Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12, 2009


Hello everyone.

"And the beat goes on..................."


I attended a quite remarkable conference this past Saturday. Remarkable not so much for the content (though the content was very impressive), but more for the genesis of the effort itself. The Youth in the Arts Focus Group Project I did late last year for the Hewlett Foundation prompted a group of those participants to take it on their own to implement one of their own principal recommendations: to wit: the establishment of a Young Arts Professionals organization and network. The Saturday conference was their launch. (Yes,yes I know I have been promising the publication of, and a blog on, that report for some time, and it will be released and the blog will appear on April 27th). What impresses me so much by the Saturday conference effort is that they did it without any real involvement of people from the top down. It was (is) basically a grassroots endeavor.

That it is a grassroots effort is important. I am big believer in efforts that begin at the bottom of the chain and work their way up. For one thing, they will now own their own end product; own it and control it themselves and that is critical to its ultimate success and its ability to attract peer membership, have any realistic chance at self-funding and survival, and gives the effort the best chance of being relevant and faithful to its objectives.

There are, I know, many young arts professionals / emerging leader efforts going on around the country - most notable all the chapters of Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders programs. There just wasn't such an effort in San Francisco at this time, and these people are moving to fill that void. It doesn't really matter what you call it -- the filling of the void for the next generations of arts leaders is what is important. What is impressive to me is that here are a bunch of young, smart, engaged people doing it for themselves.

The conference itself was as organized and professionally run as any I have been to. The agenda was well conceived and thought out. The purpose was to gather information, thoughts, ideas and comments on their undertaking from their peers in the area. They put together a Steering Committee, got some seed financing from Hewlett to cover the costs of food, rental etc., and invited a representative sampling of their peer group of arts administrators, those in arts education, and practicing artists. Their hope for the entity is to provide an umbrella service group, self-run, that will serve the needs of the emerging arts professionals. They are grappling with defining "emerging" to determine who to include, but at this stage of development they have opted to be inclusive of everyone who defines their own career as "emerging" irrespective of age or how long they have been in the field. They seek to be a connectng point for each other, to promote and foster peer generated solutions to common problems and challenges, and to share ideas and knowledge. They have an ambitious agenda, but it is still being formed. They plan next to synthesize the conference's outcomes and form an Advisory Board. They hope to soon develop programmming that will further their objectives and empower each other to advance their careers in the arts -- programming that may include mentoring, professional development and training initiatives, advocacy organzation, collaborations, networking opportunities, project incubation, career path guidance, conference attendance scholarship support and a host of other services that they may design and implement.

It won't be easy. Volunteer organizations are often hard to sustain. Young arts administrators, arts educators and artists are just like their older counterparts -- they don't always see things the same way or have the same priorities. They will have to find a way to stay relevant to a potential member base and provide really valued services. But I think they are up to the challenge. The need is there and so is help for them as they grow.

The conference was organized around the "World Cafe" model - random groups at round tables considering the same issue, then everybody moves to form new groups to continue the discussion on the same issue. The process repeats itself for consideration of subsequent issues, then note takers report out to the whole group the major take-aways from each table, and those are synthesized down to core issues. Larger discussion groups form around those core issues in the afternoon. Everybody gets a chance to contribute their thoughts, no one dominates any discussion, and along the way are networking opportunities.

This conference had two main issues to consider:

 1) What broad trends do you see in the emerging arts sector, and what are the implications of those trends on your work?

2) What could we enact now that will make a positive impact on your art practice or arts sector career?

 The responses to those two questions were synthesized down into the following broad core areas:

1. Entreprenurship / Small Business skills (including technology)
2. Collaborations / Partnerships including resource sharing
3. Mentorship / Peer Coaching including professional development and career path guidance
4. Advocacy / Public valuation
5. Networking - resource sharing

And here are just a few randomly overheard observations of some of the participants:

* Younger artists are becoming increasingly entreprenurial in both the creation and presentation of art - in part in response to the ever widening gulf between "established" arts (and organizations) and "independent" art. That gulf is widening, in part, because of the "risk averse" nature of established art.

