Engaging Audiences; Connecting Communities

In 1871, regarding a string of public concerts held in Iowa City, composer and music educator Henry Southwick Perkins wrote that “it is a very natural sequence that these public educational efforts should find the proper elements in which to propagate in these [Midwestern] States,” a mission in which “Iowa is not [a] whit behind.” Community engagement with local educational institutions was essential to the aims of Perkins and the civic-minded supporters of Iowa City’s early performing-arts initiatives. For them, the then-titled State University of Iowa and its Normal Academy of Music were sources of public good. Just as their institutions eventually folded into the current University of Iowa, so too did their commitment to public performing arts.

Daily Evening Press (Iowa City), August 2, 1871. Courtesy of the Iowa City Public Library’s “Historical Iowa City Newspapers” collection.

After two weeks of work with Hancher Auditorium’s Community Engagement team, I am beginning to see the historical continuity of this process firsthand. Hancher is a public-facing arm of the University of Iowa and its mission to “enrich the life of every Iowan” with their arts programing serves as a link between local audiences and both national and international artists. As a musicologist and a historian of Midwestern arts organizations, I see Hancher’s efforts as an extension of a long history of public-spirited programing in the region.

Personally, I’ve had a lifelong connection with performing arts. From an elementary-school production of The Lion King to recordings with a collegiate jazz ensemble, I have formed an interest in reaching audiences. Some of my fondest undergraduate memories include regional music ensemble tours in which my classmates and I performed for and taught lessons to high school ensembles. Perhaps this is why my graduate studies now focus on institutional and reception histories of performing arts organizations. With an emphasis on early-twentieth-century opera companies, my work highlights some of the ways in which these cultural institutions interfaced with their publics during a time when opera was increasingly upheld as exclusive rather than inclusive. This is especially pertinent in the music-history classroom, where I look for opportunities to bring students together with shared musical experiences and interests.

I look forward to spending the next six weeks with the Hancher team. In this time, I will be working on new ways to communicate the performing arts to audiences currently at a distance. Through digital program notes and new episodes of the Hancher Presents podcast, the team will continue to reach Hancher’s audiences and further its mission. For me, it is significant the note the institution’s processes for community engagement in real time. I take special interest in choices made regarding programing, inclusion, and representation, and look for moments to further these conversations with the broad base of cultural knowledge gained from my musical training and research experience.

Hancher opened 100 years after the local concerts of Perkins and the Normal Academy of Music and, yet, its goals remain consistent with that earlier institution. Hancher’s public educational efforts help to bring community members together and connect the University to its local surroundings. In this capacity, Iowa is still not a whit behind, and its institutions will continue to find effective methods for community engagement.

Hancher Auditorium’s 2009-2010 season brochure. Courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries, University Archives.