Monday, May 2, 2011

Good Morning
"And the beat goes on.........................................."

Arizona Town Hall - Day 1:

Note about the process: Two considerations to bear in mind about the Town Hall: First, the goal is to arrive at consensus. Not an easy task in any situation, the arts included, Second, the captivating part of the process is that as each panel considers each of the questions during two and a half to three and half hour sessions is that the recorder continually reads back what has been said by the participants in a summary and the panel then has the opportunity to correct, edit, and add to what has been said up to that point. The team of recorders then synthesizes the five panels discussions and prepares a draft summary. That process is repeated the second day. And then on Wednesday morning the whole Town Hall meets to do final revisions. The other thing about the process is that it is an arduous undertaking to consider all the complex issues raised by the questions and give those issues a fair hearing in a very limited period of time,

Note about this blog: First, as an observer I am not a participant, and thus not a contributor to the discussions. Not the easiest position for someone as opinionated as I am, The blog then is not meant to capture everything everyone said - exactly as they said it, but rather to provide a sense of the discussions and some impressions and opinions on what I heard, Not meant to be a criticism, but a commentary. I am a reporter here and bring my own prejudices, viewpoints and limited perspective, I am also somewhat the interloper as I am not from Arizona and thus do not have the insight or background many of the participants enjoy, Also, I can't be in two places at once, so I am moving from panel to panel to try to get a better sense of the whole of the Town Hall as it unfolds. Finally, neither the names nor titles of the participants are important in the process and so I will not be attributing anyone's remarks or thoughts to any specific person.

While the full Town Hall is top heavy with people from the Arts and Culture sector, the majority of them have their own perspectives and experiences of their own organizations, Few have the charge of a full state wide perspective, though they know something of the issues. I was privy to, and had the benefit of the first draft of the summary of the first day's two sessions, but there is still a huge amount of material to wade through. Though not my long suit, I shall try to be brief while still giving some sense of the conversations that went on.

Opening remarks:
Points were made as to the importance of arts and culture (and we are using that phrase in the widest sense to include fine arts, popular arts, heritage, parks, libraries, the humanities and everything else that might fit the category - including:
1. Arts and Culture (hereinafter AC) relate directly to the sustainability of livable communities.
2. An informed citizenry is essential for a healthy democracy and AC plays a critical role in arriving at that place,
3. The arts have a role to play in the physical health of Arizona citizens.
4. AC plays a direct role in fostering tolerance.
5. Funding sources for AC must be a priority and the message is that money put into AC will be paid back many times over.
6. It is essential to define AC broadly to create a Big Tent.
7. Undercapitalization remains a major problem for arts organizations of all sizes and disciplines
8. People participate in AC in more ways today than in the past.
9. New access to the arts requires new connections,
10. Rural communities deserve great art every bit as much as urban areas.
11. Small towns can often move new ideas forward faster - they have great volunteers and are often better connected to each other,
12. The Arizona arts have lost $20 million in available funds in the last few years, The current budget provides zero state support for AC and Arizona now ranks 50th of 50 states in per capita support.
13. Beyond public funding, corporate, foundation and earned income are all down double digits. Municipal agencies have had cuts to their support nearing 70%, and individual philanthropic support is down all across the U.S.
12. Yet Arizona has (according to Americans for the Arts studies) 11,600 arts businesses, employing 46000 people, with a $500 million economic impact.

Session I: Refer to the materials on the Town Hall site via the link provided in the last blog for the exact wording of the questions for each session.

Q: This session dealt essentially with how A/C in Arizona impact the state and its citizens; the differing perspectives Arizona's diverse communities and populations bring to bear on A/C; and the role of the various stakeholder communities play in working together.

The principal thought centered on Arizona's diversity - from its Mexican American and Spanish heritage to its Native Americans and cowboy heritage, from its historical modern America Route 66 to the natural wonder of its landscape and geography. The contemporary art scene continues to be shaped by the tension between the modern urban sensibility and the history of the state's opens space mentality. While the arts provide a kind of "social" center for communities, the sprawl of space unlike the city centers of many other states make that centering problematic in some cases, and so for arts to act as community "hubs" issues of convenience are a consideration. And the state's diversity including age, gender, geography, occupation, education, heritage, multicultural ethnicity, requires a new model for all those groups that don't follow traditional trajectories of participation. Moreover, the arts include a broader range of creativity than ever - from high tech to culinary arts. Rural communities emphasize grassroots values and collaboration, while urban areas of differing neighborhoods may have their own issues of pocket isolation,

