Community, Meaning, and Drama in the Peer Panel

I am a fan of peer panels and have always enjoyed serving on them. Coming from a dance/theater background I view them as a performance event rich with actors and drama, text and subtext. I particularly appreciate the transformation of a group of individuals into a temporary community of purpose. Panelists are introduced, size each other up, conduct negotiations, build consensus, argue and disagree, acknowledge their differences, struggle to find a common language, reach certain compromises, and finally come to a set of conclusions.

The assumptions and understandings with which panels begin are not necessarily those with which they end, and for panelists and grantmaker alike, the dialogue can advance thinking on topics of importance to the arts. Over the years, having served on many different panels, I have often thought that a social scientist or psychologist might enjoy observing this dynamic process as it unfolds.

Recently, I reread "Notes on a Balinese Cockfight," an essay by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz contained in his book, The Interpretation of Cultures. In it he recounts his experience in 1958 with a cockfight in the small Balinese village in which he was just starting to do fieldwork. He interprets this event on three levels: what the idea of the cockfight means in its cultural context, in its metaphorical content, and as structured drama.

As a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, a cockfight is just a cockfight—an everyday occurrence within rural Balinese village life. In other ways, according to Geertz, it is “a world unto itself” with deep meaning and purpose that helps to define social relations, and individual and collective perceptions. The cockfight is one “text” among many that help to determine the culture of the village, and of the Balinese. It is “a story they tell themselves about themselves.”

I call the peer panel a community of purpose because it is brought together to do a job; to make decisions and recommendations for a grantmaker. But like Geertz's cockfight, each panel is replete with multiple meanings, purposes, and relationships at play that expand the “text” of the panel; how the participants perceive it, themselves, and each other. By extension, these perceptions can extend into and color the “culture” of art.

This tension of forces and purposes adds drama to a situation that is already structured for it. Although the eventual outcome of any panel is predetermined—decisions will be made within a certain amount of time—how resolution will be achieved, and for whom, is not. Transformations, some temporary, some of lasting duration, can occur: community emerges and personalities become distinct, applicants become grantees, problems are presented and resolved, alliances form among panel members, individual and collective thinking is advanced, hierarchical status (how panelists are identified and accorded prominence) may shift, and the relationship of staff to panelists, and therefore of grantmaker to field, will be defined for some, refined for others.

Through discussion of the issues at hand, and by their interaction within the panel's structure, panelists tell themselves, and each other, about themselves. However, unlike a Balinese village where there is shared communal cognition of socio-cultural structures and meanings, panelists don't necessarily share in the same world view. Indeed panels are structured specifically so that multiple perspectives might be brought to bear on the problems at hand. Much of the drama of the peer panel is in the negotiation of these differences.

Of singular importance to the peer panel as an instrument of decision-making is its ability to serve as an arena for the mediation, and at times reconciliation of professional, aesthetic, and cultural differences represented by panelists, as well as those expressed in applicant materials. In turn, the differences are a reflection, to greater or lesser extent, of forces and interests at play within the arts industry. At the same time that panelists are working on their collective decision-making for the grantmaker, they are also collectively working to communicate their value systems to each other.
The peer panel is a testing ground for ideas. In the crucible of analysis and argument, personal and professional assumptions are challenged, negotiated, refined, and even altered. For example, my own education in audience development was substantially enhanced over time through service on several panels that focussed on this topic. Each gave me an opportunity to refine my thinking as it was tested against and informed by the views of others. Subsequently, this experience proved to be of significant help when I was contracted to create a curriculum for an audience development course.

Like any industry, the arts often struggle with important professional questions without enough time or forums, and sometimes without the will, to discuss them. Through the discussion that is part of decision-making, the communal dialogue of panels influences the culture of art. Because participants are often in leadership positions within the industry and local communities, their panel experiences assume added reverberation over time.

Each panel is unique, and so is the experience of every participant. One gets out of it what one puts into it. Some may be frustrated by its limitations, others by lack of rapport with colleagues. Personalities define the process as much as anything else. In the panel process, where being smart can take participants a long way even if they are not familiar with the content under discussion, the ability to appreciate, respect, and consider the arguments of others is as important as having something significant to add to the dialogue.

In my experience, admittedly a limited one, differences in perspectives were not always so present in the panel system. As a choreographer and dance presenter, I started serving on panels concerned with these disciplines in the mid-1970s. Whether I participated on local, state, regional, or national levels, panel diversity (for both panelists and applicant pools) was often limited aesthetically and culturally.

Differences in opinion and outlook were present, of course, and at times dramatically so, but couched within a broad professional and cultural perspective in which the majority of panelists seemed to share understandings and presumptive language. These ways of looking were often confirmed by grantmaker guidelines, applications, and panel structures that reinforced a particular and systemic view of the culture of art.

Over time there has been a change, with an increasing diversity of personalities, ideas, and perspectives at the table. Inspired by new rhythms and practices in the field and by definitions that are more open, the panels on which I have served have become more inclusive than the ones I knew twenty years ago. In some cases, increased diversity is the result of pressures on grantmakers from changes within the industry. In others, grantmakers have taken a leadership role by making a conscious choice to facilitate the change. In either case, as the arts are being reshaped by political, social, and economic forces and by the shifting demography of our country, the peer panel's significance as an important meeting ground for diverse perspectives is enhanced.

In discussing the community of purpose that is the peer panel, I have focused almost exclusively on panelists, mentioning only briefly grantmakers, who have their own organizational and professional subtexts—their own “stories.” These are played out within the culture of the organization, its cycles of panels, and the larger grantmaking community. The need to reconcile the identity and purpose of the grantmaker with the complex values and purposes of a panel can make for interesting drama itself.

The powerful opinions and personalities of panelists can take conversation in untoward directions. A key for grantmaker staff is to provide the structure and guidance that allow voices to be heard and stories told, while at the same time focusing the discussion to achieve the desired ends. This needed balance requires sensitivity and nuanced response, as well as careful attention to selecting and charging the panel. As a panelist, I have always appreciated a clear and thorough presentation of goals, structure, and responsibilities. Clarity of purpose and design is the guide for the panel, to be referred to again and again as the process proceeds. Drama needs directors.

As an illustration, one panel comes to mind where the deadlock on the final cut was as complete as any I have experienced. No one would budge and there seemed no way out. The director of the program had graciously stayed out of the argument until it was clear that we needed help. She simply and directly asked us to read again, out loud if I remember, the criteria for awarding grants. It became obvious, almost immediately, what we needed to do. Aesthetic and professional differences had gotten us into this dilemma, an appeal to the goals of the program had reconciled them.

Ultimately, the importance of the peer panel is not just its efficacy as an instrument for deciding who gets what—its primary goal. Neither is its importance limited to its function as a locus for conditions and relationships in the art world, to its power as a forum for dialogue across cultural, aesthetic, and professional lines, nor to its role as a source of information for grantmakers. It does all these things, and I believe it does them very well. The importance of the peer panel is as a communal drama, where all these things together help to reveal who we in the arts are, what we value, how we see ourselves, each other, and our place in the world. In an industry whose bottom line is passion, creativity, and ideas, it is rare to have the opportunity to both write and read a “text” that is, to quote Geertz (quoting Aristotle), “saying something about something.”