Thanks to new office buildings, cheap rent, and an influx of young artists, downtown Detroit is experiencing a moderate population boom. That's good news, right? Of course it is. And that means arts nonprofits in the city can continue to ride this momentum to make downtown Detroit even more appealing for arts lovers, right? Well, yes and no.
The news regarding Detroit's downtown revival, captured in articles like this one, encapsulate a classic "good problem to have" for nonprofit arts organizations. On one hand, an influx of residents means more audience members to draw from. On the other hand, by presenting programs to urbane city dwellers, organizations are essentially "preaching to the choir." There's less incentive to ambitiously expand one's scope and attract new audience segments.
We bring up this happy dilemma within the context of recent news that the William Davidson Foundation handed out a $3.75 million grant to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). The grant will support the orchestra's popular Neighborhood Concert Series, which has experienced sold-out concerts since its inception in 2011 with six metro Detroit performance residencies. And here is where it gets interesting: The grant will also support a series of concerts throughout metro Detroit, as well as additional activities outside of Orchestra Hall, over the next three years.
In other words, rather than waiting to serve the influx of residents returning to metropolitan Detroit, the orchestra is using the additional funding to spread the love outside the city limits. This effort, known as the Neighborhood Residency Initiative, allows musicians to perform in intimate settings for suburban audiences. Settings like schools, hospitals, libraries, places of worship and myriad other unexpected places.
We like this approach for two reasons. One, as previously noted, it acknowledges the need to reach suburban audiences. Everyone knows this is important, but more often than not, organizations tend to focus on the urban segment of the population because that's where the organization is based and, especially in places like Detroit, that's where there's a pressing need.
This brings us to our second point. Since suburbia can occasionally be a fallow place for things like orchestras and pop-up jazz — we're talking from personal experience here — the DSO provides much-needed exposure around the great things happening in the city itself. Consider it a kind of cross-pollination strategy.
All in all, it's just another day's work for the William Davidson Foundation, which, when it comes to Detroit-related philanthropy, seems to be guided by the adage "variety is the spice of life." Just check out their recent grants for biotech innovation and penguins. (Yes, penguins.)