* There is at least the perception among some younger arts administrators that boards of more established arts organizations are intent on keeping the legacy of their organizations and how they function "in tact".

* The net result, coupled with the economic realities, are increasing a "project based" response to the production and presentation of art -- e.g., the advent of more theater or dance festivals as an alternative to working within the structures of the old model of existing, ongoing dance or theater companies.

* There is a need for more "learning based communities" whereby knowledge and information can be shared, and shared more quickly and personally using technology.

* New ways are needed to develop short term project focused collaborations and partnerships. Old attempts at collaboration are too unwiedly to work through.

* Politics is beginning to become a greater part of the dinner table conversation again, and that may bode well for greater and more sophisticated grassroots political action by, and on behalf of, the arts.

* The arts field is too segmented, with discipline sectors isolated one from the other, each too territorial - and that we need to break down those barriers if we hope to benefit from interactions.

There is no way I could capture the full import of what went on Satuday. There were literally scores of other keen and insightful observations at this meeting, and I was very impressed with the level of thinking that went on over the course of the day. Hopefully the group itself will put on their Facebook

Page a more comprehensive summary of what went on

But, hey what's the big deal - this was just another gathering, right?. Why do I think it so important? Actually it wasn't the gathering, or even the genesis of it that is that important. The real issue is the transition of power. I know that the transition of power is an issue that may seem too vague and not that important given the current economic challenges our sector faces. I know other people may think that while it is important, it will just have to wait for awhile. But I don't think it can wait. It is a fundamental issue and we are in the midst of it whether we know it or not, like it or not, or even care. And there are trends and flows at work that are going to profoundly impact who we are, what we do, and how we do it -- and very soon. For the first time ever, not only in the arts sector but in other sectors, both public and private, the workplace has staffers from four generations working side by side. Each of these generations has had widely divergent growing up experiences and contexts, each has different ways of seeing things and even of understanding things they see - and of how they respond to workplace demands and challenges. That fact alone makes the issue of managing generations within the workplace a critical issue. Add to that, we are very near the time when a fundamental transition and change of power would otherwise normally occur as the oldest veterns move on, and boomers should be beginning to retire, giving Gen Xers and Millennials the chance to move up and assume the reins of decision making power and authority. The current economic reality may be changing that normal transition, as more boomers find they can't retire, and fewer openings exist for both promotion and entry level positions for the younger Millennials to move into.

The problem is that we are now in a 'survival' mode and there is so much on everyone's plate that there is little time, money or the 'will' to deal with this issue - no matter how serious and important. But it will not go away, and failure to address it is simply postponing a challenge now that will likely morph into a problem or catastrophe soon enough.

The issue isn't can we recruit good young people -- not in this economy anyway - of course we can and are. There are more good people than spots for them. The issue is how we manage the different age groups, how we optimize the working conditions for all of them, and how we can maximize the contributions of each and of the whole - at the same time. Most importantly, we are beginning to see fundamental shifts in the arts nonprofit business, information and even "people" models -- shifts born of generational differences and frustrations that may happen while we are diligently working on protecting the existence of something that may be outmoded very soon despite those efforts. Some of these shifts may redefine the creation and presentation of art, access to that art, and in the process the whole nonprofit arts infrastructure. That kind of transition may already be underway, and it would be valuable, I think, if we could get some kind of handle on that so whatever the transition might be, we can make it smoother and work better for our sector. Remember Bob Dylan: "For the times they are a changing". Well, they're changing again.

Given the demonstrable interest in young emerging leaders, and the very high caliber of the organizers of this event, I'm confident they will succeed in launching their grassroots effort into a sustainable service for their peers. I congratulate the organizers, all those involved in the planning and execution of the conference, and all those who attended. And I would like to thank the Hewlett Foundation - Marc Vogl in particular - for their (his)championing efforts to address this issue and for their support for the efforts of these young professionals.

The single word I came away with from Saturday was Optimistic. I think the next generation of arts professionals will do well. I also think they would do even better if we would 1) help and support them in ways they suggest, and 2) let them have some power.

At some point in the next few months I will invite some of these emerging leaders to a Roundtable Discussion here on the blog.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.