So I’m at this meeting and, you’ll never believe it, there are NO press.

So, I’m attending a meeting at Arena Stage in Washington DC today. The attendees are staff members at Arena Stage, about 18 nonprofit and commercial theater producers, and a handful of artists (playwrights, composers). The purpose is to discuss issues of common concern around developing and producing new work. I am here primarily to help document the meeting. There are no press at the meeting.

A few months ago I attended a meeting of about 25 or 30 performing arts presenting curators and nonprofit theater artistic directors. The purpose was to discuss issues of common concern around the development and production of new work. I was there to help moderate the discussion. There were no press at the meeting.

Putting field conferences and such events aside, over the past ten years, on almost a monthly basis, I have attended meetings of anywhere from 15 to 100 people, various types in the arts and culture sector, who have gathered for anywhere from ½ day to 3 days to talk about issues of common concern: heads of major university presenting organizations, the artistic and managing staff  of one arts discipline or another to talk about ‘issues in the field’, staff and board members of leading orchestras in the country, those running single choreographer dance companies, those running dance presenting institutions, independent producers, people interested to come together and talk about the L3C model, etc.

I could fill this page with examples of such meetings. And in spirit and intent they were all rather similar to the meeting I am attending now. Meetings, in case anyone has never attended one, can be an effective way to have conversation with other people that you’d like to talk with. They can also, incidentally, be a colossal waste of time.

So, anyway, this will perhaps not be surprising to people who attend meetings on a regular basis but the press were not invited to, nor were they in attendance at, any of these meetings I have attended on an almost monthly basis to address various issues of common concern to people in the arts and culture sector. They just happened. People showed up and talked. Sometimes things were said that were really, really boring. Sometimes things were said that would perhaps been quite interesting to the world-at-large. However, there was an understanding that the purpose of the meeting was not to speak (at least not immediately) with and to the world about the topic, but rather to enable a productive conversation about the topic among a particular group of people.

While I’m not 100% certain about this, I would hazard a guess that the press were not alerted beforehand that these meetings were happening.  The reason is probably pretty obvious but I’ll just state it here. If the purpose is to get a group of people together to talk about something and you don’t think it will be interesting to the press or you don’t want the meeting to be a public one, you don’t send out a press release about it beforehand.

For some reason, after having invited 20 or so people to a meting, which all attendees were told was not going to be streamed on the web or in any other way made public, Arena Stage sent out a press release. And because the topic of the meeting sounds rather interesting, members of the press were eager to attend. But the agreement Arena had with all of the attendees going into this meeting was that the press would not be in attendance.

By agreeing to come to this exclusive meeting Peter Marks at the Washington Post has suggested that I and other people are part of the “1%” and “that we are required with opportunities such as this one to fling open the doors to the other 99”.

Really?  I am a big fan of transparency in the nonprofit sector and in documenting and sharing field discussions, but I think it is rather crazy to suggest that every meeting or gathering of people in the nonprofit cultural sector should be required to be open to everyone for viewing and that if attendees go to meetings that are not open to the public they are somehow betraying those who were not invited.

Leonard Jacobs (Clyde Fitch Report) Tweeted and asked me whether by ‘condoning’ this meeting “I truly believe that the 1% vs 99% argument couldn’t apply to you?” The implication that I’ve endorsed something rather egregious by showing up and documenting a meeting is strange to me. I wonder if every meeting that Leonard Jacobs attends has press in attendance?

Meetings happen. Some are intended to be public discussions and some are not.

This one, evidently, was not.

Arena did nothing wrong by wanting to have a meeting that was not public.  This happens every week of the year in nonprofit arts institutions and foundations across the US and around the world.

The only questionable move from my perspective was sending out a press release, which put the meeting on the radar of the press and then put Arena in the position of needing to defend why it had decided not to make the meeting public. Peter Marks deserved better and so did the attendees of this meeting who have now been made to look like jerks just for saying yes to an invitation to come together and talk to each other.


