We gather here today to … wait, why are we here?

It’s that time of year–the arrival of the annual spring/summer lineup of conferences hosted by the national service organizations in the arts and culture sector. Many will soon be filing into Ballroom D at the end of the Hutchinson Concourse on the Mezzanine Level of some Conference Center/Hotel to hear leading field practitioners share their insights on Innovation in the Arts Sector. Those not in Ballroom D will be hiding out in the bar socializing, having informal discussions, and networking (also known as ‘having a good conference’).

I’ve been attending the annual conferences of national, regional and local arts service organizations in the US for nearly 20 years. I think we’re overdue to turn the arts conference format on its head. In 2010 I was sitting on a dais speaking on a panel at an arts conference and the following thought popped into my head (right before I gave my two-cents on, as I recall, ‘technology and the arts’):

Any one of those sitting in the chairs facing this dais could be up here speaking on this topic. Why are four of us on the dais and the rest sitting in chairs facing us? Instead, we need a room with some coffee or beer and a bunch of couches and chairs and the opportunity for a long chat.

Increasingly, it seems that we’re all absorbing the same tweets, blogs,YouTube videos, TED talks, audio interviews, articles, and reports, and that anything that is truly interesting hits the Internet and spreads to the field quickly. We come to these annual conferences primed and ready to discuss.

There are, of course, alternatives to what has come to be the ‘traditional’ conference format–for instance, Open Space Technology meetings and unconferences in which the agenda or topics for discussion are not determined by the organizers but are determined by the participants. Arena Stage uses a closed fishbowl format (a circle of discussants surrounded by a circle of listeners, with people moving in and out of the inner circle over the course of a few days). At the Scarcity to Abundance convening that I attended in January I noticed that this format had the effect of flattening hierarchies among participants, democratizing the conversation, and enabling everyone that spoke to be ‘heard’.

The TED format seems to be the major innovation in meeting formats of the past decade. I’m a fan of the talks and watch them online all the time but I’ve never been to a TED conference. I suspect, however, that it’s not the right format for the national arts service organization conferences. Unless we invited people who are not working in the arts to speak to us, it seems that there would be a lot of repetition in the talks. TED conferences are interesting because of the intentional diversity of them–the variety of fields, cultures, subjects, points of view, styles, and modes of thinking represented by the speakers. We all use the same jargon at arts conferences and all have (virtually) the same story to tell.

Many sessions at these annual arts conferences currently feature practitioners or consultants or others presenting findings from research or outcomes from new (often described as ‘innovative’) practices they have tried. But now such dissemination of data and experiences could happen just as easily via a Webinar. The NEA released three new reports via Webinar a few weeks back and it was highly effective, as well as time- and energy-efficient.

It seems that technology has made redundant much of the purpose of the annual arts conference and that the yearly gathering of the field (if there is still a reason to have one) needs to be transformed. I’m not suggesting there is not a reason for everyone to get on a plane and fly across the country to hang out; but I am suggesting that the purpose (and thus the structure of the event) might need to be radically different from the corporate-style, top-down, sit-and-learn-from-the-leaders-in-your-field conferences to which we’ve all become indoctrinated.

People sometimes wander the halls of these conferences sighing and saying, “It’s the same conversation we’ve been having for 5, 10, 15, 20 years.” I’ve long thought that this was because the same people have been sitting in the room year after year ‘leading’ the conversation. But perhaps it’s also something about the structure of these events? If form dictates content, perhaps if we blew up the traditional conference format and got some new people in the room talking to each other we would succeed in moving the field conversation forward, as well?

Interior of Modern Conference image by ariadna de raadt licensed from Shutterstock.com.

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  1. says

    I’m only in my third year of attending national arts conferences and I’m already starting to feel like they’re old hat. But I realized something important last year, which was that part of the reason I was feeling that way was because I wasn’t challenging myself enough to seek out experiences outside my comfort zone at conferences. My first instinct the first two years was to gravitate towards the sessions on topics with which I was familiar and with people that I’d heard of. This was very successful the first year, when I wasn’t that knowledgeable about those topics, and not so successful the second year, after I had learned much more. This year, I am going to try and make a conscious decision to keep learning at conferences, which will require me to take in sessions that I wouldn’t have previously considered. Without disputing the main thrust of your post, I do think that the current format can still work well so long as the people in the room are really there to learn.

