How a Nonprofit Helps Deliver on a Musical Act’s Ambitions

The Kronos Performing Arts Association helps manage the Kronos Quartet, a well-known international touring act—while keeping a focus on the underlying mission that drives the group’s work.

In the modern music industry, surviving more than just a few years is difficult.

Given that, it’s impressive that the Kronos Quartet, a chamber ensemble focused on stringed instruments, has kept busy for 46 years—with no signs of slowing down.

A big reason for that is that the quartet has nonprofit support. The Kronos Performing Arts Association, which dates to the 1970s, first came to life for creative reasons—the group, to this day, commissions a large amount of work that it performs on stage and on its dozens of albums. But KPAA does way more than that in the modern day, taking on the roles of artist management, promotion, production, and fundraising, while helping boost music education at all levels and mentoring younger generations of musicians.

According to Managing Director Janet Cowperthwaite, KPAA plays an important behind-the-scenes role, taking care of business affairs while also providing a backbone of organizational structure that goes beyond simple planning.

“There’s a lot of education and community work that we do—which is obviously not as widely reported on as, you know, the Grammy Award-winning recordings and the tours around the world—when they go into a school and coach 12-year-olds playing string quartet,” she explains. “That’s the part that needs the support that a nonprofit organization brings.”

Here are a few ways that KPAA makes its mark, which also offer some insights other associations can learn from:

Improve access to education. One way the association has shown its influence is through the Fifty for the Future project. The multiyear effort, which aims to commission 50 pieces from a variety of up-and-coming composers, was designed to provide freely accessible educational materials to aspiring musicians—all of which can be found on the quartet’s website.

“The purpose of it is to leave a legacy—music that represents Kronos’ kind of ethos—and remove the barriers of access to that music,” Cowperthwaite said.

Re-establish that local imprint with an annual event. Cowperthwaite has long played an active role in managing the quartet’s many musical appearances—the group tours five months out of the year, and she helps manage the touring infrastructure. But KPAA has recently taken to putting on a local festival, which includes both musical and presentational elements.

A driving factor behind the Kronos Festival, the fifth edition of which takes place May 30–June 1, was that then nonprofit wanted to emphasize the group’s roots.

“One of the reasons we started our festival in San Francisco is because … we needed to re-establish ourselves as a group from San Francisco,” she explained. “The group tours so much that a lot of people didn’t realize this is our community. This is where we live.”

Look to the future. Given that the Kronos Quartet is nearing its 50th anniversary in 2023—and three of its four current members, including founder David Harrington, have been active in the quartet for more than 40 years—Cowperthwaite and her board have put a recent focus on succession planning. Why? Beyond the quartet getting older, KPAA itself has long-standing employees. (Cowperthwaite herself has been there since 1981.)

“You know that that can be a tricky conversation,” she sais. “But we’re having it, and we’re thinking about that as a big overlay.”

Despite that ongoing conversation, she notes that the quartet remains busy, at the same level of creative output that it had 15 years ago, and has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

One factor that helps keep things moving, of course, is KPAA itself.

“Kronos is at the center of the Kronos Performing Arts Association,” Cowperthwaite said. “But it’s definitely been the organization that has enabled the success of Kronos.”

Kronos Quartet members, from left: David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang. (Brennan Spark/via the Kronos Quartet Facebook page)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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