Forging Connections: A Blog on the GIA 2012 Conference

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) met in Miami October 14-17 to share knowledge, debate issues and discover new pathways to supporting artists and arts organizations. As with all convenings, I wanted to be everywhere and hear everything. That’s the frustration of having diverse programming that speaks to a diverse audience. And we are a very diverse group. I wasn’t able to be in every room but here are some personal highlights.

The Opening We opened the conference with a short play on equity written by K.J. Sanchez and Tommer Peterson of American Records, a theatre company. K.J. and Tommer put together a similar presentation at last year’s conference for a session on elitism and the arts. It was so well received as a platform for discussion that we decided to commission the new work, Duck Soup: A Play on Equity, to help inspire a conversation on equity and grantmaking. The company’s modus operandi is to interview lots of people on the topic and turn those interviews (word for word) into a theatrical presentation. We heard the thoughts of artists, funders and arts administrators performed by Miami-based actors. After the performance, participants broke into discussion groups to talk about the issues of equity faced by funders. As with all theatre, the fictional portrayal of real issues successfully inspired provocative conversations and ideas.

Conference Rules GIA Vice Chair Peter Handler produced an entertaining video, starring himself, his wife and his three children, about GIA’s standing no-solicitation conference policy. It was hysterical, and a new family reality show may be in the works.

Artists, Music and Food We don’t come to conferences for the art and the food but really…you can’t talk about Miami without mentioning the Orquesta Havana Soul; the New World School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble; amazing performer/writer/director Teo Castellanos; Robert Vijay Gulpta (more about him later); Harold Antoine, a steel drum performer; and the artists who performed and spoke during preconferences and breakout sessions. They all inspired us. The food was a collection of cultures, countries, spices and traditions that rewarded all the senses whether in the hotel or in places like Little Haiti, Little Havana, South Beach and Wynwood.

Preconferences: Digging Deeper I helped plan and attended the daylong preconference The Role of Arts and Artists in Health Across the Lifespan, which was held at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale. It was an extraordinary day that brought real pioneers in this work together with funders and practitioners. Medical schools, hospitals and individual artists have been at the forefront of this work for decades. Now, arts organizations and traditional arts funders are recognizing its value, not only as an employment opportunity for artists, but also as a platform for citizen engagement in the arts. The National Center for Creative Aging and the Society for the Arts in Healthcare have long been leaders in this work and are tremendous resources. Gary Glazner of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is one of my new heroes.

Other preconferences, which I could not attend, were held on support for individual artists and the arts and culture in immigrant communities, both important and long-standing areas of interest for GIA members.

Sessions I could talk about the sessions I attended but that would be unfair to the over forty educational workshops that were offered. From climate change to organizational change, arts education to ArtPlace, understanding racism to understanding data, sessions reflected the work of our members and the related challenges and opportunities for funders, artists and the nonprofit sector.

Speakers Here were two “wow” moments for me. Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools Alberto Carvalho spoke on the importance of arts in learning and how we can’t judge schools or student learning by standardized tests. He inspired us with his own story of immigration, poverty and the education that lifted him to his current position. Today, we learned Miami-Dade has received the 2012 Broad Prize, celebrating America’s most improved urban public school districts.

To close the conference, Robert Vijay Gupta performed two Bach violin pieces that brought tears to my eyes. Between the performances, he talked about his role as an orchestra member with the LA Philharmonic and his work with the mentally ill on skid row and in institutions where the mentally ill are incarcerated. Robert is 25; he is a musician and neuroscientist, and a rock star as far as I’m concerned. It was an amazing way to end our convening.

We had a great experience—the artists, the food, the neighborhoods, the beach, the ocean, all of it. Thank you, Miami. But conferences always come down to people, to being welcomed and feeling included, safe and empowered to discuss, share and debate. This is always our goal, and I hope we achieved it. Next year, Philadelphia, October 6-9.