  2. Peter Duffin says

    We are all engaging in social media channels which have at their core group discussion and decentralized authority. As your interesting article points out, to have a conference structure with ‘experts’ on the dias seems outmoded and counter to how we are all operating in our non-conference lives.

  3. David Dower says

    The other development that I’ve been intrigued by, over the first four of these “fishbowl” convenings (like that description, btw, since transparency is a core value of this work) is the inclusion of the “third circle” of virtual participants. It takes effort, but streaming, live blogging, and tweeting the conference discussions further flattens the hierarchies and explodes the participation far beyond the connected few who got on planes to be in the room. We also try to make it clear and “front of mind” that those at the table, and those in the listening circle, are really delegates of the field when they are here- not the experts or leaders dispensing wisdom to the lucky few in attendance, but instead they are in the room representing constituencies of experiences, structures, and perspectives. It’s challenging to people who have worked long and hard to arrive at the role of “leader” and “expert” in that hierarchical world when they are not directly included or “featured” in these discussions but when it is cooking, this format can get at things we’d struggle to get out of the expert/leader/usual suspects sort of discussions.

    • says

      I think there’s a lot right here, I would add two things:

      If you’re trying to change thinking in a field or even broaden it, the speakers or front of the room talkers need to not be from the center of the discussion. There needs to be an element of the outside or you’re just reading mission statements to one another.

      The other is cost. The audience for such things is self-selective for those with jobs in the field. Prices are set at a level organizations will approve and then they take care of hotel and airfare. Despite the fact that I would enjoy and I think contribute to such a gathering I could never afford it.l

  4. Howard Jang says

    Our local Theatre Alliance held it’s annual conference last Fall and used the “Devoted and Disgruntled” format where we, the participants decided what the topics were and led the discussion with those people who wanted to talk about it.

    A lot of sharing,of best practice, personal stories and brainstorming – all with a great deal of respect.

    I normally regret attending but this time I was very engaed and very encouraged by the energy of our community.

    The result is an ongoing dialogue and an emerging vision for our sector.

  5. says

    Amen! I found it more interesting to follow the tweets during one panel at a conference last year than listening to the actual panelists. All for changing the “top-down” format!!

  6. says

    I will testify to suffering from the political, repetitive, and (too often) dry arts conferences in which all too often the “biggies,” or the elite institutions mostly preach down to the “little people,” OR conferences in which the biggies stay gathered among themselves, leaving the smaller groups to do something entirely different. I have been really perplexed at being separated into “fiscal tribes,” and allowed to attend meetings only among peer organizations within the same budget range. What is really the benefit of this method of “sorting” peer organizations who are there to learn how to grow, economize, and develop programs? On content, I can’t count the number of sessions I’ve attended over the last ten years that featured the obligatory panel of ‘experts’ on the dais trying to outdo each other and impress the audience with big terms like “paradigm shift” (my personal favorite – I now leave the room if I hear it), but end up imparting very few new ideas. For a truly valuable learning and networking experience, I suggest attending NON-arts conferences in fields like tourism, economic development, marketing, journalism, education, and so on. Many conferences allow non-members to register and attend, or they will make an exception if you call and ask nicely. They might also let you attend just a keynote or plenary session that sparked your attention, but not the entire conference. At non-arts conferences, not only are regular attendees often fascinated by the presence and input of an arts professional, but there is no shortage of new things to learn and bright ideas that can inspire “a-ha” moments. A related idea is to attend conferences in arts disciplines outside your immediate artistic field. It can be eye-opening to examine similar realities from a different artistic point of view. As a performing arts administrator, I’m currently fascinated by the museum field, and what the performing arts can learn from it.

  7. says

    I just attended a week-long intensive seminar at the University of Washington’s Evan’s School of Public Affairs. It was a non-profit leadership institute that focused on some of the latest, and best training on change management, value-based leadership, and combined 28 of us from all walks of the non-profit sector not just the arts. We also created mini-consultancies to help guide specific peer challenges. Applying the latest teachings to real-world challenges in our community was a break through.

    I think the day of conferences being a one-way conversation, and the national or sector “voice of God” approach is long over. Look around you people. Revolutions are happening because of the many to many conversations, organized on a set of deeply held principles. Sometimes the answer isn’t hiring a consultant, or hearing the latest “surveys said” data. The answer is in our hands, with our peers, and in our actions. Remember, we are measured on what we do, not on what we say we do.

