Columbus Symphony Wants to Serve More Communities with New Initiative

With “We Are Here for You,” the arts organization is focused on increasing its outreach to underserved populations and creating more inclusive programing.

Brittany Moseley
Columbus Monthly
Columbus Symphony

“You can’t meet with Denise Rehg without walking away with big ideas,” says Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council. Collins is speaking at a media event for the launch of the Columbus Symphony’s new program, “We Are Here for You.” The three-year community service initiative is a passion project for Rehg, the symphony’s executive director, and easily her biggest idea yet in her almost four years with the organization.

The goal of “We Are Here for You” is to focus programming and outreach on underserved communities in Central Ohio. This includes free admission for children ages 6 to 16; individuals who accompany patrons with disabilities; active-duty military, veterans and their families; and patrons aged 90 or older.

The symphony is also making changes to where it plays and how often. For the 2021-22 season, CSO is committed to at least eight concerts throughout the Appalachian region and at least 20 free, small ensemble concerts on-site at local businesses. In addition, it will increase the number of free, on-site events at senior living facilities and will double the number of in-school concerts as compared to the previous season, with at least 18 planned.

Columbus Monthly spoke to Rehg about “We Are Here for You,” how the pandemic changed the symphony’s mission and what the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion looks like today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about the mission of the initiative and how it came about?

Back in January 2019, the board set a new direction for the symphony. It really called for the symphony to be a service provider to the community. The new mission statement of inspiring and building a strong community through music is not really very typical of the symphony missions across the nation where they talk about excellence in music and things like that. Excellence in music is one of the things we need to provide, but we have really set a course of being here for the community, through that mission statement and through that program.

COVID actually provided us a perfect opportunity to show how we would manifest that mission statement. While many of the symphonies in America were shutting down, we never used the word shutdown over here, and we never, from our perspective, did shut down. We simply found other ways to serve the community. We decided as we were coming out of COVID, we were not going to give up when we went back to what the so-called idea of normal is. In fact, we're saying we're not going back to normal. The natural outcome of that is this campaign, of “We Are Here for You.” We took very seriously our responsibility to the community in terms of shining a light into the darkness during that time. We believe we have a moral obligation to make ourselves accessible, and to get ourselves out there during COVID. Always safely.

Denise Rehg, executive director of the Columbus Symphony

You said the symphony has a moral obligation to serve the community. What does that mean to you?

We are Pollyannaish over here. I realize that. We're optimists, but we're also so mission-driven, in terms of our belief in the power that music can bring to a community. We said, this is the time [during the pandemic] when we as arts organizations need to not hunker down, we need to rise up and make a difference to our communities and to restore some hope and some brightness and some joy. And that is what we talk about when we talk about our moral obligation. We need to instill that sense of joy and connection to ourselves and our children. We need to do it more with ourselves as adults. Arts have an ability to create tolerance and understanding and appreciation of each other, and we believe that we need to really adhere to making that part of what we do. We are seeking to make our society a better, stronger, more unified world than it would be without us. You know, there's so much unrest today in society, that we need to listen to our hearts as human beings a little bit more. And we believe that the arts are largely responsible for making that a presence in our communities. Everybody's talking about diversity and inclusion. It should start through shared experiences and appreciation for those shared experiences in each other.

A lot of the programs are being rolled out this year and next. Is there more to be rolled out in the third year of the program? What's the vision beyond 2022?

We prioritized and in some ways are tackling the most obvious first. But we will continue to look for those access points that are not being hit. The children are a huge priority for us right now because we really think our children have been traumatized basically by COVID. We're differentiating between underserved and unserved. From our perspective, the underserved are people who live right here in our footpath who don't have access and can't gain access for whatever reason. So we address that group differently. Then we talk about the unserved. Those are communities outside our immediate footprint but here in Central Ohio. The Appalachian area is clearly an area where they simply don't have access. We played in Nelsonville a couple of years ago. The house was packed. There were people crying at that event because they were so excited and so overwhelmed by having music brought right into their hall like that. This is not a limited program. It's not a program that's going to only exist for three years. It is actually a philosophy today of the symphony.