It was thought that the A/C sector needs to do more to promote its cultural and artistic diversity, now more than ever due to an unsupportive legislature, and that includes greater engagement of policy makers. It was suggested that organizational boards of directors need to better reflect that diversity. (Author's aside: while all the participants in this Town Hall were dedicated, passionate, intelligent and experienced professionals, the composition was light on people of color, and more than one noted that underserved ethnic communities are often left out at the decision making tables even within the sector). It was also noted that it will be essential, in the future, to focus more on the inclusion of youth in the A/C mix - which challenge will necessitate better appreciation and application of technology.

The most troubling discussion to me was on stakeholder. There was a consensus that everyone was a stakeholder, and that is, of course, true - but in the usual context of this topic - stakeholders are defined - correctly I think - as those constituencies that have a stake in our success. Thus parents, the PTA, teachers, and others in the education pantheon as well as those in the tourism industry - hotels, restaurants etc. as an example benefit from out success and make the best areas for us to target to try to co-opt to our cause.

Another area designated as in need of greater effort was that of collaboration and cooperation. It was noted that the A/C organizations can be territorial and turf wars are not uncommon. If we can't unite to work together, the resulting vivisectionist field will end up crippling our efforts.

Session II:
Q: The second session dealt with the intersections between A/C and the economy; education; health, well being and the general quality of life; and how well Arizonans understand the impact of A/C on these areas of life in the state.

There was general consensus that the arts provide jobs, generate substantial economic activity, generate far more tax revenues than the amount of government money invested in them, as well as complement the objectives of business by attracting talent, and are integral to the tourism industry. A/C also play an increasingly recognized role in health care and the film industry. Unfortunately, when the economy goes south, so too do government support dollars.

To combat that reality, it was suggested the A/C sector need to better integrate itself as a voice in the decision making apparatuses of other sectors; that it must do more to gain the support of the public by expanding its awareness of the value of A/C; and that it must become more politically savvy and involve itself in the election of candidates supportive of its goals and needs. It was thought that part of the challenge is to convince the business community to help lobby for greater arts education. Every arts supporter needs to ratchet up the discussion of the role of A/C in policy decisions, The A/C field needs a louder, more forceful unified voice, infiltrate the Chamber of Commerce (and might I suggest if every arts organization in Arizona would join and become active in their local Chamber, they could virtually take over the organization).

As to arts education, the A/C sector needs to drive home the lesson that arts education helps students perform at a higher level in math, reading and other subjects seen as more essential to prepare students to be competitive in the new global marketplace. Attention needs to be paid to the inequity of offerings in rural settings.

The role of A/C on the attraction to talent for business was noted, as was the correlation between early arts education and academic success. Unfortunately, the A/C sector has work to do in building more bridges to the business community, and the funding for the arts In Arizona's schools remains inadequate.

Also noted was the role of A/C in community building and in serving as a social hub connecting disparate parts of the state's diverse populations as well as the development of a sense of place.

It was thought much work is needed to more effectively market the assets the state's diversity afford to both residents and visitors alike.

There is growing evidence - though much more research is needed - that suggests that the arts can play a critical role in healthcare, particularly for children and seniors, and that A/C can have a demonstrable impact on clinical outcomes. Arts advocates should consider alliances with the health care industry.

Finally, while some Arizonans understand the impact of A/C on their lives, many more are completely unaware of the value we offer. Still, the general public seems to "get it" more than the legislature - which continues to perceive the arts as a luxury, a frill and a non-essential - and therein lies the major challenge for the sector. There is no knight in shining armor riding in to rescue A/C in Arizona. The sector itself must mount a comprehensive, sustained, targeted and well financed campaign to win widespread public support and become more political to get elected officials to support the needs of the field.

I will post another blog on tomorrow's sessions, then post the Town Halls's final recommendations on Thursday. On Friday I will post some comments on the addresses in Plenary Sessions by NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, and Senior Cultural Initiatives Officer at the Pew Charitable Trust - Marion Godfrey, along with a couple of brief Q & A sessions with some of the attendees and links to various resource sites.

Don't Quit!

I welcome comments during the process and hope people not only in Arizona but across the country will take note of what is going on in Tucson this week. You can leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this or subsequent blogs and click on the ‘Comment’ line at the end.

The Arizona Town Hall blog series is brought to you by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Western States Arts Federation.