  8. Will Maitland Weiss says

    While I always enjoy your posts, Diane, this may have been the first at which I snorted aloud. It IS always Ballroom D at the far end of the Hutchinson Concourse… I think you enrobe in your own query the nut of a great answer: “Unless we invited people who are NOT working in the arts…” As you know, that’s the dialogue to which we at the Arts & Business Council(s) aspire: arts and non-arts people. As you also know, not easy. But something for which we can all try harder.

  9. says

    I agree 110%. This line just takes the cake: Perhaps if we blew up the traditional conference format and got some new people in the room talking to each other we would succeed in moving the field conversation forward, as well?

    I speak from the perspective of someone who is continuously told she is “really young” (I am 33). Perhaps relatively speaking, I am. However, I know old models when I see them and what I’ve experience in the past 8-10 years has been some new content or a new approach to spreading the word of the conference and content, but not a new model for the conference. I also spend a good amount of time at booking conferences where things are very much agent booths, programming folk wandering around, buy/sell mentality, and adjourn to a PD session, a showcase, and/or bar. And the PD sessions are led by the SAME type of people, covering the same run of the mill topics (Contracts 101). I’ve asked countless times to lead or co-lead a panel or create a new look for a session only to be told that the conference committee wants people with more experience (I guess that means15-20 yrs in the field b/c I have 10 and that’s not good enough).

    What is it going to take for this to change? To be relevant? Because really, I am the one in 10 years who will still be at it – not the majority of the 50 year olds today. I need to go to conduct my business so unfortunately, I cannot boycott it. But how hard is it to add some TED influence or BlogHer influence to all of this? For the so called creative industry that we are to NOT lag behind in conference ideas and planning?

    I know this is bigger than just reformatting the conference model. When there are virtually no middle management positions in our industry who will attend and push for change, and the fresh young talent aren’t mentored or allowed/funded to attend the conferences, when funding is short and the same people are tapped to be sponsors, and change as a whole feared in an economic recession – progress is very slow.

    Thank you for making it a talking point.

  10. says

    I wonder how (or whether) people “graduate” from one conference to another–eg as SXSW continues to be derided for being overrun by marketers, there’s bound to be someone who creates a new conference for the highly technical folks. In the for-profit marketplace, this “sorting” happens organically because there’s a profit motive and profit potential for creating a new conference. This may be less the case for the nonprofit arts–if people are dissatisfied with their experience at XYZ art conference, are they going to create their own, or just decide to go to different industry’s events?

    I also wonder how Twitter change the function of conferences–eg I recently went to a talk by the conf coordinator for TED, titled “How We Grew TED by Giving it Away” and it made me think a lot about how a conference might rethink the purpose of the conference–if people are consuming a “conference worth of knowledge” on twitter every week, and if networking is really all that people are getting out of conferences anymore, then what would a “networking only” conference look like?

    I suppose more generally you’ve got to define for any event/product: who’s your target market, what is the unique value you’re providing to them, and what’s the best distribution model to get that value to that market.

    I’ve been attending about 6 conferences a year for just the past 3 or 4 years, and had a lot of boring sessions to tune out and dream about what a conference looks like that I’m interested in. Here’s a few ideas that come to mind–some totally antithetical to what would make a conference actually function.
    –I wish I could see the slide deck or talking points for a panel/presentation BEFORE the conference begins. That way I could rely on the actual content, and not just the vague description in the program book, and someone else’s definition of beginner/intermediate/advanced. I would also have more time to reflect on those ideas before arriving, and perhaps this would make a Q&A more productive.
    –I wish there were more variety in the length of sessions–some topics I want 20 people to give me a 5 minute pitch each of their ideas, on other topics I want a 3 hour block to get really down and dirty.
    –I wish networking opportunities were more structured–more like online dating. I fill out a profile of what I’m looking for in a networking opp, what I can bring to the table, and the conference helps match me up with good professional contacts.
    –I wish the environment could be as (potentially) inspiring as the conversation in the room. Nondescript hotel breakout rooms don’t so much trigger my imagination. This goes the same for time of day–we’re theatre people. Why not conference from noon to midnight instead of 9 to 5.
    –I wish the several days of the conference built on ideas/topics from the previous days, or there was some unique theme for each day.
    –I wish there was a “best of” day of final presentations–much like film festivals where the audience & ‘judges’ in some kind of combination choose the best of the best and these are re-screened on the final day
    –I wish there were more debates at arts conferences. One of the best TCG sessions I ever went to was right after Mike Daisey published HTFA, and the group debate at that year’s conference was provocative.
    –I wish there was more problem solving happening in the room, eg: someone proposes what they see as an intractable problem & the room proposes potential solutions.
    –I wish speakers got more feedback from audience members about the session that just happened, and that feedback was used by future conferences in making better sessions.