How did the pandemic affect the symphony?

Well, I had to cut the budget from almost $9 million to $7.5 million. We started doing in-person limited in October of last year. We did a series of free concerts in September of last year, which were so well received that we kept them, and just did last week and the week before a series of free concerts in [neighborhood[MOU2] s]. For Holiday Pops, for the first time ever ... we played it on Channel 10 and Channel 4. From our perspective, we did that as a holiday gift to the community. I actually had somebody write to me and say that we had saved Christmas for them. That they were feeling gloomy, hadn't bought a tree, and by golly, after they watched that, they were going out and they were going to get their tree.

We had 20,500 people show up for Picnic with the Pops over seven weeks. We put the most expensive thing we've ever done on that stage when we hired Michael Bolton to be on that stage. We had a small window of opportunity there as it turned out, where we could really give the community some respite from the strain of it all and to really celebrate. So we put [on] En Vogue and Michael Bolton. We don't normally do two big acts like that in the same year, but we thought this would be the year to do it. We are not sorry we did it. We had put a very, very small projected income budget on that. We actually exceeded it, because that is how hungry the community was. The concert with the OSU band, we have never seen that kind of turnout for those two nights. It was the most successful year ever for that relationship.

Is there a part of the initiative that you are most passionate about or a community you're looking forward to serving better?

Look, I'm an old grandmother, and my favorite job in life was motherhood. So for me, my passion area really is our children. I run the symphony, of course, so I'm very interested in excellence in music, but I am interested in touching the hearts and minds of our children, helping to expand the world of opportunity for them, helping to shine some joy. Every child's circumstances are different. Let's hope that all of our children are leading joyful lives. We know that children, when they're going on field trips are more likely to show up for school. These sorts of programs can be so pivotal for our children on so many levels.

How do you get young people to care about classical music?

If you ask a child or a young person, they'll tell you mathematics, English, science, none of it's for them. They'd rather play the video games, and they'd rather go to rock concerts, right? I view classical music in the same. They don't necessarily see the value of it at the moment, but it goes into that pot of what they are and who they are. And they come back to it many, many times later in life. But you need to provide it for them, and even though they think it's not for them, it is affecting change and development and growth in them, just like forcing them to take math and science does. So I think the idea that we change the product to make it more palatable to them, for me that assumes that if that were the case, then we should change what math and science [are]. The art form is what the art form is, and it does what it does. Whether the children understand what it's doing or not, it goes into the collective development of who they are. I think it's critically important that we find ways to bring our kids in. My mother [dragged] me all over to classical things when I was a child. I hated it. I really didn't want to do it. But I know today, what it gave me in the end when everything is said and done.

Inclusion is a focal point of "We Are Here for You." With everything that's happened recently in terms of racial justice, how has that changed the symphony's mission, and what are your plans for inclusive programming and outreach?

We're focusing on the African American and the Latinx communities first, because we think that's where the greatest need is, and you can't do everything at one time effectively. We are looking at things over and above programming. We are going to continue to do this sort of programming we do. On [Black] History Month in February, every Masterworks concert will open with a piece by an African American composer. We've got diversity programs built in throughout the year, but we believe it's more than that. The truth of the matter is, the arts have been operating in that way where they're trying to do programming that appeals to those groups for decades. I think our approach is more to get out to where they actually are and take the art form and let it do what we really think it does do. We will do relevant programming. But on a day-to-day basis, we need to reach them more. And this is where the media is going to help us. We already have help in putting up billboards in the neighborhoods where diverse population live, so that we can tell them that we're here for them, and then find ways to share that message with them. So we are taking a much more kind of guerrilla tactical approach to it, about really getting out there to them.