Q&A Spotlight: Community-Based Performing Arts

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NRPA 2015

Karen Bradley Ehler, Coordinator of Cultural Arts & Adult Programs for Howard County, Maryland.

Today the National Recreation & Park Association (NRPA) kicks off its 50th anniversary conference, with 7,000+ park and rec pros meeting to learn best practices and share ideas. We’re especially interested in how the performing arts are experienced by the public – either as audiences or participants – outside the concert hall or opera house. To highlight the key role played by NRPA members and park & rec departments nationwide, we visited with Karen Bradley Ehler, Coordinator of Cultural Arts & Adult Programs for Howard County, Maryland.

Q: What’s your largest annual event?

Ehler: Our Wine in the Woods wine festival held on a May weekend has really grown. We attract 20,000 people each day – surpassing the state wine festival! It’s very arts-oriented, including bands playing on two stages and local artisans selling handiwork. Vendors pay a fee to participate; attendees buy tickets. Funds raised support county programs, including scholarships for disabled residents or the economically disadvantaged.

Q: Can you describe your summer concert series?

Ehler: Our “Traveling Bands” summer concerts are held at different locations in the county using our mobile stage. We also have weekly concerts at Centennial Park, which has its own band shell. I’m proud that these concerts showcase diverse music genres, including pop, rock, jazz, R&B and children’s music.

Q: What are the advantages of a mobile stage?

Ehler: It gives us the flexibility to ‘spread the music and love’ around to various parks. We can hold a concert anywhere and if the turnout is low, we’ll try another park the next year. It saves labor – just push a button and our mobile stage sets up automatically.

Q: What about hands-on performing arts options?

Ehler: For adults, we have a secular choir program and new program called “Join the Band” for those who never learned a band instrument. Both class sessions culminate with a concert. We also offer other music classes aimed at different skill levels, including guitar and keyboard.

For children in middle school or younger, our theatre programs – both afterschool and summer camps – are very popular. We partner with the Drama Learning Center and Schoolhouse Theater Arts – two outside organizations that work through us.

Q: How is marketing handled?

Ehler: We’ll distribute flyers to libraries and schools about special events, along with announcements via social media. Most events and programs are included in our seasonal activity guide published three times a year. It’s mailed to every county resident, who get a week of advance registration before non-residents.

We also follow up with supplemental guides aimed at various demographics, like adults. For social media outreach, our marketing team uses Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Pinterest.

NRPAQ: How do you find corporate sponsors?

Ehler: It’s easy for our wine event – we have a waiting list; sponsors are attracted to the event’s size. However, we’ve noticed a shift by some corporations only supporting specific causes. Our summer concerts are more challenging, partly because they attract a smaller audience and are impacted by more variables – weather, type of band, location, etc. We send a mass mailing to local businesses asking for support.

Q: What trends are you seeing?

Ehler: We’re seeing more need for after-school programs, with school parent-teacher associations asking us to offer programs in fine arts, languages and sports. Our community is very family-oriented; parents hurry to register their kids but sometimes don’t think about themselves until the last minute. With new adult programs, we often need to give them a few seasons before they attract a strong audience. Interest also ebbs and flows. Ballroom dance is currently in a bit of dip, while our African, Indian and Irish dance classes are gaining popularity. A stand-up comedy class also gained traction after a few years.

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