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Matthew Hinsley is the force behind the red-hot Austin Classical Guitar Society.

By Chad Swiatecki, Portrait by Greg Abell

When Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, arrived at the University of Texas in 1996, the guitar group was little more than a collection of enthusiastic but mostly unorganized players and no real mission or purpose.

“It was very much a club atmosphere with no real artistic budget and a few guest artists who would come in occasionally,” says Hinsley, a trained classical guitarist who earned a doctorate from UT and spearheaded the growth of the ACGS soon after his arrival. “I poured lots of energy in to it and we built a concert series, added an adult ensemble program, began an education program and we’re now to the point where we’re world leaders in classical guitar curriculum.”

While Hinsley, who also trained at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, brought to the group a master-level talent with the guitar, it was his drive to organize and formalize its operations that made the biggest difference. From those scrappy beginnings, the guitar society now hosts world-renowned players from throughout the world and its concerts and other programs throughout the year have made it one of the leading lights of Austin’s fine-arts scene.

That growth has made Hinsley, 37, a national authority in how local nonprofit arts groups can chart a course to sustainability and prominence in their communities. His 2011 book, Creativity to Community: Arts Nonprofit Success One Coffee at a Time, has helped solidify his status as something of a guru for arts groups throughout the country looking to find firm footing. A classical guitar enthusiast from a young age, Hinsley had an idea for something like the current form of ACGS, which took shape while he was completing his master’s works at Oberlin.

“I had no business classes or anything like that, but I had a vision and a real interest in seeing how the field of guitar study could advance,” he says. “People told me, ‘You can’t make a living in the arts,’ but I wrote my thesis on classical guitar in the arts market and how the guitar can have a place in our communities.”

One of Hinsley’s most important keys for fledgling arts groups is having a complete vision for how to engage the community instead of focusing solely on the discipline, be it music, visual art or drama. “Lots of community arts organizations are created by people who are very passionate in what they do, but what can you do beyond that?” he asks. “Folks tend to not want to invest in the publicity and outreach, and you end up with a pretty small vision or product because of that.”

Another key, Hinsley says, is partnering with other arts and public groups, such as schools and museums, to merge talents and audiences. As an example, he points to a fall 2011 program the ACGS helped organize at ACL Live with Austin Pictures, public television station KLRU, the Alamo Drafthouse and a handful of local high- school arts students that used music and film to explore the creative process in visual art. Those types of high-profile—some would say “splashy”—events have helped Hinsley attract donors from throughout the community and grow the ACGS’s budget to roughly $500,000 annually.

Going forward, Hinsley says he’s most excited about the group’s emerging online educational component that’s being taught throughout the country, and he enjoys speaking and consulting at colleges and institutions in the U.S.

“I’m a big believer in energy and how to focus it, and I’m getting messages of hope from people who see what we’ve done and think they can do it in their own society,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see that energy. People say, ‘We think we can do this,’ and I say, ‘OK, let’s talk about some steps that will work for you.’”

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