Sunday, September 2, 2012

Interview with Shannon Daut

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

Shannon Daut is the former Deputy Director of WESTAF and the current Executive Director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts

Here is the interview:
BARRY:  What is your vision for the agency? What are the three things you would like to accomplish in your new post in the next 12 months, and how are you planning to go about realizing those objectives?  Why did you pick the three goals you did?

SHANNON:  Alaska is a unique state, with an incredibly rich cultural history. I am continually amazed by the breadth and sophistication of artistic projects that are happening here. Alaska is also a young state, with an arts infrastructure that is still developing, which I see as a great opportunity for smart, contemporary growth. My vision for the Alaska State Council on the Arts is to be an agent for innovation and effective growth of the sector. I want to stretch our agency beyond just the traditional role of grantmaking (which is important, don’t get me wrong!) and serve as a connector for artists and arts organizations throughout the state so that they can be even more effective in serving their communities and the citizens of Alaska. I also see our agency as having a vital role in helping to grow the state economically, while helping to address and ameliorate some of the social issues we face.

In my first twelve months, I am working to 1) strengthen the arts and community networks across the state; 2) lay the groundwork for an Alaska Cultural Trust; and 3) streamline our grants processes.

Strengthening Networks
In many ways, I see Alaska as analogous to the WESTAF-region in which I worked for over 12 years. Both have tremendously vast and diverse geographic areas to cover--including large swaths of rural areas; also, both have limited resources that must be maximized. Because we can’t be on the ground throughout the state, we rely on strong networks to be able to effectively serve Alaska citizens. I quickly learned that, while the state is geographically enormous, the population base is small and everyone seems to know everyone--especially in the arts. The degrees of separation are tiny. However, during our statewide arts conference in January I learned that a group of filmmakers who were on a panel together had never before met, either “virtually” or in person. This surprised me and made me realize the importance of bringing various groups of artists and arts organizations together to share their work, projects and ideas. ASCA can play a vital role in developing these networks so that our arts community is better connected.

Alaska Cultural Trust
For the past few years, ASCA has engaged with a group of leaders throughout the state to work on developing a cultural trust in Alaska. During this past legislative session, we were able to secure funds to research the feasibility and potential approaches for establishing a Cultural Trust for the state. We envision that the Alaska Cultural Trust can be used to spark a new citizen-wide movement around the arts and culture. One of the primary approaches we are considering is developing a broad coalition of arts and non-arts entities in partnership to address social needs and issues in the state. For example, Alaska has a suicide rate of twice the national average, and the epidemic tends to hit rural villages the hardest. The arts can be a powerful tool to help communities heal from these tragedies, as well as assist in suicide prevention efforts.

Streamlining Grants
At ASCA we have a small staff of six, and we manage 12 grant programs. Our staff time is so precious that we will be re-envisioning our grant programs and streamlining the processes involved in administering the grants.  Giving grants is an important part of our work; however, the administration of grants does not need to absorb the lion’s share of staff time. My goal is to minimize the amount of time it takes to administer our funding programs in order to free up staff to focus their energy more on developing the infrastructure of the arts sector in Alaska, by providing technical assistance, professional development opportunities and non-grant programs that can have a high impact for our constituencies.

BARRY;  As the Deputy Director of WESTAF you've been intimately involved in providing services and counsel to the Executive Directors of the state arts agencies in the west.  Knowing the issues as you do, what do you think will be your biggest challenge in leading an SAA?

SHANNON:  Having worked so closely with SAAs during my time at WESTAF, I had a very good sense of what I was getting into! Yet still, the sheer level and scope of bureaucracy is daunting. I could easily get sucked into the “weeds” and never get around to enacting my strategic vision for the arts in Alaska. So, that is a constant challenge--to keep focused on the vision while learning to navigate the red tape (and then to master it).

The other challenge, always, is that we don’t have the funds to match our big ideas. One of the surprises I encountered was that in state government the budget is capped in terms of what you can bring in--apart from the state appropriation. Coming from WESTAF, where I helped develop a variety of earned income streams, this is a bit stifling. However, we are working to increase the cap so that we can utilize earned income to expand our programs and strengthen the arts infrastructure throughout the state.

BARRY:  Alaska is unique because of its low population base and vast geographic expanses. What challenges and opportunities do you see for unifying a statewide force to bring the entire nonprofit arts sector together and develop a greater “sense of community”.  How might you address that situation?

