"For years following 2008, we were close to death's door," Sharon Kalbfleisch says.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the August, 2018 issue
Kalbfleisch is on the board of Great Lakes Performing Artists Associates. Founded forty years ago with the dual mission of representing musicians and building audiences for them, it was hit hard by the Great Recession.
"We almost went under," says board president Susan Darrow. "Pfizer, once a major sponsor, left Michigan. The auto industry was suffering. Our grant money dried up. We only survived because of the generosity of a number of people who volunteered a lot of time and commitment to keep the organization running when we couldn't afford a staff person."
Like for-profit talent agencies, GLPAA represents and places musical performers. But it also gives them guidance in business affairs and marketing, including technical support and website tutorials. If necessary, it can even help them master English and find appropriate performance attire. And if a venue can't afford an artist's full fee, it may even underwrite part of the cost.
"Our mission is to help our artists build new audiences for music and to introduce audiences throughout the Great Lakes region to new forms and interpretations of music," explains executive director Aileen Rohwer.
"Music enriches our lives in so many ways," says Bob Whitman, longtime former cochair with Darrow. "Music is history told in sound, a unique and moving method of communication that connects the past and present."
GLPAA owes its existence to the late Theodore Lettvin, who headed the U-M graduate program in piano from 1977 to 1987, and his wife, Joan. Lettvin "was distressed by the number of his graduates who left the Great Lakes region because of its lack of local performance opportunities," Kalbfleisch says. Encouraged by fellow Ann Arbor musicians Connie Barron, Judy Dow, and Elizabeth Hume, the Lettvins founded the GLPAA as a way to identify emerging artists of exceptional talent and give them opportunities to remain in the Midwest by creating and promoting performance opportunities in many different venues: college campuses, churches, community centers, regional orchestras, schools, libraries, and festivals.
Volunteers carried it through the recession. "Two long-time supporters, Elizabeth Hume and Corrine Nair, kept it alive by putting their heart and soul into the organization," Kalbfleisch says. "Individual board members made extremely generous donations to keep the doors open."
Rohwer was hired in 2014 to implement new initiatives. "I saw a very worthy organization on shaky ground financially but with untapped potential for building new partnerships," she recalls. "We've come a long way in a short time." She's updated GLPAA's technology and business practices, introduced social media marketing, and created strong networks with other musical organizations.
Currently, GLPAA represents seventeen ensembles, ranging from vintage brass to tango nuevo, and fourteen soloists who play everything from classical guitar to boogie-woogie piano. Recently, however, board members have become increasingly concerned with another challenge: graying audiences.
"We realized that with cuts to programs in the arts in schools and communities, we need to introduce young people to professional musicians and their work," Whitman says. "That became part of our mission."
GLPAA's Caravan Educational Outreach Program now funds performers' visits to regional schools, where they offer live concerts, master classes, workshop residencies, and other educational programs. More than twenty GLPAA artists have already met with thousands of students in Caravan events. In another new initiative, the Stone Chalet, the former Unitarian church turned bed-and-breakfast and event center on Washtenaw Ave., now hosts frequent performances. Darrow adds that GLPAA also works closely with the Hands-On Museum and the Ann Arbor School of Performing Arts to connect outstanding artists with music students and young audiences.
Board members are beginning to allow themselves to take a deep breath. After nearly four decades, Whitman retired from the co-presidency and moved to Massachusetts with his wife, Marina. Now the board is reaching out for new members and new ideas.
"There will always be challenges for us, as there are for most nonprofits," Darrow says. "But we are on solid footing now, and we now have a solid base for increasing our outreach."
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