A Community of Practice: Why We Convene

From "Better Together," a blog by Janet Brown

As we prepare the final details for Grantmakers in the Arts’ 2012 national conference in Miami, October 14-17, “communities of practice” have been at the top of my mind.  Associations like Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) serve the valuable purpose of convening members to discuss important topics, trends, challenges and solutions.

Sometimes we get cynical about conventions, conferences and meetings. In reality, I have always believed that all one needs to do is invite people who are passionate and knowledgeable, put them in a room and let them talk.  It gets more complicated when you’ve got hundreds or thousands of people to schedule but as a convener, if you stray too far from that basic concept, you’re in danger of becoming irrelevant.

I have been convening arts people for over 30 years.  Whether it was statewide meetings of rural staff, volunteers and artists, the multi-state events that I managed for nearly twenty years or the national conferences of GIA, bringing people together has always been important and gratifying. In this business, we often work in isolation.  Our unique situation whether in small communities or major cities, is determined by our organization’s mission, regional economic drivers, board of trustees, political policies and public perception. Every organization has its own challenges and opportunities.  Left without contact with one another, we focus intently on our own practices without the revelations that can come from colleagues who have creatively met challenges or are actively seeking to improve their practices.

A couple conversations throughout my career vividly remain in my consciousness.  One was with the director of a state operated museum located on a state university campus who said to me, “We don’t get involved in public policy” despite the fact he was totally reliant on public policy for funding and a paycheck. Another was a conversation I had with a major arts funder who provides significant dollars to a region who said, “We’ve always given our money this way, we won’t change that so there is no real value for us in participating in a national association of grantmakers.”  You could have knocked me over with a feather.

The idea that we can operate in the most effective, innovative and productive manner without seeking the views of colleagues feels counter intuitive to how we solve problems.  Grantmaking is about solving problems and fulfilling needs.  If we don’t have a larger picture of what is possible and how success can be defined differently or an understanding that general practices can and do change over time, then we are doing a disservice to artists and arts groups.  Hopefully, by coming together in our communities, our states and nationally, this is the insight that we gain.

My goal is to make sure all who come to Miami feel welcome and that their work is honored, explored and shared with others.  We are a diverse field with members from corporations, private and community foundations, state and local arts agencies and individual donor designated funds. Groups have different missions and a variety of funding levels and programs.  But what we all have a common mission to support artists and the work that artists do collectively in the community through nonprofit organizations

In Miami, GIA will address the major issues facing the nonprofit arts field and philanthropy today.  We will discuss issues of equity, leadership, racial discrimination, arts education, financial management and the funder’s role in organizational capitalization. We will also look at solutions through funder collaborations, data-driven research, improved assessments and moving theory to practice by highlighting actual programs. Most importantly, we will provide a room for smart people to talk to one another with as much candor as possible and ultimately, everyone will leave knowing they are part of a greater movement, a community of practice.  That’s why we convene.