SHANNON:  Alaska is a really really big small town. And, as I mentioned earlier, everyone seems to know each other--yet I have heard time and time again from arts leaders that they yearn to learn more about what their peers in other Alaskan communities are doing, their successes, their challenges. So we will be enacting a network approach to help connect these communities of artists and arts administrators together. We launched our Facebook page about a month ago (like us at:!) and are trying out some Facebook groups to give different cohorts the opportunity to dialogue with each other. We’ll also be implementing things like webinars, teleconferences, video meetings and the like. I’m a big proponent of technology, but it can never replace the value of in-person convenings. ASCA has hosted an arts conference every three years, and we’re moving that to every two years and will hopefully be supplementing that convening with annual opportunities for people to come together and connect with each other. And lastly, ASCA can expand its role as a connector of people and projects that are happening across the state--by helping people connect with others who are working on complementary projects or goals, we can help strengthen the arts across the state.

BARRY:  You mentioned the Alaska Cultural Trust. How do you plan to advance that effort, and what is your vision for an Alaska Cultural Trust?

SHANNON:  As I mentioned, we have received funds that will help propel this project forward. I envision the Alaska Cultural Trust as a mechanism to expand the constituency of arts supporters. We are lucky in Alaska that so many citizens and elected officials understand the value of the arts--but I want to develop the Cultural Trust in such a way that it engages people outside of our “camp” to recognize the value that the arts brings to their lives. Recently I struck up a conversation at the Anchorage airport with a gentleman who asked what brought me to Alaska; upon my response that it was to lead the Alaska State Council on the Arts, his immediate--and emphatic--reaction was “the arts are for sissies!” I love these random conversations, because it gives a glimpse into what the average citizen thinks about the arts. So, I asked some follow up questions and, came to find out he had played in the band at his high school and he thought it was important for his children to also learn to play musical instruments. This exchange reinforced for me that the arts are important in people’s lives, but we need to adapt our messaging.

My vision for the Alaska Cultural Trust is to utilize the arts to advance and strengthen Alaska’s communities--be it through suicide prevention, economic development, workforce development, STEAM education, foodways and agriculture, “buy local” initiatives, circumpolar issues, Alaska Native language preservation or any other of the myriad of ways that the arts can help solve our most pressing problems.

BARRY:  There have been considerable resources, time, energy and commitment in the field to the emerging leaders movement in the arts--something I know you have been very involved with.  How specifically will you as the new ASCA Director support and expand those efforts? What do you see as the pressing needs for leadership development in the state?

SHANNON:  We have a unique situation in Alaska, as paid jobs in the arts are not proliferate and there are some real challenges for emerging leaders to have the opportunity to develop an arts career while staying within their community--most importantly if they are outside of an urban area. A lot of our arts organizations are volunteer- and board-run, which presents a challenge for younger people who are looking for paid employment in the arts--at a livable wage, no less. So, one factor in any leadership development program that we enact will be helping arts organizations establish business plans so that they can work towards having paid employees. At the same time, Alaska--like much of the country--has benefited from community leaders who have worked much of their lives to establish and build arts organizations in their communities. Many of these leaders are now considering retirement, so we need to ensure that there is a pipeline of arts professionals who are ready and equipped to take on the proverbial mantle and continue the work.

This issue is not specific to Alaska, nor is it specific to the arts. But there are a number of efforts underway here to provide leadership development opportunities for emerging leaders. ASCA is partnering with the Institute of the North, which has an existing leadership program, to host an arts leaders conversation later this fall. This will be the first of our efforts to establish a leadership development program at ASCA.

BARRY:  If I had asked you six months ago what you thought were the three major issues (other than funding) facing state arts agencies across the country, and asked you the same question now - would there be any differences in your response?  What makes you optimistic about the future of state arts agencies, and what concerns you the most?

SHANNON:  My thoughts on the major issues that SAAs face is not very different from what it was six months ago. To me, the biggest factor is relevance. How are SAAs relevant to the citizens of their state? Also, how are SAAs relevant to the artists and arts organizations they serve and fund? These are two very different questions, both of which I think are crucially important to the future of SAAs.

In terms of relevance to citizens, I believe we need to do a better job of highlighting the ways in which we serve communities--requiring our logos on program brochures doesn’t seem to be doing it. I don’t know the silver-bullet answer, but I believe it requires more than a marketing push. I think a lot of citizens, of all political persuasions, feel that the “Arts” are elitist and that public investments in the arts are not worthwhile--and this, to me, says that we are not doing enough to illustrate the value of those public investments. We’ve made some big strides in recent years on this front, but I think there is more to be done to broaden our coalitions.

