Four Days in Charm City

Whew! I am not sure why seemingly every single arts service organization feels compelled to schedule their annual conferences in June, but it sure makes for a lively travel schedule for schlubs like me. This time around, I was in Baltimore for the Americans for the Arts Half-Century Summit, a much-hyped event indeed. I had an additional role this year as a member of the AFTA Emerging Leader Council, which meant that I had about a day’s worth of meetings and responsibilities interspersed throughout the proceedings.

Day 1

My odyssey began on Thursday with a morning meeting of the Council and the Goucher College Arts Leadership Symposium in the afternoon. Goucher has an intriguing non-resident arts administration degree program that employs distance learning for most of the (typically) three years a student spends in the program, buttressed by a two-week intensive in-person retreat every August. I was surprised to learn that the age of students in the program ranges from 29 to 59 - quite a bit older than your typical arts admin graduate degree crowd. Though the Symposium at times felt like a six-hour commercial - all presentations and keynotes were given by Goucher faculty, and a roundtable that was billed as a discussion of arts administration graduate degrees in general somehow ended up being an information session about Goucher specifically - I did particularly enjoy Robert Bush’s presentation on “Future Trends in the Arts.” Actually, what I really enjoyed most about it was the active and enthusiastic engagement on the part of attendees - so much so that Bush barely had time to get through his slides. It was one of the best discussions that took place all weekend. Bush summed up many of the changes rattling the arts world with a pithy diagnosis: “we all want to be the artist!” He checked off a number of issues that will be familiar to readers of this blog: demand lagging capacity/supply, the nonprofit model’s bias toward perpetuity, lack of risk-taking on the part of funders, websites that help artists raise money through microdonations, and so forth. The session ended with a hypothetical: given a quarter of a million dollars to spend on the arts however you wanted, what would you spend it on? The audience put forth several intriguing ideas, but one of my favorites came from fellow Council member David Seals: award the grants not on the basis of written proposals, but instead on site visits (and use some of the extra money to help pay for the overhead of getting out of the office).

Day 2

On Friday, the fun continued with more meetings and the opening session of the conference proper. I didn’t find Arianna Huffington’s keynote particularly compelling, but not everyone agreed with me on that - fortunately, you can judge for yourself thanks to Americans for the Arts uploading the video to its blog. It was pretty cool to be in the same room as Robert Redford though (albeit all the way at the back). Along with AFTA’s 50th anniversary (well, technically, the 50th anniversary of the oldest of the organizations that eventually merged to form the conglomerate that is now AFTA), it is also Robert Lynch’s 25th year at the helm of the organization. I am told that he recently recovered from sextuple(!) bypass surgery -  I didn’t even know such a thing existed -  so congratulations to him on his return to health.

The afternoon brought us a couple of Visionary Panels, both of which had their moments. The Future of Technology featured a great lineup of Elena Park from the Metropolitan Opera, Tim Svenonius from SF MOMA, and somebody from ReverbNation (didn’t catch the name, but he didn’t look at all like this guy) - all moderated by Blue State Digital’s Rich Mintz (aka the guys behind my.barackobama.com). I particularly enjoyed the contributions from the ReverbNation representative, showing how valuable it is to bring in perspectives from the private sector. Interestingly, some of these captains of new technology struck a conservative note when it came to wholesale change, indicating that diving in to social media is not always a good investment for an organization if the organization’s audience doesn’t really use it. It was a bit of a mind-boggler to hear two panelists extolling the virtues of email (you know, that technology that everybody’s telling us is on its way out) as a communications medium - but after all, as Mintz pointed out, it’s “free, asynchronous, instantaneous, and there are no size limits.”

