Supporting the Arts Responsibly (STAR)

Star Project: Broad Ripple High School and Thomson Consumer Electronics

There are certain fundamental questions that every business must answer in order to build on and sustain growth. What do we do? is one of those questions. What do we stand for? is another.

Thomson Consumer Electronics was a relatively new and unknown presence in Central Indiana in the early 1990s. The French-based firm had acquired the RCA brand, but realized they had virtually no name recognition and no strategic focus for community relations. Responsibility for addressing these issues fell to Thomson’s manager of communication for the Americas, Richard Knoph.

Knoph asked himself those questions. Then he made some observations. In the first place, he recognized a need to support education in Indiana. But a general focus on education seemed vague and unsatisfactory. On closer examination, Knoph saw a disturbing trend: When there were budget cutbacks in schools it seemed that the first programs to get the axe were art programs.

Thomson, reflected Knoph, was in the home entertainment business. Home entertainment is driven by the performing arts. Young artists provide the basis for the content of future entertainment. The relationship between Thomson’s business and the need for enhanced arts support in the schools was a logical fit.

Knoph convinced headquarters in Paris that this approach was worthwhile, pointing out that, in the United States, community relations and good corporate citizenship is a condition of doing business. He received the seed funding to initiate Thomson STAR — Supporting The Arts Responsibly.

The STAR program began five years ago, but it wasn’t until 1998 that Thomson realized the most ambitious piece of its arts support package — the Spotlight School production of Factory, an original opera created and performed by students and faculty at Broad Ripple High School.

Thomson’s Spotlight School program is designed to encourage schools to create a semester-long, interdisciplinary performing arts project. The selected school receives a $15,000 grant, the advisory involvement of artists from some of the city’s leading arts institutions and the RCA video equipment.

Broad Ripple High rose to Thomson’s challenge. “The Broad Ripple application was everything we’d hope a school would have,” remembers Knoph. “It was, indeed, interdisciplinary. It was clearly creative and i think it was unique. The opera focus was exciting.”

Over in Broad Ripple, Ralph Bedwell, the head of the high school’s Arts and Humanities Magnet program, was also excited. “The reason we picked opera was that it covers all arts. You have dance, music, the visual arts, theater.” Bedwell also liked the idea of involving business organizations in what schools do. Thomson’s integration of city arts organizations — in this case, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Young Audiences, the Chamber Orchestra and the Indianapolis Opera — in the project was an added incentive.

Factory dealt with worker-management conflicts that are incited when an imagined factory undergoes a generational change in management. Thomson had, coincidentally, just been through the ordeal of closing a plant in Bloomington and some people found the echoes of Broad Ripple’s production uncomfortable. But Knoph championed the students’ creative integrity. “I was asked, ‘Is this what you want to sponsor?’ and the answer was, this is original concept that the kids came up with. As you know, it was from scratch. They came up with everything from the choreography to the costuming to the scripting. And no, I didn’t want to stand in the way of that.”

“There was a lot of discovery,” continues Knoph, “not only on our part, but on the students’ part — in seeing how a production like this comes together and seeing how they could use some of their skills to fulfill a project like this. Clearly, there were a lot of kids who never thought of opera as a way of utilizing mathematical skills, for example, but it happened.”

“The kids learned from budgeting to finances, to graphic arts,” recalls Bedwell. “Our kids got to work with some of the best artists in the city… It was one of the most valuable teaching tools I’ve ever used in my life. It put the kids in the action process.”

On opening night, Knoph was given a front row, center seat — a position he found embarrassing. But his presence was appreciated by the Broad Ripple students. “The kids were interested to see who came on opening night to see their production,” says Bedwell, “and they were happy to see the people they’d been hearing about.”

The Spotlight School program enabled Broad Ripple to make a participatory arts experience available to kids throughout the school — whether they were arts students or not. From Bedwell’s point of view, this integration of disciplines gives students a better, more realistic vision of what the world’s really about.

For Richard Knoph, the power of the opera project comes down to a single word. “There’s a wonderful word that the French use correctly and we don’t, as Americans, very often,” he says. “It’s passion. these kids were passionate about what they did and it’s nice to have a corporation share in that kind of passion.