FirstWorks: “Boundary-breaking” strategy in action
How does an organization transition from being the sponsor of an annual, one-night festival to a producer of community-building, year-round arts programs?
In the case of FirstWorks, which traces its origin back to the 1985 launch of First Night Providence, it has been through planning, planning, and more planning.
“At the start of the millennium, we asked ourselves how we could move toward spreading out our work throughout the year. It was a big period of evaluation and conversation,” recalls Kathleen Pletcher, executive artistic director of FirstWorks and previous artistic director of First Night Providence.
|Cirque Mechanics headlined the FirstWorks Festival 2009. Here, a performer works the German Wheel. FirstWorks enriched the lives of 875 students in Rhode Island schools in 2009 through innovative performances like this one. Photo credit: Frank Mullin|
FirstWorks was launched in 2004 in collaboration with Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism “as a vehicle to build community, reach underserved audiences, and present extraordinary arts programs that elevate Providence’s national profile.”
The evaluation and conversation about the organization’s work continued and, in 2007, leaders at FirstWorks began a formal strategic planning process. With support from the Foundation each of the past three years, FirstWorks has strengthened its fundraising capacity, extended its reach statewide, and moved to a year-round format
“For us, having a strategic plan – and support for our strategic plan – means we don’t have to be as reactive as some organizations may need to be. We’re much more proactive.” - Lydia Breckon, development director, FirstWorks
“Our strategic planning has changed how we think, how we approach things, and how we learn from other organizations. Partnerships underlie everything we do. These are relationships, not transactions,” states Pletcher, noting FirstWorks’ connection with the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium (VMA) Foundation, which has provided a new venue for FirstWorks.
“For us, having a strategic plan – and support for our strategic plan – means we don’t have to be as reactive as some organizations may need to be. We’re much more proactive,” says Lydia Breckon, FirstWorks’ development director.
“We’re very focused on where we’re going and in providing first experiences of one kind or another,” Pletcher agrees. FirstWorks defines “first experiences” in three ways: premiering significant new performance works, providing first experiences for children, and developing new audiences.
|Angkor Dance Troupe's June 2009 performance at RISD's Chace Center Michael P. Metcalf Auditorium was part of FirstWorks' annual arts programming. Here, dancers perform "Swva Pol," the Cambodian Monkey Dance. Photo credit: Frank Mullin |
Last year, FirstWorks connected art with audiences through 54 unique arts events, enabled nearly 300 performers to take to the stage in 25 “boundary-breaking and genre-redefining” performances, and expanded its arts learning program to reach 875 students in schools throughout the state.
It also was a year for increased community partnerships, both locally and internationally, the latter with the Taiwan Cultural Council, which partnered with FirstWorks for the New England premiere of HORSE, Taiwan’s first all-male dance troupe.
Pletcher notes the importance of building bridges – with partner organizations, with diverse audiences, with a myriad of supporters. With one bridge already taking the group to Taiwan, one can only imagine where the strategic plan will take them next!
Daniel Kertzner, grant programs officer at the Foundation, adds, “One of the arts sector priorities is fostering collaboration. By building robust partnerships, FirstWorks is demonstrating the exciting programmatic and organizational benefits that collaborative efforts provide.”
For more information, www.first-works.org.