Good morning:

“And the beat goes on…………………”


3 to 4 day conferences are strange little experiences.  None any more so than gatherings of arts leaders.  Thrown together in one space, there is a usual breakdown in these things that roughly approximates this:

A third of the people are relatively new to the field, or at least to this sub-section of the field.  First timers have a small network of people they know (though they may know more “of” and “about” some people.)  They are excited to be part of something new; their engergy is boundless; they want to quickly forge some bonds and assimiliate into the group.  They are eager, curious and inquisitive and want to take in every session.  For many others this may be their second or even third conference.  They aren’t quite as unfamiliar with the turf; they’ve been – if not around the block – at least across the street as it were – and they know a little about what is going on, who is who and where they want to spend their time.  We were all in this category at one time.  I am delighted to see these people at these events and love talking with them.

Another third are the middle level management people who have been around a while and are familiar with the field, the issues and most of the players.  Some of these people are on the way up; others wonder why they seem stuck where they are.  While most are still engaged and avid about figuring out how to deal with the challenges, some have gotten to the point where they are still here in name only and really want to move on.  They’re no longer naive, but they’re not jaded either. 

The last third are the old hands – the people who have been around awhile, have seen most of this before, and who are the acknowledged senior leadership.  They run their organizations and wield, for a variety of reasons, considerable power and clout within whatever the niche universe is.  While these people care deeply about the challenges and forging new ways to really deal with those challenges, they, more than the other two groups, know that somehow progress won’t likely happen if we can’t break the gridlock of old ideas and old ways of doing things. 

The day of arrivial for any of these conferences is marked by high energy, a definite list of things people want to do: people they want to connect with, sessions they want to attend, and networking they want to happen.  New people might be a little overwhelmed; the old hands are just happy to see old friends again.

Conference planners, who often times know better when they are the conference attendees, just can’t really help themselves when they are the planners – and they invariably overfill the days and allow far too little space to share time with colleagues – where they can brainstorm about both the state of the field and new projects (and try as anyone might to discourage the hawking of new ideas in search of sponsors and funding, those kind of ‘pitches’ inevitably transpire – and in earnest at GIA and everywhere else).  Crowded schedules make it hard to enjoy the host city (and in this case Chicago is one of the great cities and we were blessed with extraordinarily nice weather).  So people do what they always do – they cut out on certain of the breakaway daily sessions and carve out that time for more essential purposes – fun and fishing for new ideas and support.  And those pursuits may, arguably, be the best ways to spend your time at these gatherings – the time when ideas are born.

By the time the last day rolls around, people are ready to go home.  They’ve spent three days breathing lousy hotel air, too often spending time in windowless rooms, and eating a diet probably completely different than their eating patterns at home.  Their best laid plans to hook-up (in the old meaning of that term) with colleagues new and familiar are likely only partially met.  The good intentions to cover this or that session, as often as not, twarted, and they have been disappointed that some of the sessions that sounded so great on paper turned out to be disappointing. 

Still that is the norm and in no way means the experience of a conference was anything but enormously valuable. Whether a 100 people at a NASAA gathering, 400 at GIA, or 1400 at AFTA – I find these conferences where I can connect with old friends, learn what is going on all across the country, listen to people who know what they are talking about, and seriously consider a range of new ideas and proposals that have a shot to make an impact – I find all of that easily worth the hassle of travel and any exhaustion post event.  These events help to reinvigorate us, re-charge our depleted batteries, provide much food for thought and give us encouragement, optimism and most importantly, a sense of community; the feeling that we are not alone, do not operate in a vacuum, and that what we do matters – matters very much.

So what did I learn at this conference?

Well, the buzzwords are all alive and well.  Overheard repeatedly during the four days were comments on:

  • Silos.  Everywhere we are talking about silos – good and bad silos.  Big silos, little silos.  Interconnected silos.  Transgenerational silos.  I think the word “silo” has become the 21st Century equivalent of “paradigm”.
  • Placemaking.  Anything that now has to do with any specific site is called “placemaking” and the implication with the use of this phase is that the arts will enable and faciliate making a given place better.
  • Community of Practice:  Any three people who are engaged in the same thing (sort of) are a “Community of Practice”. – as opposed to, I guess, three people doing something dissimilar.
  • Intersections.  I’m as guilty of overusing this one as anyone.  Everything is either an intersection or a potential intersection and once two somethings or somebodies have “intersected” – I guess Nirvana can’t be far off.
  • And of course “capacity” and “sustainability” remain as strong as ever.  You simply cannot talk about the arts, especially the role of the arts in placemaking, and not use capacity and sustainability as evaluative mechanisms to assess how well those two silos intersected any given community of interest.     

Oh my, we’ve got to step back and laugh at ourselves once in awhile.

But seriously, here is what I did learn:

  • The inclination to move towards ever greater collaboration and cooperation among funders is very strong and most importantly, we are talking about  deep and broad collaborations, and not just cooperation on some surface level.  Data gathering, analysis and sharing remains at the top of the list of current efforts but we’re moving towards other levels.
  • There is increasing consensus that the sector is overbuilt and that whether by market forces or some other mechanism, it will be inevitable that a long overdue correction will end up being made.  The revenue model simply cannot support any other outcome, and the supply / demand line will not change merely because we would like it to.  Conscious decisions in this arena will be highly subjective, as they have always been.  And painful.
  • There is major interest in the funding community centered around issues germane to emerging leaders, workplace accommodation of multiple generations and leadership succession, and I think this will likely be one of 2011’s big issues – including professional development issues.
  • GIA itself is coming of age and entering a new period where I suspect there will be much soul searching and re-defining of purpose and mission. 
  • There is a lot of focus on leveraging limited grant funds to specific purposes – and that new thinking encompasses issues as far ranging as giving fewer but bigger grants, to letting “for profit” arts organizations qualify for the pool of funding, to junking the 501 c 3 model (for who knows what – no one has yet come up with an answer I find compelling, though I think the instinct is correct).

Next year GIA will be in my hometown of San Francisco.  I hope I get the chance to do this again and I hope you will all come out to the Bay Area.  I promise you will have a great time. 

Thanks to Janet, Tommer, Steve and all the organizers and to my fellow blogger Arlene Goldbard and Andrew Taylor.

Don’t Quit.


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