Maury Okun holds the strings to Detroit’s classical music scene

All Maury Okun really wanted to do was make great music — the great business model was sort of a fortunate byproduct.

“It wasn’t because we wanted to create an interesting model, we wanted to create interesting art,” says Okun. “It enables us to do more of what we wanted to do.”

The interesting model is the remarkable collaboration among three Oakland County arts organizations: Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. The organizations maintain separate identities and boards of directors, but they share office space, administrative staff and technology.

They also share Okun, who serves as executive director of all three organizations.

“What it does is it enables each of the organizations to an array of services that they wouldn’t have access to on their own,” says Okun, who also moonlights as a trombone player with the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. “Somebody donates a phone system to an organization, now three organizations have a phone system.”

The collaborative started in the 1990s, when the three organizations realized they could cut costs and be eligible for more grant funding if they just worked together.

“It was about providing the artistic services we wanted to provide,” says Okun, a founding member of the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings.

As the collaborative developed, so did its reach: Okun began contracting out consulting services to other arts organizations in the area.

This is in addition to recent news that the collaborative is about to welcome four new additions. According to Okun, the Motor City Brass Band, Pro Musica Detroit, the Birmingham Bloomfield Symphony Orchestra and the Rackham Symphony Chorus will soon become permanent members of the collaborative. The new partnerships will translate into three new staff members to help manage the burgeoning organization.

“It sort of developed and morphed into this greater thing,” says Okun.

And while the cost-effectiveness of this business model is obvious, the benefits extend beyond those savings. It allows a free-flowing exchange of information between some of the most accomplished musicians and artists in the area.

And the major funding institutions are taking notice of Okun’s collaborative spirit — his groups have recently landed sizeable grants from the likes of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

“The traditional funding institutions really respect what we’re trying to do,” Okun says.
That such an enviable business model should be managed by someone as far removed from the traditional business world as Okun offers a little food for thought.

After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in trombone performance and from the Eastman School of Music with a master’s degree in music education, Okun formed the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings with three friends in 1982.

Once the collaborative model started to take off, Okun realized his interest in writing translated into penning winning grant applications to help secure funding. The rest just fell into place after that.

It allowed “me to make more music happen than if I was just playing trombone,” Okun says.

In this era of sparse arts funding, Okun advises other organizations to follow the collaborative lead. Join with organizations you respect, he says, with leaders who share a similar mission and naturally fit with what you’re trying to do artistically.

“The idea is to build capacity,” Okun says. “If it helps the organization stay even, then that’s a good thing.”


Megan Pennefather is a freelancer writer based in Detroit.

For more information on the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings and its partnerships, visit www.detroitchamberwinds.org or call 248-559-2095.