Sunday, June 19, 2011

Working the Rooms in San Diego at AFTA

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………..”

Americans for the Arts in San Diego:

A tip of the hat to Victoria Hamilton and Mara Walker who organized the conference, and to San Diego - a beautiful city with an incomparably vibrant arts ecosystem.

I want to note that Alicia Anstead who facilitated a wrap-up closing forum the final day is an outstanding meeting facilitator.

And check out this wonderful participation performance art piece (I don't know how else to describe it) called "I Wish to Say", created by Sheryl Oring who sat at a desk with an old manual typewriter and typed letters to the President as dictated by convention delegates.  While I love the concept - a fascinating, potentially powerful and thoroughly enjoyable amalgam of thoughts from ourselves -  a work of art in itself - alas it can only succeed with widespread participation.  Sheryl posts three entries on the link provided me.  I hope there may be more to come.  I loved the idea of it - very likely in part because I am actually old enought to remember using a manual typewriter, and also because I think there should be more non-traditional performance art at our gatherings. 

Of all the national conferences held in our sector annually, the AFTA convention remains one of my favorites – in part because this is the sub sector that comprised my ecosystem when I first entered the field 15 years ago. I cut my teeth on this assemblage, and I always look forward to re-connecting with colleagues and friends – and though while I continue to be a little surprised by the absence of many former working partners as they retire, I am buoyed up at the number of new faces and the energy and infectious enthusiasm as well as insights and intelligence these new leaders bring with them.

Attendance neared 1000 – down perhaps slightly from the high water marks of a couple of years ago, but still impressive given rising costs of attendance. I believe all of these gatherings – whether AFTA or one of the discipline areas such as the theater community meeting in overlapping sessions in Los Angeles at the TCG conference last week are enormously valuable in allowing for intersections, connections and idea generation (and someone once got it right when they observed that: “The best way to have good ideas, is to have lots of ideas.”)   [Aside: maybe there should be some national conference calendar website so that we at least make informed decisions about scheduling these events in competition / coordination?]. But I am concerned that in ever tougher economic times, the rising costs of flights, hotels and registration fees will make it prohibitively expensive to continue to attend these confabs in the future – and that is something we need to take a look at.

The reality is that conferences scheduled for either coast tend to get people from that area in disproportionate numbers from the rest of the country. Far more delegates from California were in San Diego this week than were in Baltimore last year. I don’t know whether or not next year’s even in San Antonio will draw a more balanced representation of the country because San Antonio is less distant from either coast, but it will be interesting to see. I think what we have as a default is that conferences on one coast vs. the other are becoming de facto regional conferences to some degree, and perhaps that is both unavoidable and a good strategy.

I also think that we might see more niche gatherings – like the Arts Marketing Conference aimed at subsets of the various special interest areas within our community – and so Development Directors, Program Officers, Executive Directors may someday be meeting separately from the whole of us – though, of course, the issues of cost and distance will not change with that approach.

National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program Open Call for Applicants:
Along those lines, Russell Willis Taylor at National Arts Strategies, continues her organization’s efforts to provide capacity building support by moving towards a narrowing of the focus on leadership development from the wide swath of all arts managers to an intriguing centering on a limited community of 100 Executive Directors in a multi year intensive Chief Executives Program – and while a good number of those 100 participants have already been chosen in a highly selective process, a number of slots remain in an open application call to insure the equity of access to the program.

This approach – or at least elements of it – may well be the model for how we approach professional development in the future, and I urge Chief Executives of all sizes and stripes of arts organizations – from everywhere in the country to check out the application process and criteria for selection and consider if it may be an option for you to apply.

AFTA Conference General observations:

Here are a few of the threads of oft repeated conversations I gleaned during the three days:

• Everywhere the emphasis was on both organizational and personal adaptability and flexibility in everything from finances and fundraising to program development and career trajectory. Increasingly the refrain echoed that the time has come to much more seriously challenge our basic thinking and thought processes and question the assumptions on which we base much of that thinking than we have heretofore.  We are, as more than one attendee observed: "Not nearly critical enough of ourselves."

Whether the observation from the Director of Global Community Investing for Boeing that the skills the next generation of business leaders will need to develop are unknown and unknowable at this point in time due to the scope and rapidity of change in the world – and thus our arguments in favor of arts education are not that an arts education provides this or that exact skill set, but rather that it prepares students to learn whatever those skills may turn out to be; OR

Steven Tepper’s observation that in the area of research we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that “To us (in the arts) everything is important all of the time” (It's not); OR

The conclusion in a session on the benefits of a classroom centered professional development option vs. practical on the job learning that there simply is no one best approach - and that we have a long way to go in providing affordable and easy to access skills training; OR

