By Mark Stryker.
The Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings launches its newest venture April 1: “Structurally Sound,” a concert series in architecturally significant spaces with music tied to the location. First up is the historic Ford Piquette Plant. The music ranges from Model T-era works to new pieces on a man-versus-machine theme.
It is a bold and creative idea, which is to say exactly the kind of venture that DCWS has made its stock in trade during its 30-year history. From modest roots and an initial annual budget of $4,000, the group has grown into an $800,000 organization. It produces several dozen chamber music concerts a year, commissions composers, delivers education programs and occasionally tours and makes recordings. But it forged unique partnerships and alliances, too — from managing the business operations of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and Eisenhower Dance Ensemble to providing marketing and public relations services to smaller groups like the Motor City Brass Band. It collaborates with universities to nurture young composers and ensembles, and it spearheaded a program for young professionals called Passport to the Arts that builds new audiences for classical music, opera, dance and theater.
In an environment where many arts groups are hanging on for dear life, DCWS has grown and broadened its impact. Working with a strong board and staff, executive director Maury Okun, a trombonist and group cofounder, created an innovative business model rooted in collaboration. Yet Okun, 58, didn’t take his eyes off the prize: the music.
«When I get invited to talk in front of a bunch of funders, I’m talking about collaboration; I’m not talking about Mozart’s ‘Serenades,’ « Okun says. «Arts organizations tend to seem inefficient to the business community, but we’re not in the business of making money, we’re in the business of making art. How you manage that and make one support the other is the way to be successful. One thing that’s been so compelling for us is that we can make the argument that this is the way to be more efficient.»
In practice, the three main partners — DCWS, the Great Lakes festival and Eisenhower Dance — retain their own boards of directors but share administrative staffs with Okun at the top of the pyramid. Nearly 30% of DCWS’s budget comes from the fees partners and clients pay for services — a revenue stream foreign to most arts groups. Another 30% comes from grants, mostly from local foundations that support the collaborative model.
«Maury is a visionary,» says Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. «He’s got both the administration and organizations skills but also the sensitivity to the artistic craft. It’s rare to have both.»
While partnerships exist elsewhere in the arts, the extent of DCWS’s model appears unique. The idea emerged from discussions Okun had in the early ‘90s with the foundation, which encouraged his nascent ideas about collaboration as a way to lure
grant money and grow the staff. In recent years, grants of $85,000 to $200,000 from the McGregor Fund and Kresge and Ford foundations allowed the group to keep growing. Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings has run budget surpluses every year since 2006, except for a small $8,000 shortfall last year because a donor was unable to fulfill a pledge.
«Everybody has to think about doing their business differently, and here’s a model that has worked,» Noland says.
A historic partnership
At first, in 1982, it was just Detroit Chamber Winds – “& Strings” wasn’t added until 1998. Okun, a metro Detroit native, and trumpeter Kevin Good, a new member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, wanted to keep playing the chamber pieces for winds that
they loved as students. They joined with bassoonist Victoria King and oboist John Snow to create the group and share administrative duties. A pool of local musicians, many associated with the DSO, formed a core ensemble of about 20. The group built its subscriber base, and a 1986 concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall raised national awareness, as did CDs devoted to Charles Ives, Stravinsky and others. Okun became executive director in 1992, though his fate was sealed in the group’s second year, when he went to his sister, a fund-raising professional, and offered to change the oil in her car if she would write a grant application for him. The next year, he wrote it himself.
«I realized I could have more impact by writing grants than playing,» he says. Still, Okun continues to play principal trombone in the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, waking up at 6 a.m. most days to practice.
The group took a great leap forward in 1994 when Okun and pianist-artistic director James Tocco created the annual Great Lakes festival, which has earned a national reputation for quality and adventure. In 1996, the then-fledgling Eisenhower ensemble
joined the alliance and grew into one of Michigan’s leading dance companies.
«We would not be as strong without them,» says artistic director Laurie Eisenhower.
The chamber is always trolling for new ideas. The germ of the «Structurally Sound» series began when a supporter suggested the group do concerts in interesting
spaces. That evolved into the concept of historically important architecture. The plan is to perform two concerts next season in locations to be selected. Member David Jackson, a trombonist, took the lead in programming the Ford Piquette Plant concert.
Among the pieces are an early 20th-Century miniature by Fritz Kreisler transcribed for trombone and piano, works for trombone choir that explore the acoustics of the space and a 2011 piece by Adolphus Hailstork written for Jackson called «John Henry’s Big,» a depiction of the steel-driver of American folklore.
In keeping with DCWS’s philosophy, Jackson, who teaches at the University of Michigan, was free to indulge his imagination.
«There’s no actual music director, so most every concert we do is driven by the musicians themselves doing music they love and music they think the audience will connect with,» he says. «It’s one of the joys of being connected with
a group like this. We all have input.»
More Details: History of the Piquette Plant
Built in 1904, the Piquette Plant remains one of Detroit’s earliest links to its automotive past. Henry Ford’s nascent company constructed the Piquette Plant as its first company-built factory, from plans by the local architectural firm Field, Hinchman & Smith. Initially the company made various car models there, including the Model C, F, B, and others. In 1908, the company started making its most famous product, the Model T, all the while experimenting with various production techniques. Henry Ford had an office on the second floor near the research and design offices. Within a few years, Ford began to plan his next factory, the much larger facility in Highland Park. That complex was superseded by the mammoth Rouge Plant beginning in 1917. Ford Motor Co. sold the Piquette Plant to the Studebaker Corp. In 1911. Later owners included 3M Corp., Cadillac Overall Co. and Heritage Investments. In April 2000, the building was acquired by its current owner, the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, known as T-Plex.
More Details: ‘Structurally Sound’
Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings
2 p.m. April 1
Ford Piquette Plant
461 Piquette Ave., Detroit
Advance tickets: $35, $30 seniors, $10 students. $5
more per ticket at door.