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  1. says

    I understand your perspective here, Diane, and I agree the decision to send out a press release without actually inviting the press was a mistake, but nevertheless I think Peter Marks has a valid point. Most people in the arts, for the very reason that these gatherings are not reported to the public, do not realize that they happen on a somewhat regular basis. The fact that you’ve been able to attend or participate in a number of them over the past 10 years puts you in a position of incredible privilege (a position you’ve earned, absolutely, but that doesn’t alter the degree of privilege). It’s not only a privilege of knowledge, but perhaps more importantly, a privilege of access that the vast majority of arts professionals – the 99%, if you will – do not enjoy. (For the record, I’ve participated in a few meetings like this myself now and it doesn’t change my perspective on the subject one bit.)

    With all due respect, gathering together 100 leaders in any field over 3+ days, or even 20 for half a day, is not like the meeting I have with my coworkers every Monday morning. It is, for lack of a better word, newsworthy, and I don’t blame people for being curious about what is said in a meeting like that – especially if it’s closed to the public. I’m not saying that the meetings shouldn’t happen or that they have to be live-streamed when they do, but let’s at least be upfront about their inherently exclusionary nature.

  2. Leonard Jacobs says

    Stop it, Diane. Your post is an uncharacteristically defensive apology for something that can’t be apologized for. Let’s consider one example. I presume that when you say “There are no press at the meeting” at the end of your first paragraph, you would not count yourself among the press, even though you publish content, such as news and analysis, that is widely read by the same constituency about which and for which you publish said news and analysis. Later in your post, you state that you are a “big fan” of “documenting and sharing field discussions.” If the function of press, as I’m hopeful you will agree, is to provide objective reporting and analysis, and if, in fact, you are not press, how does anyone not permitted to attend the meeting know that what you are documenting and sharing from this event is a full, appropriate and complete representation of what was discussed and debated? By agreeing to be Arena’s scribe for a press-banned event, you ask all the rest of us mortals to take on faith that you will share everything, as opposed to what you are allowed to share, isn’t that true? Or are prepared to state unequivocally that you will share everything that is discussed and that no entity at Arena Stage has imposed limits on what you may communicate to the rest of the field?

    Let’s take another example. Are you being paid to document and share what is being discussed? Have you disclosed that you’re being paid? If you are being paid and have not disclosed it, would you characterize that as transparent?

    Or would you suggest that full disclosure and full transparency need not apply to you because you’re not a journalist?

    This is why I tweeted what I tweeted. As for what I implied, it was not an implication. It was a direct question. You didn’t answer it. That in itself strikes me as something of an answer. I’m disappointed in you — but not for taking Arena up on its offer, as I would like to think that the press-banning idea did not originate with you. I’m disappointed that you could or would not anticipate such a reaction from the community, or, having realized that such a reaction has occurred, that you have made matters worse by writing a post effectively arguing that the community hasn’t the right, or the reason, to be disconcerted by the situation. Maybe you can fix things by, for example, interpolating an objective analysis of the community’s upset into your “sharing.” Or would Arena stop you from doing so?

  3. says

    Well,you just saved me the trouble of basically writing this on the Washington Post comments section.

    Quite bizarre…my experience of late is every meeting and conversation about everything tries to connect itself to a larger ‘zeitgeist’ by referencing an event of undeniable visibility (i.e. OWS) or an idea (i.e. ‘innovation’, participation’ or ‘engagement’0 that is sweeping conferences and TED talks…as if throwing a shout-out at significance makes what you think or say suddenly significant by association.

    The especially silly version of this is when said event or idea uses a loosely considered connective significance to denigrate something without thoughtfully digging into practice, intent and context.

    Enjoy DC.
    I look forward to your writing, as always.


  4. says

    The sequence of events is odd … to issue a press release and then close the event to the press is like sending out a party invitation but revoking it for only a few people.

    Meetings do happen all the time, though a meeting on this order is a bit more of an event — and if the event is such that it is to be documented in a white paper, then it is an event of some significance . It should shock no one that a reporter who receives a press release perceives that announcement as an invitation to coverage, because that is what press releases are. If you do not want press coverage, why send out a press release?

    Sounds to me like someone goofed — either a press release went out that wasn’t supposed to, or someone failed to clear it with participants beforehand. And since a number of the participants are commercial producers, I would guess that they are not eager to talk the nitty gritty of their business in front of reporters and who can blame them?

  5. says

    Thanks to all who posted. To clarify a few things. I am contracted by Arena Stage in my capacity as a ‘theater academic’ to write a report on the event. I did not restate this as it was stated in the article by Peter Marks. This is customary at Arena. I am not there as press and will not be writing about the event on Jumper. To be quite honest, it never occurred to me that I would be considered press by others but I do understand, in hindsight, why the question emerges.

    Second, I don’t ‘blame’ anyone for being curious as was suggested by one of the posters. I am curious about some meetings that I am not invited to attend, as well.

    Finally, I do feel priveleged that I am invited to meetings. Believe me, it was truly surprising to me that I continued to be invited to anything after I left Mellon. And for every meeting (let’s say 10-12 per year) that I attend, there are hundreds that I am not invited to attend. And if I’m curious about them, I read the reports which are often disseminated on the Internet.

  6. says

    I’m quite willing to accept that this tussle was the result of the ill-considered press release from Arena Stage, especially if it was issued after the fact that many of the participants agreed to attend only if their discussion would remain off-the-record. It’s not that they “been made to look like jerks just for saying yes to an invitation to come together and talk to each other”; you’re right, there are meetings like this all the time, and they’re not open to either press or public; but as theatre professionals keenly aware of the cultural significance of appearances, they could not be surprised by this. And I’m guessing that the best and most provocative discussions occurred in the hotel bars and restaurants surrounding Arena Stage after the close of the days’ formal proceedings.

    On the other hand, if this is true, one has to wonder what, and who, was served by the release. For the past few years, Arena Stage has been trying to position itself as some kind of advocate for new plays. A quick glance at the participants list (Robert Brustein, Oskar Eustis, Rocco Landesman et al.) indicates some high-standing, recognized administrative and artistic talents. This is the first of three such events planned for this season, according to the release, and it looks to have been quite an expensive event, assuming the costs associated with it included travel, lodging and other funds for the participants and the presentations themselves.

    If Arena Stage wanted to genuinely serve its constituencies of both artists and institutions, perhaps a more generous effort would have been to use this money to provide workshop productions of a few of the new plays these ladies and gentlemen wanted to discuss — rather than, I suspect, Arena Stage’s own desire to more firmly establish its validity as an institution among its institutional peers.

  7. says

    This country was formed in back-door meetings in pubs. People were recruited to fight for a concept of democracy that they hadn’t even seen yet. The arts in the country have suffered as much as anyone, in perhaps the worst economy in this country’s history. If a bunch of brilliant minds, still managing to hold on to what scraps they can in terms of bringing new theatre voices into this world, want to have one closed-doors meeting where they don’t have to dance like monkeys or measure their voices against their corporate donors….I say, that’s not only their right, it’s their duty. Someone’s gotta pull this country up by the boot straps. Why not the artists.

  8. says

    I totally missed the “tussle” about the closed door meetings but I can’t help but remember the Grantmakers in the Arts culture as being quite the same. Big decisions were made; fascinating (and some really, really boring) conversations were had; amazing performances were shared – but shared with the field-at-large. Presenters who didn’t work for foundations were invited to give their presentations and then politely escorted out the door afterward. There was a “right” and a “wrong” to it all, but at the end of the day, I think program officers liked having the time to relax and not be constantly approached with requests. Same with the Princeton Cultural Policy meetings which I also had the privilege to attend. Perhaps the Arena stage meetings were a time for practitioners to discuss and reflect without the unrefined version of events making it out into the world – that I can understand. And as a PR/arts consultant, you could make the argument that the time to make the “news” was afterward – but yes, totally agree it would have been better to issue the release later. But there you go. People don’t always think it through – sometimes it just happens.


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