Sunday, March 24, 2013

Guest Blogger Steven Tepper on the 3 Million Stories Conference

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

Note:  Steven Tepper invited me to blog on the 3 Million Stories Conference - (click here for a short video of the conference)  I love to blog from arts conferences and would have eagerly accepted his invitation.  Alas I was traveling in Asia at the time.  I invited Steven to share the outcomes of the conference as a guest blogger and here is his report:

On March 7th to 9th, Vanderbilt’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy in cooperation with SNAAP (the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project) at Indiana University hosted a national conference on the training and careers of America’s arts graduates.   The conference – 3 Million Stories -- was the first of its kind to bring together arts school presidents, deans, faculty and administrators with working artists, academic scholars, and arts leaders from across the disciplines to discuss how we prepare and support artists in a rapidly changing economy.   Details about the conference, including conference presentations and background reports, can be found under the resources tab at:

Perhaps what was most thrilling and unexpected about the meeting of 250 arts leaders was the emergence of a sense of urgency and excitement about the need to think seriously about how arts schools and training institutions (especially at the collegiate level) need to reimagine themselves and respond to changes in how creative work is done and the nature of creative careers.   In short, who will invent the 21st century arts school? What will it look like?   How will it be different?  Answers to these questions depend on solid information and data about how arts school graduates build careers and the role and relevance of their education and training. Fortunately, SNAAP( has collected detailed information from more than 70,000 arts graduates across more than 200 institutions.  We will continue to work with schools to survey alumni and compile information that will inform discussions and decisions about education reform and the future of arts training.

Here are a few key themes and quotes that emerged from the conference.

First, as schools consider their future, they must keep in mind that a critical part of an arts education is providing students with the space for them to develop a strong, “thick,” and confident artistic identity.   This requires schools to provide the space, encouragement, trust, openness and critical feedback to help students forge a strong sense of who they are as a creative individual and citizen. Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts remarked, “Arts schools must give students the opportunity to have an unmediated relationship with their work –unfettered by the commercial landscape, allowing a connection with their work and their deepest individual self.”

Second, we must recognize the “social life” of the artist. Artists must generate social capital and strong networks.  They must be “in the scene” to facilitate serendipitous encounters that can lead to collaboration, work and project-based employment.   And artists need to be part of supportive communities to flourish.

Third, arts graduates are increasingly facing a contingent, project-based economy.  Many are self-employed and/or start businesses.    Most arts graduates will work in areas – both within the arts and outside of the arts – that are either somewhat or fully unrelated to their specific training.   The top 6 jobs today didn’t exist 10 years ago.  How can we train students for jobs that don’t yet exist?   One speaker noted that we have moved from an “Elf” to a “Fairy” economy – from predictable, organizationally-based, well-defined division of labor to an economy where people are highly mobile, working for whomever needs them, doing whatever job is necessary, and bringing to the table broad and diverse skills.  In such an economy, one speaker noted, “We need to help students cultivate creative resilience and an appetite for ‘delicious ambiguity’.”

A fourth theme has to do with the tensions facing arts schools as they balance  broadening the skill set that graduates need as they enter the workforce while still giving them important structured, disciplinary training.   One speaker noted, “We must solve the ‘teaching paradox’ by creating a structured environment that still leaves room for creativity.”

A fifth theme of the conference explored the critical tools in an artist’s tool kit as he or she works across disciplines, sectors, in communities and outside of the arts.   Some of these skills include:  improvisation, risk taking, play, negotiating collective creativity, hustle, the ability to interrogate assumptions and “inhabit difference,” empathetic listening, expressive agility and story telling, pattern recognition, tolerance for ambiguity, and persistence.  One speaker noted, “If we can be more explicit about the tools artists use, we can more purposefully translate our (artists’) value to others.

Finally, another big theme that emerged is the persistent inequalities that exist in the art world and within arts training institutions for women, students of color, and others from less privileged backgrounds.  Participants discussed the moral imperative of addressing the many significant barriers (financial, cultural, social) facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They also spoke of the practical necessity of dealing with inequality as demographic changes in this country will produce a majority non-white population in three decades. One participant remarked, “High schools need to reach down and address issues of readiness. Colleges need to think beyond recruitment. Admission is not the end of the race.”

One big question facing schools is: Are we ready for the barbarians at the gate who will demand that we prove our value?”  In an era of high stakes, increasing pressure for accountability, and escalating costs, how will schools of art communicate their value?

Optimistically, one of the last speakers remarked, “We are in the middle of a Renaissance. Arts programs that jump on the bandwagon today and help shape this new Renaissance will be the ones that thrive….”

Summing up the challenges facing arts schools, one participant remarked, “We will perish if we don’t embrace change.   Our choice is evolution or we will face revolution.”

We have only begun to explore the 3 million stories of arts graduates and how they build lives, enrich our culture, and contribute to our communities. SNAAP will continue to collect and synthesize data and bring people together to discuss big ideas.

Thank you Steven.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit