It’s very simple: we put the audience at the heart of everything we do.”
So said Jim Ralph, Executive Director of The Shedd Institute for the Arts: a small and thriving performing arts center in Eugene, Oregon. I was having a long chat with Jim and his co-founder and wife Ginevra about their life’s work. Jim’s statement brought into clear focus what was, until that point, the conundrum of The Shedd.
The Shedd Institute. Photo by Douglas Partridge
The first impression upon entering The Shedd can be deceiving. It feels like walking into a grade school. The day I arrived, a kid with a cello slung on his back held the door for me, and I waded toward the box office through a bustle of students and parents. In fact, the Shedd is a school — a music school. It also was a school — a Sunday school. The Shedd Institute is a 70,000-square-foot former church. But it is also far more than a school.
Junior Vaudeville at the Shedd Institute
Of the People
Once you clamber past the students, you find yourself at a traditional box office. The walls of the box office are adorned with posters of the many world-class artists who have performed in the venues of the Shedd over the years: Steve Martin, Wynton Marsalis, Audra MacDonald, Lyle Lovett. The list goes on and on.
The box office at the Shedd Institute
“Huh,” I thought. “I’m in a former public school in Eugene, Oregon filled with music students. And Keb’ Mo’ will be performing here in the fall.” It was a school but also a performing arts venue and a community gathering space — and it all just sort of casually blended together.
It seemed to me that The Shedd Institute is the physical embodiment of a mashup.
Their mission is to “promote a deeper understanding of and appreciation for rich and vital musical traditions.” Not to be a music school or a performing arts center, or anything else specifically. It is all work in service of deepening the connection between people and music. That’s it.
Jim and Ginevra on the stage of the Shedd Institute
As Jim and Ginevra took me on a tour of their Institute, they explained how they break down traditional barriers left and right: between education and performance; presenting and producing; professional events and community events. There are porous borders between it all on purpose. What they care about, as Jim said, is putting the audience at the heart of everything they do. Connecting audiences to music from cradle to grave.
And when they say “grave,” they mean it.
For the People
They have recently found that their main stage is an ideal venue for memorial services. Rather than shying away from this or categorizing memorials as a generic “rental event”, they have embraced this role they play in the community wholeheartedly. They will often ask their students to provide music and other talent for the memorials. With some elderly locals, they have gone so far as to work with them to plan their own memorials. As Ginevra said, with a quiet pride: “Honestly, the memorial services are among the best and most satisfying ‘performances’ we do here.”
Young and old, student and professional, they strive to be for the people — all the people.
By the People
After the tour, we retired to a nearby bistro to continue our chat. I was curious how they arrived at their eclectic and successful performance programming. Jim had a simple answer: “We ask everyone’s opinion.” Sensing my confusion, Ginevra explained that after every performance they send a photo postcard from the show to every ticket buyer. (Not an email, mind you — a photo postcard. A keepsake).
The postcard is a thank you note for attending and also asks: What else they would you like the Shedd to program? I was fairly baffled by this. “Isn’t this up to you?”
Jim explained that he does make the ultimate decisions and book the artists. But they read every response and make plenty of programming decisions based on specific feedback from their audience. And the audience notices. Jim has observed playful arguments at intermission between audience members who are each taking credit for suggesting that night’s performer.
“We aren’t impresarios,” Jim said. “Many cultural organizations put the music or the opera at the heart of what they do — which I respect. They center their programming on the vision of a music director. We don’t do that. We put the audience at the heart of what we do. What they tell us they want is the most important thing to us.”
By the people.
What I learned that day
The Shedd is small. The Shedd is also successful and growing. They are connecting more and more people to music in their region. What is the secret to their success?
- They are extremely democratic: Ultimately, they book excellent music for their stages, but it is strongly informed by their audience, rather than their own artistic vision.
- They have porous borders: Parents buy tickets to a world-class artist while waiting for their child to finish trombone lessons. Their education program isn’t off in the corner — it is in the center of what they do. (At Tessitura, we are proud that our technology is instrumental in keeping those borders down).
- They celebrate the entire human lifespan: From toddlers first learning rhythm, to memorial celebrations of life on their stage, they value it all equally.
The Shedd Institute is of, for and by the people. They make themselves accessible in every way possible.
In fact, “accessibility” is an important word at The Shedd. So important that it needs its own blog post.
To be continued…
This post is part of my Small World Tour: My round-the-world trip focused on the innovations of small Tessitura organizations. I live in Oregon, so it made sense to start my tour in my home state. The sequel to this post will feature the Shedd Institute once again, at the end of my Small World tour. But before we see Jim and Ginevra again, I’ve got 26,000 flight miles ahead of me. See you in Sydney.