The National Performing Arts Convention

June 11-14, 2008 saw the first true National Performing Arts Convention, a gathering of service organizations in Denver representing all of the performing arts. It is true that a similarly-billed convention took place in Pittsburgh, in 2004. But because that was a toe-in-the-water attempt, it was more a grouping of separate conferences with opening and closing sessions produced jointly, and one day (Saturday) of joint seminars and workshops that were not all that well attended, many having departed for home by Saturday morning.

This convention was very different. While the different service organizations did have some sessions reserved for their own membership, the bulk of the content was jointly conceived and produced, and was all woven together by a series of caucuses organized by America Speaks, a remarkable organization that produces town meetings fostering communication and discussion in rooms filled with hundreds of people--and, in the finale, a room filled with about 1,200 people. 

The core producers of this event were Chorus America, Dance USA, the League of American Orchestras, Opera America, and Theater Communications Group. But 25 other service organizations were involved at various levels, representing just about every conceivable discipline in the performing arts. The overriding theme of this gathering--to which just under 4,000 people came--was to explore what the performing arts community might be able to do acting together to re-position the arts more centrally in the society that is America.

There were many stimulating discussions and sessions, and I'm certain that the highlights will be publicized elsewhere; they merit a fuller exposition than is possible or desirable in this space. What I want to comment on here is simply how gratifying it was to see administrators, trustees, volunteers, and patrons from a huge variety of art forms and a huge range of organizational sizes--not to mention the 700 artists who attended this convention--come together and talk to each other, in many cases for the first time.

The America Speaks process, which forces people of diverse backgrounds and experiences together around small tables--each facilitated to assure that everyone does speak (and listen)--asked us all to explore what we thought were the challenges/opportunities facing the performing arts in America, and what might be strategies for making progress on those issues on the national and local levels, and across organizations as well as within individual organizations.

These conversations were not meant to be a complete process, but rather the beginning of approaches that the arts community might take in elevating the position of the arts in our society. Some of the recommendations that came out of NPAC can be briefly summarized as relating to Value, Advocacy, Education, and Diversity. Topics debated and voted on under the Value and Advocacy headings ranged from creating a seat for culture in the cabinet to forging partnerships with other sectors to identify how the arts can serve community needs. Under Education, issues involved education reform and rescinding the No Child Left Behind act, innovative financial models to fund the arts (link to the tax base, dedicated sales tax etc.), and directly engaging teachers to integrate the arts into their teaching and professional-development programs. Finally, under Diversity it was acknowledged that there is still much to be done, and that national service organizations and others should be charged with stimulating dialogue at their meetings, creating internships and entry-level staff positions, and setting long-term goals to have staff, board, programming, and audiences reflect the demographics of the community. The goal is to have heads of service organizations take up these points--and many others that came up in the rich tapestry of discussions throughout the four days of NPAC--and to fashion a suggested plan of action.

Obviously, I am no better able than anyone else to predict the outcome of these efforts. But what I can observe, and what seems worth observing here, is the remarkable result of the planning of this convention. NPAC 2008 was the first time that a very diverse group of leaders from the full range of the performing arts worked together to this degree of depth and complexity--and the result is something that all can be proud of. The co-chairs of the convention, Marc Scorca of Opera America and Ann Meier Baker of Chorus America, had to herd cats for a period of almost three years (I know this--I was one of those cats), and they did a truly astonishing job, welding us all into a whole that was far more satisfying, stimulating, edifying, and uplifting than I, for one, could have imagined. It gives one much hope for the future of the arts in America.

June 20, 2008 2:49 PM | | Comments (1)

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Henry,

I enjoyed reading your thoughts above about the just-completed National Performing Arts Conference.

It's especially nice to read the reflections from a person who is with one of the major organizations that produced this event. I was getting a bit frustrated and I felt that all of the post-conference conversation was from "outsiders" and there was no voice representing the organizers.

A question: In what specific ways do you see the conversations that were started through the town meetings continuing and being integrated into the directions and missions of the supporting organizations?

The overall emphasis of the blogosphere conversations about NPAC to-date, have focused on the perceived limitations of the AmericaSpeaks process, a lack of Internet-connectivity on-site, and the weaknesses of the conference's Internet strategy.

I posted a comment on Andrew Taylor's blog, in response to his post, "Posting results, pondering impact," that links to a number of blog conversations about the conference. My post is about what I believe to be the ineffectiveness of the conference's Internet strategy.

I'm going to write another post next week to summarize and link to the different conversations about the conference.

I especially like your paragraph above that starts as follows - with all the conversation about what could be improved, nobody has really emphasized this important point:

"The America Speaks process, which forces people of diverse backgrounds and experiences together around small tables--each facilitated to assure that everyone does speak (and listen)--asked us all to explore what we thought were the challenges/opportunities facing the performing arts in America..."


Thank you for a very thoughtful set of comments. The question you ask is precisely the question that the organizing service organizations are now beginning to explore. There will be a day-lon meeting in July of the CEO's of the service organizatioins to do their first de-brief, and to begin to discuss just how to maintain the connectivity and to keep the energy going that was generated at the Convention. It is very hard - each service organization has its own work to do, and all are understaffed to meet the demands of their specific fields - and yet we each believe strongly that we must do more together as a sector. That was the motivating factor behind organizing this convention. So I cannot answer you with specifics of just how those conversations will be continued, and might even be turned into action where appropriate -- but I can tell you that all of the service organizations are committed to ensuring that.
-Henry

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