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GIA Conference D2: Is Darwin in the House?

GIA Conference D2:

4:30 am Pacific Time.

Considering the unfortunate length of my Day One entry yesterday, I thought it might be a good idea to post something today a bit more concise.

So, let’s focus on two sessions.

Enabling Engagement: Launching Irvine’s New Arts Strategy. Organized by Josephine Ramirez, program director, arts, The James Irvine Foundation.Contributions by Alan Brown, principal, WolfBrown; Sandra L. Gibson, independent consultant; Maria Rosario Jackson, senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center and director of the Culture, Creativity, and Communities Program, Urban Institute; Steven J. Tipper, associate director, The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy.

Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of Irvine’s planning process and resultant plan, here are a couple of links to Irvine’s website, where you can watch the same opening video we saw at the session, read more about the plan, and even review guidelines for the first grant opportunities that have emerged from the process.

New Strategy Overview Video

Exploring Engagement Fund

There’s a lot to report on here. The headline is that Irvine has taken demographic and other changes seriously and is committed to harnessing this change while strengthening arts organizations, their self-described partners in this work.

For my money, much of the discussion was around redefining what engagement means. I keep coming back to one particular thought, throughout this session and indeed the conference as a whole: who owns the arts, who owns creativity?

If there is a shift occurring, at least as expressed through this conference, it is one of reframing the long-term and traditional views on the architectures of artists and audiences. It’s a shift of shape, place, role, and rationale.

I do believe that there is something very positive occurring in the blurring of the lines between professionals and amateurs, artists and audiences, place and space. It strikes me as very much the Maxine Greene sort of moment, one of meaning making. It’s not that these things are necessarily new. Look, people have been engaged in arts through community orchestras, amateur chamber music, private poetry writing, and so very much more for a very long time. It’s just that technology and a desire to view the arts through community development and democratic engagement while recognizing a host of major demographic and other changes has created new frames for us to view the meaning of arts.

What are the downsides?

The Irvine presentation had the feel of an organization coming out of a significant planning process energized and optimistic about how they will lead the field. Now, they didn’t quite say it like that, but that’s my report. Is there a downside? Well, I have a few thoughts. First, a lot of the changes their vision is intended to propel will require a lot of innovation, and along with innovation comes a lot of risk and a willingness to experiment, which in turn requires a lot of failure. Experiment, after all, the scientific method, fundamentally embraces failure. Such change will require incentive. Is the pressure all around us, fueled by the changing and changed landscape enough to make such change possible, with some cash and support from funders like Irvine?

Does all this equal the proposition of change or die? Are we there yet?

The most interesting statement in the regard came from Steven Tepper, who said, essentially, “that such evolution does not usually come through adaptation by the existing, but through new organizations.” (Buyer beware, I have paraphrased.)  If there’s a pull quote for the conference, one that will really get people thinking, and more than a bit tweaked, this would be it.

Along with rethinking and stimulating field-wide change comes issues of assessment, leadership development, new criteria for grantmaking, and a search to better understand and present a more fluid map of artist and audience, when one can become the other, or both, or remain traditional, with the help of new technologies and new viewpoints, even within the same work of art. It’s all about fluidity.

Another interesting quote, and again, sorry, a paraphrase, from Alan Brown: “creativity in programming will be more important than quality.”

I guess it’s reasonable to have mixed feelings about all of this. I applaud the framing of change and those willing to lead. I believe that the opportunities for arts in all of this change are greater than most understand, and that by expanding engagement in art making and participation, without oversight by the art police, is long overdue. At the same time, you worry about what it will take for this to happen, and the not so subtle Darwin-esque subtext to all of this. Change or die, or shall I say evolve quickly, or die?

Lunch Keynote:

Here we had composer Mason Bates and The Del Sol Quartet.

Two terrific artists, beautifully chosen as a reflection of the conference themes. Word on the street: people loved the music but wish the focus of the presentation would have underscored the conference theme a bit better.

Let’s skip the play-by-play, and get to a few important points.

One: check out these artists. I urge you to go to their websites and look around, watch/listen/reflect. There’s a lot to consider, particularly in how they represent and challenge some old notions of what is traditional, what is classical, what is “canonical,” and more.

Two: What I said in One. Forgive me, as I started writing this blog at 4:30 am in my hotel room. Seriously, actually, two is a reinforcement of one.

Mason Bates represents change in a vitally important way. He is, in so many respects, representative of the modern American composer. He’s hip, smart, also a DJ, draws upon a palatte that is not limited, by a long shot, by what most consider to be “classical” music, and here’s the best part, he’s one of two composers in residence with the orchestra that I consider to be among the most tradition bound. It’s the orchestra considered by many to be the standard bearer of quality and tradition. Not known for relationships with the American experimentalists nor great shape shifters of the 20th and 21st centuries, in my mind, the appointment of Mason Bates should be enough for people to rethink their long held opinions of what canonical organizations are and aren’t. Oh, and yes, by the way, he can compose.

N.B., Arbiters of quality and definition will need to think at least twice.

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