We introduced Field Notes as a means of amplifying meaningful conversation. Over the last couple of weeks we put that to the test with content from the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders, a program that was essentially 5 days of non-stop (and I mean that in the best possible sense) conversation among 64 people from 35 different countries.
On an individual basis, I learned something from each conversation, each interview, each post. On a collective basis, what I learned was not something new but it was still incredibly valuable and powerful to witness: diversity ignites innovation and conversation fuels it.
The diversity of the group often meant that there simply wasn’t enough common ground to sustain a meaningful back-and-forth on tactics. This forced participants to keep elevating the conversation until they reached a level at which we are all united as a field. There they really dug into the bigger-picture issues: the creation and communication of value; the effects of globalism and localism; and the role of the arts in society. In the segments below, Fielding Grasty, Sunny Widmann and Theresa Remick – moderators for the panel discussions – share their final thoughts about these topics.
Creation & Communication of Value
Panelists introduced a rich and wide-ranging discussion of the communication and creation of value. This was one of three overarching themes selected for the session as being of critical importance to all organizations, regardless of size or origin. Panelists challenged us to answer the most essential question of our organizations: why do they exist? One aptly noted that the arguments that resonate with stakeholders are sometimes the wrong ones. Another asserted that any discussion of value should embrace the notion of “deep time,” that true value isn’t created in the short-term but well into the future and with a consciousness of our ancestors.
Language was a powerful and persistent theme in many conversations. Lacking a common language, or even a shared vocabulary within a language, can obscure critical conversations in the field. This was manifest in our own discussions as English was a second language for many and we found differences in our conceptions of heritage, development and even value. This echoed an earlier assertion that there were different realities in the room given the diversity of those present. Nevertheless, we had frank and productive discussions on all of these issues. We debated whether a precise set of terminology is needed to articulate the value of the arts. This was regarded as important but less critical than the fundamental question of understanding whyyou exist and choose to do what you do. We agreed that as we become enmeshed in the short-term, the instrumental, the expeditious and the inevitable language that accompanies it, we can lose sight of – and the language of – the richer and more critical value of what we do. As we grapple with defining and redefining what is valuable in the cultural field, many of us thought of how this varies over time and that present work can be seen as tomorrow’s cultural heritage. Ultimately, distilling and articulating the value our organizations create for our communities was a powerful touchstone for thinking through and discussing a number of seemingly otherwise disparate issues throughout the session.
What is Global & What is Local in Today’s World?
As cultural workers, our ability to reach audiences beyond the borders of our own locality has increased with technological advances. This concept of globalization is nothing new, but as faculty member Horst Abraham pointed out, we are now experiencing these shifts at a faster rate than ever before. The resulting interconnectedness opens up a multiplicity of opportunities for cultural workers to engage with people near and far; it also offers us as cultural consumers an endless number of options to know more about and see more of the world. For our fellows, the challenge is to take advantage of these opportunities to expand audiences and ideas while also remaining firmly rooted in a geographic locality.
I view young leaders in our field both not simply as managers of art, but also as cultural diplomats. Many of us see a whole world of diversity right inside our own community, necessitating an understanding of cross-cultural communication, ownership and authenticity, tradition versus innovation and the complexity of identity formation. As communities often come to know each other through their culture and traditions, a great responsibility falls to arts managers who should not serve as the voice for a community, but certainly as the microphone. This point is key, and the shift towards community members participating in telling their own stories rather than having them appropriated by a central or national cultural organization is evident in the videos posted here on “Glocal.” Digital platforms are certainly a large part of this shift, but cultural leaders running organizations set in physical spaces are also revolutionizing the way they connect with communities by emphasizing listening rather than talking and building capacity in the area of “cultural fluency” – the ability to connect and bridge cultural gaps in a meaningful and authentic way. However, fellows noted that the cultural ecosystem – particularly in terms of funding – may not be in step with these developments. When support is bound up in larger or national institutions, we risk filling the cultural ecosystem with artistic products that keep cultural identities as static and are influenced by political climates and power dynamics.
What is the role of cultural organizations in society?
The arts have a unique ability to empower, to inspire, to build community and to shape identity, but the role of each individual artist or organization is largely dependent who is being served. Over the course of our time in Salzburg, conversations around value and issues inherent in our global/local world naturally evolved into a larger conversation around what role the arts should play in society and in our communities. Over and over, we heard that the arts have a responsibility to work not just for, but with their communities in ways that are engaging and meaningful. As Mulenga Kapwepwe so aptly surmised, “Participation is a mission, not a marketing strategy.” This cooperative approach can help make the art more authentic and relevant than an experience in which art is simply delivered or imposed on a group, emboldening the impact of the arts on a community. The arts can serve as a tool to help influence identity in many different ways. For instance, arts can be a key component in the evolving identity in places like Hong Kong. Art that is reflective of community members can help them discover a sense of identity, either individual or collective, that inspires social change or civic action. Fellows wondered if certain approaches to preserving cultural heritage could stifle new cultural development and the evolving sense of identity that comes with change. Recalling the ideas presented around communicating value, conversations around developing new language and frameworks for conveying the importance of the arts in society – what we do, its value and its potential to impact the future – were common. Especially among those from areas experiencing political upheaval or fledgling governments, it was often noted that the arts have a responsibility to take their place at the table and influence the development of policies that will incorporate culture as a highly valued part of an expressive and enriching life.
What role the arts take in the community can vary to quite a large degree depending on issues such as geography, political climate and economic factors, to name a few. While the role of each artist or organization will be specific to a particular community, these conversations help bring into focus the universal considerations for artists and managers – How is the community we serve defined? What is the ultimate goal of our existence within this context, and what do we need to be doing to achieve that goal? Eduardo Vilaro warned that a role can in fact be a fabrication that can be manipulated to serve different masters, and it is important to think about what implications the agendas of our funders, audiences and internal forces have on our work. Defining the community we wish to serve can help illuminate what role we take on, as can clearly defining the value we wish to deliver and how we will convey that value.
So, what value does all of this have for the rest of us? Why is this experience important? Why should cultural leaders spend time reading or talking about these abstract issues? These kinds of conversations, the discussion of these issues – across disciplines, across borders, across sectors – begets understanding. And, when you truly understand these concepts of the value you offer, of your place in the world and your role in the community… then you understand why you and your organization matters. And (to paraphrase Gary Vikan) when you truly understand that, you no longer have to advocate; your value is self-evident.