Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It’s Really All About Engagement

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………………..”

Back from east coast meetings and the AFTA Conference:

I was in Washington DC and Baltimore last week for meetings and the AFTA Conference. Several things stand out about that whirlwind of mini-discussions and quick interchanges. First, it was hot back there. Second, for the most part, the bad news for the arts in one place is echoed in others – though some are doing much better than others. And third, despite the problems and challenges, people are engaged. Engagement is a critically important variable for the survival and growth of any enterprise. It would be an equally critical metric indicative of how well we are doing were it not so hard to measure. It can mean different things in different contexts: We are engaged and involved in what we do. We engage the enemy. The performance engaged the audience. We engage the services of artists.

I long ago came to the conclusion that big, national conferences were valuable, not because of the sessions or speakers – though often times there is information to be learned and thoughts that promote further thoughts. The real value of these gatherings is twofold: First, they give all of us a sense that we are not alone. Most of us work day to day in somewhat isolation. Most arts organizations are relatively small; many are suburban or rural and thus the chances for us to intersect with each other are few. It’s easy to forget how large the sector is, how many of us toil in an area about which we feel passionate, and that what we do really does matter, that we impact lives in large and small ways that often times remain hidden even to us. But when a thousand or more of us gather in one place, we are reminded that we are not alone; we do not operate in isolation – but rather each of us, each of our organizations, each of the disciplines we represent are really part of a much, much larger living organism – The ARTS. We are part of something bigger than ourselves and our groups. And the occasional reminder of that simple fact is empowering.

The second value in these events is the networking; the opportunity to become re-engaged – with each other, within ourselves, to our organizations and as part of the whole field. Not only are we there with “our people”, but we get the chance to renew established friendships and relationships; old timers share war stories and brainstorm new projects; emerging leaders expand their contacts and become more experienced, and first time attendees get a sense of what a career in the arts might be like. For all of us, it is renewing. We get to have conversations about life in the trenches. We get to empathize and sympathize with each other. We get to share tactics and strategies about not only how to cope, but how to thrive. We get the opportunity to explore and test new ideas out with each other; to brainstorm about the possible. We get a sense of our place in things and we come away feeling more optimistic, more energized, more engaged.

It is this sense of engagement that struck me at AFTA’s 50th Conference. There was, of course, some trepidation and fear about how things are going, and worry about our future that was lying just beneath the surface of the three days, but despite that uneasiness, there was also a prevalent feeling that we can find ways to address even the direst of situations and the hardest challenges that lie ahead. There was the feeling that all the bad economic news in the world, all the problems and challenges we face, will not beat us down. There was a sense that each of us is not alone, but a part of something dynamic, something huge, something of enormous value and energy. There was an infectious energy and even optimism that made you feel that you wanted to become more engaged when you got home. The ARTS will survive this period and so will we. And that is a very, very valuable thing to have come away with. The hard part is to figure out how to make that feeling last once we go our separate ways back home. 

And so I guess the real message of the conference reinforces something I keep saying over and over again:

Don’t Quit! Ever.

Have a great week.