Art in the Boardroom . . . and Other Unexpected Places

Claire Peeps

Cheese and crackers in the boardroom? Standard fare.

Puppetry and handwriting analysis? Not so much. Nonetheless, there was a line out the door of the boardroom at the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, where the Council on Foundations’ annual conference was taking place. Conferees awaited their personalized encounter with the LA-based arts group the Machine Project, which was also offering mind-reading workshops, cheese music, and concerts of Renaissance lute and vocal music.

The cheese music seemed to arouse special delight. Participants savored Cowgirl Creamery Cheese while listening to recordings of sounds heard on the Point Reyes, California, farm where the cheese was made. The experience was … markedly different from sitting in a panel discussion.

Downstairs, acclaimed theater artist Anna Deavere Smith was performing excerpts of Twilight: Los Angeles to a standing-room-only crowd. The piece, originally performed in 1992 after LA’s explosive civil unrest sparked by the acquittal of four LA police officers accused of the video recorded beating of African American motorist Rodney King, followed a morning panel titled “Reinvention in the Wake of Crisis.” Distinguished speakers addressed philanthropy’s role in the aftermath of crises in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit. The panel and the performance made excellent bookends to one another.

The arts offerings at the Council on Foundations’ conference represented a concerted effort by planners to integrate the arts in all aspects of the conference. Host committee members were eager to showcase LA as a creative capital. All the planners wanted to shake things up a bit, with new and more interactive formats. The arts were a useful part of the strategy.

From the opening performance by Grammy-winning LA band Ozomatli (during which literally hundreds of buttoned-down colleagues loosened ties or discarded heels to cut loose on the dance floor) to the hands-on games track to the closing “Ignite” panel, art was in many unexpected places, and energy was high.

All this activity amounted to only a small percentage of overall conference offerings, which included the usual mainstays of excellent plenaries and breakout sessions that focused on current issues in philanthropy — globalization, urban revitalization, the vanishing middle class. The small, creative interludes were meant to enhance the impact of those mainstays, by keeping audiences sharp, attentive, engaged. The intention was for this energy to be keenly channeled back into professional peer-to-peer exchange.

Generating energy, as we know, is what art does best. It makes us feel fully alive. It relaxes us, sharpens our perception, and often puts us in a good mood — the very state most conducive to creativity, according to recent research. And creativity in problem solving is certainly what we need in the social sector.

New theories on creativity have caused a stir because they run counter to a lot of management practice. The last thing we should do when faced with an organizational puzzle, it’s been suggested, is to call a strategic planning meeting. Instead, send your employees out for a walk. A breakthrough is most likely to come from out of the blue.

Inspired by these theories of creativity, the art portions of the conference agenda provided a bit of blue sky. Since the brain is bound to go on overload at some point during a long meeting, it’s helpful to have on hand some space for refreshing mental walkabouts.

The opportunities abounded.Artists Silvia Kuhle and Jeff Allsbrook installed their Local Park in the lobby, complete with sand and beach chairs. Throughout the conference, the chairs were occupied by (often barefooted) people reading, checking email, conversing.

Elsewhere in the hotel, small groups of conference participants opted out of the panel track for ninety minutes to sing, take pictures with their smartphones, make books, try their hand at calligraphy, or improve their listening skills through music.

Off-site, the arts were also present. Attendees at a session on Skid Row took in excerpts of a work in progress by Los Angeles Poverty Department, a theater ensemble composed of homeless and formerly homeless men and women. Audience members observed that the performance gave context to the rest of the presentation, and offered them a compassionate, human entry point to a complex issue.

Back at the hotel, in plenary, solo violinist Robert Vijay Gupta arrested conferees with a rapturous surprise performance, and then eloquently articulated a bridge between music and mental health. As the founder of Street Symphony, Gupta performs classical music for the homeless, and describes music’s capacity to “bring people back from the brink.”

I was curious to learn how some of these art interludes had gone over with conference participants, particularly those outside the arts funding realm — those in community development, environmental justice, health, education. After the conference, I tracked down a few of them and asked why they had chosen to opt for a hands-on arts workshop, what they made of it, and whether they’d do it again.“I subscribe to the theory that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector need to focus more on ‘change from within,’ ” said Tom Pollak of the Urban Institute; “that we need to better understand ourselves as individuals and as social actors. The arts seminar was an innovative and fascinating experiment in doing just that. Yes, I definitely would engage in another session, both for its content and for the value that format has in getting to know fellow conference attendees. The overall effect was positive and memorable, and gave me the opportunity to interact with an interesting mix of participants.”

Walker Sanders, of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, North Carolina, said, “I don’t go to large conferences like COF often. We’re starting a workforce development initiative this year, so it seemed like an opportune time to do so. I wanted to try to get outside my comfort zone. The arts session was extremely refreshing. I was using different parts of my mind, doing something outside my norm. I would hope to go to more conferences with similar art content.”

I asked Walker if he felt that refreshment helped him reengage in other conference sessions with more acute focus, and he confirmed that it did. Participants coming out of the arts workshops appeared to have more spring in their step, we agreed, and greater zest for engagement.

“Effective listening is one of the necessary skills to do leadership work,” said Barbara Squires of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who attended the session on improving listening skills through music. “Paying attention has some bearing on how we think about talking to leaders.” She was enlivened by the session and emailed ideas directly back to her leadership team.

Squires pointed out that the description of the session was important in drawing her to it. The program notes made explicit the connections between the workshop and its professional application for grantmakers. Squires was not alone in her need to feel justified in opting for the arts session.

Indeed, as I moved from one workshop to another, I noted at least a few anxious participants, guilty eyes darting to the doorway, in fear of being spotted by more-dutiful colleagues. But it was a delighted look of anxiety, the kind you might see on the faces of students playing hooky to do something they really enjoy.

From room to room, I was also struck by what a great icebreaker artmaking is, and what a quick community builder. The conversations that occur while your hands are busy making books are so much more fluid than the “where are you from?” chitchat around the coffee urn. “What kind of music do you listen to?” turns out to be a more stimulating starter than “what do you fund?” You still get to the funding discussion, but you learn more about one another along the way.

One of the amazing things I learned is that — listen up here, arts funders — it turns out we grantmakers may be among the very at-risk communities we aspire to support. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but the truth is, many of us don’t ordinarily engage in the arts. We may talk about art, even appreciate it as audience members, but not that many of us actually do it. And so it has become remote, dormant, something from our youthful past.

The good news is, it comes right back. Oh, what a pleasure to awaken that muscle memory!

And here’s some more good news. It’s not that hard and it‘s not that expensive to build art into non-arts gatherings. The volume of arts offerings at COF was assembled for a relative song, thanks to the generosity of a small group of funders. Their investment yielded dividends.

So let’s have more art — at conferences, board meetings, staff retreats, and other unexpected places. Great new ideas may just start popping!