The next panel, “New and Emerging Business Models,” featured Adrian Ellis of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Terence McFarland of LA Stage Alliance, Clara Miller of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and our fearless leader, Adam Huttler. I wrote it up for the Americans for the Arts blog, so I won’t go into tremendous detail about it here. Suffice to say that the session brought into question some pretty core assumptions about who we are and what we do - particularly the notion that what we do in the arts is “special” compared to what people do in other walks of life (or at least special enough to deserve tax-advantaged status). This is a line of thinking I’ve been pursuing idly in the back of my head for a couple of years now, and while I do think that we are special in many ways, I’m not sure we are as exceptional as we sometimes like to believe. About a year ago I read and commented upon the well-known RAND Corporation study Gifts of the Muse, which attempts to lay out the case for the intrinsic benefits of the arts (pleasure, building social bonds, cognitive stimulation, etc.). After digging into the text, I came to the conclusion that in fact none of these so-called “intrinsic benefits” are (a) unique to the arts or (b) really all that different from “instrumental” benefits that frame the arts as a means to an end. In fact, most of what we champion about the arts can be said about any creative activity in any field, whether it’s painting, nuclear physics, or even, yes, plumbing. The main value that the arts add, as I see it, is that they create a space in society in which creativity can be exercised for its own sake. They are really R&D for the rest of us in that way. But the implications of that role are that the (subsidized) arts, to be valued for themselves alone, must always have an experimental element, must always be taking risks. Otherwise we’re just taking up space.

I had to skip the reception at the American Visionary Art Museum to have dinner with a friend in the area, but I heard it was amazing, and you can see pictures here. In general, the time and space devoted to networking at this conference was impressive.

Day 3

Saturday morning brought a stimulating (thankfully, since it occurred at 8:30am) discussion of the Leadership Green Paper at the Emerging Leaders Peer Networking session. (I never thought that just taking turns reading the damn thing out loud off of a projection screen could be so effective in getting people involved. It was like 9th grade drama class all over again!)

The Saturday morning keynote featured NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, who used the opportunity to announce a majoraccomplishment. More about this anon, but he has been meeting with the Secretaries of several other federal agencies to explore how the NEA can collaborate with them to help the arts. These discussions have yielded a significant commitment of resources from agencies such as the Department of Agriculture (which has a community facilities fund), Housing and Urban Development (which just announced a $100 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant program, placing “a priority on…nontraditional partnerships including arts and culture, philanthropy, and bringing new voices to the regional planning process”), and the Department of Education (which explicitly wrote arts and humanities in to the language for its Promise Neighborhoods). Exciting stuff, this. Landesman also unapologetically cast the NEA as an advocacy organization within the federal government, pointing out that it is not a regulatory agency like other government arms - its mission is to support artists.

Following a panel moderated by former NEA Chair Bill Ivey that unfortunately ran well past the scheduled endpoint, I succumbed to my tendency to session-hop for the rest of the afternoon. I caught some of “Around the Civic Block: Amplifying and Assessing the Civic Impact of the Arts” while sitting in a bit of “The Future of Leadership,” but felt like I missed the best parts of both (a common danger with session-hopping). In the next time slot I witnessed Marc Vogl’s forceful broadside for getting funders more involved in emerging leader issues and Charlie Jensen’s hilarious personal narrative of learning to lead in the “Leadership and Influence” workshop before joining in the discussion with “Arts Bloggers” Graham DunstonBarry HesseniusChad Bauman (who wants you to know he’s single) and Gary Steuer across the hall. This session was evidently the most blogged-about of the conference, as attendeesRich MintzHoong Yee Lee Krakauer, and Devon Smith all wrote about it, as did Gary.

Day 4

After another night of networking and drinking, Day 4 was all about Devon and me giving advice to people seeking insight on “Branding Yourself through Technology and Social Media.” It turned out that people defined “Yourself” rather liberally - we got at least as many questions about organization branding as personal branding. I found myself continually coming back to a particular theme: social media is a tool, not a strategy. (I don’t know who coined that phrase, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.) Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first, and then think about how social media can help. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and more specialized applications like UStream or Foursquare all have very different advantages and disadvantages, and not all are appropriate in all contexts. Another theme that came up several times is the long, frustrating period between the time one begins building a brand online and the time one “breaks through” and achieves a critical mass of notoriety. One must consider the cost-benefit of how important a social media presence is to one’s goals and how much effort and time one is willing to put in to get to that tipping point. It was fun if somewhat exhausting to be giving advice to so many people. At one point, someone whose Career360 roundtable I attended last year came and joined us, which pretty much epitomized the novelty of the experience for me.

And with a final, effervescent performance by the New York Neo-Futurists and a rambling artist panel to cap things off, that was it! Check ArtsBlog for more conference session recaps, and look out for info about the next Americans for the Arts Convention in San Diego June 16-18, 2011.


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One Response to “Four Days in Charm City”

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