    What I don’t know how to get around is the inherent self promotion that tends to run rampant at conferences. Consultants who use their sessions as a thinly guised pitch for their services, audience members who hog the conversation, speakers who over-promise how world changing and awesome their session is going to be, online participants who take quotes out of context & can derail a productive conversation.

  11. says

    In my (embarrassingly) 20+ years of conference attendance, I too have found the Ballroom D problem to be endemic. Perhaps the conference model can be reconceived along the lines that some arts orgs are evaluating their value proposition: 1) who is the audience? 2) how best to reach them? 3) what impact or outcomes are desired? I would advocate for taking the first and third questions together and the second may answer itself. If the first and third are taken seriously, its unlikely that Ballroom D at the end of the Hutchinson concourse will be the answer. We are more likely to end up with participatory, diverse, media-rich, and INTERESTING sessions at professional conferences.

    • says

      Linda – my sincere apologies for the delay in getting this comment posted. For some reason WordPress did not send me an alert that new comments were posted so I was unaware that you had left one. Thanks for the comment here and your own post.

  12. says

    Wonderful post and comments! People come to conferences with wildly different needs and interests, so I agree that the first thing to figure out is what the conference is hoping to accomplish, and for whom. (One reason conferences stay the same is that they serve needs of organizations and staff.) This is especially important to figure out now that so many former conference functions are happening outside conferences. What are the best reasons for people to come together? What can only be done in person?

    Harrison Owen (inventor of Open Space) and others have pointed out that the best part of conferences is the coffee breaks, so one thing to do is to make more of the conference be like that.

    A large conference probably needs lots of different things going on, at lots of levels of expertise: presentations, inspiring speeches, new ideas from outside the field, participatory sessions, open-ended conversation, facilitated exploration, etc. But if there are over-arching questions or issues that affect the whole field, Open Space is a wonderful way to explore them. If the goal is for participants to learn something, learning can be enriched through participatory sessions. There are also existing techniques for helping people with needs find people with knowledge and experience.

    I second the suggestion to use other kinds of spaces. Instead of hotels that might be anywhere, what about places with character, with sunlight and fresh air, with some sense of personality and place?

  13. says

    Following the lead of Theater Communications Group, for this year’s opera conference in Boston, OPERA America launched a community website through Omnipress that we hope will stimulate discussion before, during and after the Annual Conference. The website is essentially a Facebook for conferences — users set up a profile with a photo, bio and tags, and the system also allows the users to link their profiles to their LinkedIn and twitter accounts. Once registered, users can start conversations on moderated message boards, contact other conference attendees to set up meetings at the event and ask questions to speakers in advance of the sessions.

    Nothing revolutionary yet, but I believe it’s a good start in the right direction. I would hope that as our members get more comfortable with this format, sessions might arise in real-time out of topics that conference attendees have brought up on discussion boards.

  14. says

    Great post Diane and lots of great comments. My favorite model is the world cafe model, which can be done with fairly large crowds. The questions are framed and then people sit in relatively small groups and drill fairly deeply into the issues. People move from table to table at predetermined intervals and one facilitator at each table keeps people up to speed on the main ideas that have been percolating in that group. Report backs at the end attempt to identify patterns, recurring themes, places where conversations get stuck, etc. Also, critical to participate in gatherings that are not arts-centric. We go round and round in circles looking for new ideas and innovations within a system that is totally exhausted. We need to draw support from other sectors, and to do that we need to be in the trenches, bringing our special skills as artists to discussions and initiatives around shared challenges.

  15. says

    Hi Diane, et al
    provocative topic Diane!

    (full disclosure: Diane provided us with one of our best keynote speeches a few years ago.)

    As a conference organizer, I have my own wish list : that all conference presenters would submit their presentations in advance; that we could always find the perfect venue with natural light, creative catering, small enough for intimacy & large enough for everyone, and cheap; that delegates would read the materials circulated beforehand and be prepared to share their ideas; and that all pens / laptops / mikes would work on demand. Alas.

    When a conference session really works — when participants really listen and contribute, when new ideas surface, and some answers are found — it makes it all worthwhile. Lots to glean from these comments and we’ll be trying a few new ideas this May.



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