Ben Cameron’s noting that sustainability may in fact not be an ideal goal in and of itself at all.  [
And Ben Cameron's closing speech once again confirms that he is far and away not only one our best and most dynamic thinkers, but that he is an orator of such extraordinary ability as to make most of the rest of us feel inadequate.  When I hear Ben speak, I am reminded of an old Peanuts comic strip, where in Schroeder and Charlie Brown are lying on a hill looking up at the clouds, and Schroeder says to Charlie Brown:  "Look Charlie Brown, up there that cloud looks like a Wagnerian Opera, and that other one looks like Plato and Aristotle.  What do you see in the clouds?"  And Charlie Brown replies:  "Well I was going to say I see a horsey and a doggie."  I hope AFTA will make Ben's entire speech available for free online:  OR

The welcome and refreshing news from many quarters that in fact all is not gloom and doom and that we are racking up some victories out there too – from the Ohio increase in state arts funding to the Atlanta Mayor’s admission that his cuts to the arts was a mistake and his reversal of that action to the survival of the Texas state arts agency.

All of these illustrate not only that change is in the air, but indicates the need to step up the pace in new responses from us.

• I heard numerous comments on the welcome reality of ever more emerging Leaders in attendance this week. Whereas just several years ago there was widespread bemoaning of their absence, they clearly now constitute a growing presence. In individual conversations with a number of those who fit into the category there are all kinds of issues to this sub-sector - from nearing the point of concern for some that the label “Emerging Leaders” and the increase in the number of separate networking / meeting gatherings for this cohort may now becoming a limiting characterization - pigeonholing them -  that some wish to avoid as a stigma, to concerns about the continuing dearth of available and affordable professional development opportunities.

In other generational arena news: Cora Mirikitani the Executive Director of the Center for Cultural Innovation shared with me the just completed report: Nurturing California’s Next Generation of Arts and Cultural Leaders – authored by Professor Ann Markusen – a continuation of the exploration into issues of generational aspirations and attitudes (and for the most part a confirmation of the findings) that began with the earlier study I did on Youth Involvement in the Arts for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (Though I am unsure, I assume the report will be available at the CCI website in the not too distant future).

• Of course, everywhere there was talk of budget cuts, cuts, cuts and downsizing. And my favorite observation from keynoter Bobby Shriver’s opening plenary remarks was to ask us “to get mad”. I have, for a long time, wondered why we aren’t angry enough to get more into the faces of those who would shortsightedly make ill-conceived decisions about us and our future. We ought to be angry, very angry and we ought to use that anger as a motivating tool to work harder to expand our tent to be ever bigger and to spur on action. 

•  As also as expected there was lots of talk about reaching out to the wider cultural sector and moving away from narrow definitions of the arts, as well as our now almost religious fervor in aligning the arts with "creativity" and "community" - conceptual discussions which are, I think, getting so bland and sacrosanct and above analysis as to result in diminishing returns.

• I was very pleased with the observations and suggestions in a terrific session jointly led by Bob Lynch and Jonathan Katz at which both pushed for greater direct political action and involvement by all of us. As Jonathan offered – the most important thing any of us who are arts supporters can say to any elected official is this: “I am your constituent and this is what I want. I am part of a larger group of your constituents, and we are organized and care about this specific issue. We can help you but we want you to help us.” As Bob noted, the most important thing we can do is to get politically involved – including Political Action Committees. He noted that in many, many races across the country, at all levels, the margins of victory are slim, and we can have an impact on the outcome, but we need to expand our numbers to become more directly involved. And one audience member, a former elected official himself, offered that the time has come for us to hold elected officials accountable - and that those who do not support us should understand we will support their opponents.  Of course, as any reader of this blog knows, I totally agree that the time for sitting on the sidelines has long passed.

Bob also noted a problem for us that has for far too long been an almost taboo subject – the territoriality and competition among ourselves that fosters suspicion and a lack of trust among us -- and results in a failure to achieve widespread buy-in and consensus on how to proceed with a united front. This is an unspoken issue that divides us and keeps us from nurturing a truly cooperative leveraging of the tremendous power that might be ours. 

Bob and Jonathan are together utterly charming, and their presentation is both humorous and powerful and bulwarked by their unprecedented experience and perspective.  I really encouage the two of them to take this show on the road.  Or at least film it and put it online.

• I ran into Jack Becker who publishes Public Art Review – an absolutely spectacular publication that you might want to check out.

Rumor Mill: The Shadow Knows. Lots of talk and speculation about who will be the successful candidate for the position I use to occupy – Director of the California Arts Council. Report is that they have narrowed their field to the finalists and that another round of interviews – this with the entire Council - will be forthcoming and they hope to name a new Director soon. This is good news for the right person in that post can use the bully pulpit to help the field develop a vision for the future of public support for the arts and help to position the sector in the hoped for situation in a year or two of a hugely reduced (if not entirely eliminated) state budget deficit – which if it comes to pass may allow Governor Brown and the legislature to finally refund the state agency at a meaningful level to again support arts and culture in its role of providing public good and benefit to all Californians.

The opportunity to attend these kinds of events to renew and regenerate is invaluable – if often exhausting. I'm always glad I went, and always glad to get home.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.