In terms of relevance to artists and arts organizations, I think we are relevant but not to the scale that we were during the “boom” years for arts funding. At a recent ASCA council meeting we talked about re-envisioning the way in which we give out grants. A council member mentioned that, in the 80s (which was a HUGE boom in funding for the arts in Alaska, due to the Pipeline) the council was having discussions about whether or not it was responsible for ASCA to be providing over 50% of the organization’s operating budget in operating support grants to organizations. Today, we are in a very different world; our average percentage (to grantee’s operating budget) of operating support funding is around 1-2%. With diminished grant dollars, how are we remaining relevant to the arts organizations that we serve?

I am optimistic about ASCA’s future. In Alaska we have an innovative spirit, coupled with an incredibly strong “can do” attitude. Our arts organizations are not entrenched and ossified, so we are nimble and open to new ways of doing business. ASCA will provide the tools to organizations as they navigate these waters of change and innovation.

BARRY:  In your new position as the head of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, what specific services would you like to see provided by WESTAF, the NEA and NASAA?  Do you perceive any needs that are currently unmet by the services provided by those organizations?

SHANNON:  Understandably I’m a bit biased, but I think WESTAF does a singular job providing extremely valuable services to its SAAs, and public arts agencies across the country. WESTAF has a high bar of expectations and consistently looks toward advancement, not the status quo. NASAA has done tremendous work, most recently on the advocacy/policy front of the 40% of NEA funds that go to states, which I think is a crucial element for showing that public dollars are going into all the nooks and crannies of our country. When people think NEA arts funding, they often talk about “high art” and why can’t high art sustain itself? The appropriation to the states ensures that these public dollars are hitting the ground where the impact of arts programming has significant effects in communities. The NEA funds we receive are crucial to the state allocation that we receive, and I admire their efforts to broaden the coalition of agencies that they work with (USDA, HUD, etc.), as well as their work to advance the conversation around creative placemaking and its importance to communities.

However, as a young-ish person now leading an SAA, I think that the NEA and NASAA could be doing more in the area of leadership development. I worry about the future of the public-sector arts in this country and strongly believe that we need to be cultivating the new leaders to take the helm when so many terrific stalwarts of the sector retire. I also think that the NEA and NASAA need to be focusing on the ways in which SAAs--and arts organizations in general--can adapt to radically changing governmental structures and audience participation patterns. How can we as a field be more proactive in our environments? We are the creative sector, after all, so how can we encourage more creative problem-solving around the issues that our field faces?

BARRY:  Historically the relationship between the state arts agency and the state advocacy group, and to some extent the relationship between the state arts agency and the state arts educational coalition, have been (at best) arms-length, and (at worst) strained and dysfunctional.  What do you think are the keys to making those relationships more harmonious and collaborative?

SHANNON:  Alaska does not yet have a state arts advocacy group, though we do encourage our grantees to educate their elected officials about the value of the arts to their constituencies. We enjoy a terrific working relationship with our Alaska Arts Education Consortium--and partner with them on a variety of activities to strengthen arts education across the state. I think the key to making those relationships work effectively is to coalesce around a shared vision that is strategic and compelling. To ensure that both entities are in alignment with the big “WHY” of what they are doing. So often, advocacy revolves around the dollars--we advocate for SAAs because we receive grant dollars from them, and we want to receive more! Yet this can restrict SAAs from trying out new ways of serving artists, arts organizations, communities or citizens--ways that might help their constituencies create new revenue streams or develop new approaches that would lead to greater success. A shared vision around something larger than grant appropriations--a bigger, bolder vision--is critical to establishing a successful SAA/advocacy relationship.

BARRY:  With Alaska's vast geography and rural nature, what challenges do you foresee in the audience development area?  Do you subscribe to the current "engagement" thinking and how might that theory be applied in Alaska?

SHANNON:  I follow the new trends in community engagement closely. In fact, I teach an online graduate-level course in new models of arts programming and participation. Alaska has some unique challenges with regard to audience development--first and foremost that there is a very limited population to serve. Perseverance Theatre, based in Juneau, did some great work to mitigate this issue. They saw that the bulk of their costs went toward developing and producing the work, so they looked for ways to maximize their investment, which resulted in them bringing part of their season to Anchorage, in partnership with the Performing Arts Center and Anchorage Concert Association. This allowed them to reach new audiences while extending the investment they made in the production of the performances that had previously only shown in Juneau. This creative approach has proven wildly successful, and they have also held community conversations around the state to see how they might broaden their service statewide. So, there are a lot of possibilities for how to use the geographic challenges to our advantage!

In terms of how engagement theories might be applied to Alaska, we have a plethora of professional and amateur artists. I was just in Homer, and the Mayor brought up a community-wide ukulele concert that they started--a perfect example of how new models of engagement are activating communities and encouraging citizens to lead expressive lives. Because communities are so close-knit here, we have a lot of potential to develop new ways of engaging citizens in the arts.


Have a good week.

Don't Quit.