violating the trust many have placed in him to carry out his organization’s mission of serving diverse communities. This tells me that if one engages in service work, it has to be because one feels a need to do so. If I want to try to benefit personally, I will not be doing an adequate job serving a community because their needs will not be my primary focus.
This interview made me more resolute and confident in my opinion that guitar has something unique and important to offer classical music and society. Furthermore, the work of Dr. Hinsley and Austin Classical Guitar is essential to developing the guitar’s role as a means to transcend cultural and economic borders through educational and performance opportunities open to people of all communities.
by Ian Tuski
For MUSIC 621Prof. Astrid Baumgardner, Yale University