Submitted by the John Laing Singers (JLS), on behalf of the JLS Board of Directors. JLS is a 28-voice chamber choir in the Hamilton-Burlington area, established in 1982 by Conductor and former Artistic Director John Laing. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @JLSingers.
The 2015/16 season of the John Laing Singers (JLS) has given the choir much to celebrate, with two world premiere compositions and several new community collaborations. Adding to our sense of celebration is a new sense of confidence in meeting the challenges of the future. Under the guidance of the Hamilton Arts Council, the choir has been able to step out of its “safe zone” and begin a new journey in its 34-year history.
Before the start of our 34th season last fall, the feeling in the JLS Board was one of discouragement as we pondered our disappointing grant application results, a challenging budget and dwindling audience size. Like many arts organizations, the choir was struggling to find funding and support among the ever-growing and competitive Hamilton area arts community. Over the years, the JLS had evolved using a variety of resources from box office revenues, grants, community sponsors and memberships, but with the increasing competition for funds among local growing arts groups, it became evident that we needed to adapt to the changing arts environment or face our final curtain call.
Realizing that as an organization we had fallen into a comfortable but ultimately unsustainable pattern of relatively predictable performances, we reached out to our friends at the Hamilton Arts Council (HAC). Aware too that we needed a strategic plan to guide the choir on a new road of sustainability and growth, we requested a meeting to explore resources that might be available to us as a community partner.
Choir representatives met with Stephen Near, Operations Officer of the HAC, with no expectations other than to walk away with a few ideas to try out. We never expected to be offered a resource that would have such a profound impact on our organization, and could not have predicted that the outcome of this meeting would reshape our identity so completely.
Stephen introduced us to a new HAC initiative, the Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA) program, which partners local business experts with struggling arts organizations. He had a candidate in mind who would be willing to work with us and act as a guide and mentor. Through Stephen, we arranged to meet with BVA consultant Dawn Cattapan to discuss our group and our plans for the next season, hoping to make an impression that would encourage her to partner and help us with our strategic plan.
Dawn’s résumé reflects extensive experience in community arts administration, communication, customer engagement and creative program development in the music sector. Our cordial initial meeting at a local café, to chat and discuss our choir’s successes and challenges, augured well for a great partnership. Dawn responded with warmth and empathy to the challenges that we described. She accepted our invitation to meet in early September with the JLS Board, where we presented our Strategy Document. The document gave an overview of the challenges we were facing and what we hoped to accomplish over the next year to address them. We had many projects outlined, which needed both business expertise and an objective eye.
Dawn provided a wealth of information regarding funding opportunities and strategic planning processes. With this information we developed and refined the strategic plan for rebranding and marketing for the next year. Dawn then recommended grants that would be beneficial to review, based on our strategic plan and objectives for the next year. She reviewed our grant responses and provided feedback that was extremely helpful in focusing our strengths and clarifying how we viewed ourselves as an organization requesting funding. For example, Dawn encouraged us to emphasize the choir’s “sweat equity” in planning extra concerts to increase our community presence; to stress vital points such as accessibility, visibility and community enrichment; and always to discern and reflect back the tone used by grantors in their mandate. With Dawn’s input, our application for an Ontario Arts Council (OAC) Compass grant, requesting an Arts Consultant to support our strategic plan implementation, was successful – a major step forward for the choir.
Dawn also helped to keep us questioning what we were asking and refocusing on the important elements such as community outreach, using local musicians and partnering with local businesses. With each new grant application, Dawn has made us more aware of the importance of these partnerships. She has taught us to be consistent, honest and focused in reaching further for the growth of our organization. Her input has been invaluable to us.
Through the BVA, we now have far more confidence in our ability to submit a strong application, knowing we have put our best efforts forward with a focus on our strategic plan, rebranding and community partnerships. A renewed vision, an increase in grant funds, the expertise of a strategic planning consultant and the confidence to rebrand and rebuild our choir: the BVA initiative has provided the JLS with all of these.
Plans for our next season (2016/17) include a new name launch; celebrating 35 years as a community choir; a choral celebration of Canada’s Sesquicentennial; and a studio recording that will include local and national composers and musical artists. Thanks to the HAC and Dawn’s guidance, we have much to celebrate now and as we head into the future.