I had the good fortune of attending APAP|NYC 2012 two weeks ago, from Friday, January 6th to Sunday the 8th. I traveled with colleagues from the Bolz Center to present a session on power and influence in the performing arts. Our little posse of grad students was also charged with spotting the key trends and themes emerging at the conference in order to help John Hearn craft a fully integrated and relevant plenary session on Sunday morning.
The buzzword of the conference was, far and away, “community.” There were many acknowledgements that this is an incredibly mushy word and vague concept, but there was also consensus that it must be at the core of the mission and operations of performing arts presenters. As I’ll get to in a minute, though, perhaps a prerequisite for “community” is a sense of place. And this is where things get interesting, where the physical space of a performing arts center meets the curatorial decisions its administrators make.With that in mind, here are some highlights from the sessions I attended:
Trends in Curatorial Practice in the Performing Arts – Pamela Tatge (Weslyean University), Sam Miller (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), Judy Hussie-Taylor (Danspace Project), Kristy Edmunds (UCLA Live), Philip Bither (Walker Art Center)
This was a fascinating panel of creative thinkers and leaders who all also happen to be instructors at Weslyean’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance. Less about trends, the panel was more a discussion of what curation actually means. So here we go, “curation in the performing arts is ___________”:
- Bither: “more than just a season”, “a point of view”, “about balance”
- Hussie-Taylor: “a platform for something to happen”, “artist-centric”
- Edmunds: “protecting the soul of a given something”, ensuring “the completeness of experience”
Edmunds also emphasized the need for administrators to be “awake”, both to the art itself and to the world outside. Having never worked for a presenting organization, I took much of this to mean that curation is higher-level presenting, something that requires resources and institutional support but also a certain willingness to be creative, bold, and thorough in planning. It was a great lens to bring to the rest of the conference.
Setting the Stage for Owning the Road Ahead - Carol Coletta (ArtPlace)
Carol Colleta got right down to it and expressed very clearly her belief that arts organizations need to be adding “vibrancy” to communities. Vibrant communities attract and retain talent, which is good for business growth and increases the median salary in a region. And this is what local governments want.
Carol laid out this cause and effect chain to demonstrate how arts organizations can justify what they do to funders and governmental entities, because the old justifications (educational benefits, etc.) are not working. In her words, “people don’t want to hear your story, they want to hear their own story.”
Thinking of an arts organization in terms of the vibrancy it adds to a community is also a valuable metric internally, one that goes beyond butts in seats or students reached. Vibrancy is the sum of everything an organization does, and if your community is not coalescing around your organization in a palpable way, perhaps you need to re-think the fundamentals of your model. As was surely the goal of the conference planners, this first plenary session provided the base for the next morning’s discussions, which again kept coming back to community.
Us: How do we lead? - Steve Wolff (AMS Planning and Research), Liz Lerman (Dance Exchange), Joseph R. Bankoff (Woodruff Arts Center)
The Saturday morning professional development sessions were divided into “We”, “They”, and “Us”. I attended “Us”, which was theoretically the combination of we, the presenters, and they, the audiences and communities. Steve Wolff, who led the session, started off with an ode to the necessity of change. As most would agree, Wolff stated that we have to “do more better”, and move away from just being “viable” to being “vital” (a wording a really like and may steal!). He cited there key reasons for the urgency of change:
- Economic conditions demand innovation
- Community demographics call for inclusivity
- Customer interactions are changing with technology, need for more involvement
While performing arts organizations currently focus on “excellence and efficiency”, they should be focusing on “effectiveness and entanglement”. Similar to Coletta’s concept of vibrancy, entanglement is the notion of becoming essential to one’s community. Mr. Wolff came armed with helpful frameworks and useful definitions for innovation and community, but the session really took off once Liz Lerman jumped in.
Lerman said a few things broadly applicable to leadership and change that I found fascinating, paraphrased here:
- Don’t rank the different voices in your head “live horizontally”
- In the arts, its not just about being a good leader but being a good follower
- Leadership is sharing ownership and being open
- When implementing change, remember that “change always brings loss” of some kind
- Creating structure around the new helps facilitate its adaptation
Joseph Bankoff of the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta was also insightful, and expressed his belief in the importance of Wolff’s notion of entanglement. Specifically, he talked about the “so what?” test he does with every program and initiative. If there isn’t a clear answer to the “so what?” question, than there likely isn’t enough community impact. Yup, there’s that word again…
More to come in Part 2 of my APAP 2012 recap.