Sunday, January 8, 2012

Less is More

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

Meetings with Outcomes or "Let's Actually Do Something Already":
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that we really ought to convene several national summit meetings to address specific issues - from getting every state to launch a political action committee to establishment of a coherent national research agenda to cooperatively creating the framework for collaborative leveraging of our numbers to achieve the benefits of economy of scale.

I've been thinking about that and what we do (or don't do) when we gather.  A recent entry from Thomas Cott's blog -You've Cott Mail - on arts conferences echoed some of what I have been feeling for a long time.  (BTW - if you aren't familiar with his You've Cott Mail blog - he curates - on a DAILY basis - thematic entries on a given subject.  The amount of work it takes to do what he does is mind boggling.  Perhaps only Doug McLennan's Arts Journal is more ambitious.  I've been meaning to plug him for a long time.  You really should subscribe to Clott's blog.  I am a huge fan.  While every posting may not interest you, I guarantee you that you will find much to stimulate your thinking over the course of a month.  This is one of my favorite blogs.)

Anyway, the first entry in Cott's Friday, January 6th blog was a comment from Eleanor Turney in the UK Guardian:  She writes:
"A group of like-minded people gathered in one place could put serious weight behind something and make a practical difference. However, many of the recent [arts conferences] I've attended have not taken advantage of this fact. These events have, at best, been a showcase of great work without much other content and, at worst, been mutual commiserating or back-scratching. I know big conversations happen, around the country, daily. Arts organisations are innovating, taking risks, finding new methods and partners for collaboration. So why doesn't this creative, intelligent, forward-thinking attitude translate into organising good conferences?"
For the most part, I enjoy the national arts conferences.  I attend several each year, and have had the pleasure to blog on many of them.  For me, as for many of those who have been doing this as long, or longer than I have, the chief benefit of these gathering is to network; to connect with old colleagues I haven't seen for awhile, and to meet new people.  I think there is great value in this even though I lament that more people cannot attend, that the days are mercilessly crammed with way too many sessions and activities, and that most of the content of these gatherings is not very useful.  The exchange of ideas that goes on between sessions and at the social events is really the most valuable part.  That is where the real ideas are happening.

Virtually all our conferences follow that same tired agenda formula:  One or more "keynote" speakers with great resumes who often inspire us with their rhetoric, but more often than not don't offer anything of practical use or value.  (And increasingly - to me anyway - too many of these keynoters have little to no understanding of who we are, what we do, and the problems we face and so they try to simply model their "stump" speech to fit the arts).   Then there are countless sessions often organized around generic themes - from marketing to advocacy, from communications to the 'state' of things in a given area - philanthropy for example.  To be fair, every conference will have a few gems -- where the content is above the 'bar'.  The Holly Sidford presentation on cultural equity and the James Irvine presentation on 'engagement' - both  at GIA this year are examples of sessions that raised important questions and sparked true and meaningful dialogue after the event.  Factual presentations on data at other conferences are always helpful, but for the most part, our national gatherings are not designed nor geared to 'outcomes' that tackle specific issues.

That's what bothers me.  Even the national and regional policy convenings that take place from time to time do not center around a specific challenge wherein the entire purpose of the gathering is to come up with some sort of specific response to whatever the challenge might be.  We ought to convene a wide representative sample of who we are and sit down for a two or three days with the intent to arrive at a concrete plan to deal with a given issue.  Not a general discussion full of platitudes and lofty aspirations, but a gathering that is charged with coming up with a specific outcome to address the issue at hand.  If we need a national policy on what our research agenda ought to be, then why can't we have a national meeting to do just that?  No keynoters, no panel sessions, no trips to the local museum -- just hard work for days to come up with that agenda.  That would be a most valuable contribution.  Yes, it would take a lot of work to organize and structure, but the value would clearly justify the effort.

Our national conferences are principally about 'branding' for the organization that organizes each one. They are about positioning.   I have no quarrel with that.  For some, but probably not most, a secondary objective may actually be to make a small profit.  They are an enormous amount of work to pull off, and increasingly expensive to attend (and I think we would all be stunned to know the bottom line figure for the cost of the aggregate of our national conferences), and while I firmly believe, as previously stated, that there is great value to them - they do not ever really address issues in any but the most perfunctory way.  They are largely 'talking heads' preaching to the choir and churning information already widely available elsewhere.  For the neophyte and the newbies, they obviously have great value.  To the more senior and seasoned veterans who make appearances not much new is learned, and almost nothing accomplished.  

I have great faith in the thinking power of the arts sector leadership.  Unquestionably there is a vast reservoir of keen insight and creative problem solving capacity within our ranks.  Why are we not tapping into it to come up with real plans to deal with real problems - as a sector.  Why can't we get those people together and over several days come up with ways to address the more serious, pressing issues that we face - one at a time?  Easy - no.  Hard work - yes.  But I believe that the tens of thousands of arts managers around the country would applaud presentation of such specific plans to them for their discussion.  We need to develop a national response to some of these issues.  The challenges we face - together and as individual organizations - have national implications and can't really be meaningfully addressed except from a national perspective.  

Maybe a national council of all the heads of the national organizations (a temporary, if not permanent creation) ought to have a summit meeting to talk about how to work together to design, develop and deploy some national approach to at least three or four priority issues.   Rocco - maybe you could make this happen!  Surely we can meet together and at least create the framework for actually dealing with some of these national issues.

In too many ways it seems to me that we are stuck in doing things they way we have always done them.  In too many ways we are squandering our assets while we 'talk' to each other about the same old stuff we have talked to each other about for a long time now.  And most of that talk is talking 'around' the pressing issues.  We need to convene to address the issues head on.  

If nothing else, perhaps the national arts organizations might consider focusing on just one central issue at their next conference and center all the sessions around coming up with some concrete proposal (with specificity) to address that issue.  No?  Well about just being less ambitious in trying to touch on every single topic even remotely germane to what we do and simplifying things.  More free time would mean more networking at least.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit