Day I: Opening Plenary Dinner

The 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference officially opened on Sunday night with a half-salmon-half-chicken dinner (something for everyone, I guess?), welcoming remarks, housekeeping notes, a performance, and a keynote by pollster and author John Zogby.

The strange tensions of the times we live in were in full evidence during the session. I mentioned in my first post that this is not only the first time that GIA has had an official blogger for its annual conference, but the first time it’s had any press coverage at all, save for one exception years ago. The conference is traditionally closed to all but staff of grantmaking organizations and invited speakers. In addition, there is a strict policy against solicitation of any kind – if a member is both a grantmaker and a grantseeker, it’s expected that the organization will send the program staff, not the development personnel. The result is that the conference creates, as GIA board member Janet Rodriguez characterized it, a “safe space” for the sharing of ideas among colleagues. However, at the only major national convening for arts funders every year, this strategy can also remove the possibility of healthy confrontation in a field in which getting honest feedback can be a challenge. In this context, the choice of Chief Oren Lyons of the Ondaga Nation to give the opening welcome proved to be a daring one. After offering a traditional greeting, Lyons wasted no time in adopting a truth-to-power pose: “I’m on the short end of my life, quite short these days, so I don’t have a lot of time to be nice to you.” Lyons warned of the dangers in allowing the earth to be treated as it has, and on behalf of indigenous peoples everywhere urged critical action to combat global warming. (The subject matter of the conference itself seemed to be of decidedly secondary concern, though perhaps that was the point.)

Lyons was followed by an unannounced and rather more lighthearted welcome from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Jokingly insisting that the1898 merger that created the modern New York City was a mistake, Markowitz spent most of his speech trashing Manhattan and gloating over the spillover of wealth, artistic and otherwise, that has found its way to his borough in recent years. (He insisted that he welcomed the influx of artists because “anywhere artists want to live to day is somewhere you either want to live tomorrow or can’t afford to live tomorrow.”) Markowitz concluded with a flourish, officially declaring October 18 “Grantmakers in the Arts National Conference Celebration Day” in Brooklyn, handing GIA Director Janet Brown a plaque as bemused arts funders applauded.

The highlight of the evening was a performance by Urban Bush Women of a work-in-progress called “Naked City,” inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz and featuring  music by Pyeng Threadgill, daughter of jazz great Henry Threadgill and UBW choreographer Christina Jones. The movement started slowly, but soon became a dizzying ensemble piece straddling the line between anger and ecstasy.

Finally, pollster and author John Zogby gave the keynote presentation. Though Zogby’s activity in his chosen field has not been without some controversy, the broad qualitative trends he identified in his speech made intuitive sense to me. Zogby has been working on his book, The Way We’ll Be, for quite a while, gathering and reviewing data going back to the 1970s to understand how Americans’ conception of the American Dream is changing. And it is changing, he says: from a fundamentally materialist vision of nice cars, a good job, and a big house, to a more ethereal notion of leading a fulfilling life. Zogby identifies four inputs for the growth in this group he calls “secular spiritualists.” First, 27% of Americans now work at a job that pays less than the job they previously held. Zogby posits that these individuals are gaining a broader perspective on life from having to cut back on their material spending. Second, there is a broad movement toward simplification at the upper echelons of the socioeconomic ladder, as people who have “made it” decide that they are tired of the rat race and want their lives to have meaning in other ways. Third, the baby boomers are the first generational cohort that will see 1 million of its members live to the age of 100 (I am assuming Zogby was referring only to the United States with this statistic). That extra lifespan means that boomers, particularly those who are still trying to recapture the glory days of the ’60s, are having to contemplate what they will do with all of the extra time. Finally, the people in the 18-30 age cohort (represent!) are what Zogby calls the “first global citizens,” in that 56% of us have passports. “First globals” put the arts higher on their list of life priorities than other age groups do.

What does it all mean for the arts? According to Zogby, the arts will benefit by investing in audience engagement early; by strategic outreach to and cultivation of tastemakers and influencers in a socially networked world; and by making a credible case for the arts to secular spiritualists. There is a growing demand among this group for affordable self-improvement. As Zogby pointed out, the arts are cheaper than a massage, easier than going to the gym, and healthier than having a second scoop of ice cream. As a positioning strategy, I can think of many worse examples than that.