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June 2, 2008

Is the performing arts industry designed to learn?

That's the question I explore in my guest post over in the National Performing Arts Convention blog. I'll be attending the upcoming convention in Denver, along with a research team, to inform that very question, and analyze our field's capacity for collective action.

If you're planning to be in Denver at the NPAC, I look forward to meeting some of you in person. And if you're going to be at the Americans for the Arts conference in Philadelphia the following week, look for me there, as well.

Posted by ataylor at 8:57 AM | Comments (1)

June 4, 2008

Prepping for Denver

Sorry to be incommunicado this week, but I'm co-leading a major research project surrounding the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver next week (see my previous post). I hope to be blogging from the convention, if the universe does not conspire against me.

If you're starving for blog content, there are plenty of other bloggers in the sea. Go fish.

Posted by ataylor at 9:05 AM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2008

Fixed seating vs. flexible space

As I begin my week at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver (convention posts likely to start tomorrow), I'm eager to find individuals and organizations rethinking how the performing arts work -- how they engage, how they operationalize their vision, how they escape common knowledge and professional habit to find a more sustainable and dynamic voice. As I find them, I'll let you know.

In the meanwhile, I was intrigued by this proposed theater design for London's West End. It suggests fixed seating that appears for a performance, and then retracts into the floor after the show. Says ''multi-millionaire property developer'' Laurence Kirschel:

''The reason that theatres don't make money is that they are closed more often than they are open. We would look at how we can transform the space into a useful area when it is not being used for a show.''

While theaters lose money for lots of reasons beyond their complex use of production space, Kirschel's proposal certainly addresses another challenge facing now traditional performance venues -- the rather inflexible utility of performing arts space. Fixed seating, after all, is a fairly recent innovation in the performing arts, according to theater scholar Lynne Conner. And the bolted seats of most venues limit their use to a small range of possible activities (performance, lecture, presentation...perhaps the occasional reception on stage).

Of course, Kirschel isn't particularly innovative in the larger idea. Many of us had those lumbering, telescoping (or retractable) seats in our high school gymnasiums. Fancier versions are now in use in blackbox theaters around the world. Back in 2001, Rem Koolhaas' flagship Prada store design in New York was famous for its attempt to create a retail-by-day, event-space-by-night functionality (and didn't quite succeed at either, I've been told).

But the larger tension remains: How can you balance the high technical and amenity requirements of present-day professional performing arts spaces, with the economic, operational, and social necessity for highly flexible space? And how many stagehands will it take, at how many hours and what cost, to switch between the two?

Posted by ataylor at 9:34 AM | Comments (3)

June 11, 2008

Other than the large, blue, geodesic bear

The large, geodesic bear As it turns out, I'm far too consumed in attending the National Performing Arts Convention to write about its content yet. But I hope to do so over the coming days. In the meanwhile, I've been struck by the curious contradictions in the particular part of Denver we're in.

The Colorado Convention Center is a monster of a venue, constructed, no doubt, to increase tourism, convention business, and re-focus investment and activity in this part of town. Surrounding the massive investment, of course, are new and renovated hotels, a large, multi-venue performing arts center, and lots of construction (many parking structures among them).

So, here's the contradiction: These large capital investments by public, private, and nonprofit players have certainly transformed the convening capacity in Denver's downtown. But they have also de-activated the streets. The convention center, the parking lots, the hotels (despite their occasional restaurant or coffee shop), create block after block of glass or stone walls at the street level, many of them without a door (at least an open one) for hundreds of feet at a time. As a result, there are very few people populating the street, stopping to talk with each other, people watching, lingering, and realizing they're in an urban streetscape of diversity and energy.

To be fair, this may well be the intent, since just blocks away is the 16th street mall with shops and restaurants and cafes and such. And it's obvious the evolution of this neighborhood is continuing. Although the blocks and blocks of walls that now line the sidewalk would make significant spacial or social change unlikely.

Ultimately, as with many major cultural and civic facilities, it's odd to wander among the mammoths, to know there are likely thousands of people convening somewhere within the skins of glass and stone and steel, and to feel, essentially, alone...that is, other than the large, blue, geodesic bear that's peering into the convention center, wondering (along with you) what's inside.

Posted by ataylor at 12:56 PM | Comments (0)

June 13, 2008

Who's in, who's out?

One of the fascinating series of discussions at the National Performing Arts Convention have hovered around what constitutes a ''national performing arts community.'' Given the convening of this event by national service organizations for formally organized, primarily nonprofit cultural organizations, the bias in the perspectives is probably obvious: the ''performing arts community'' includes nonprofit and public institutions, artists, audiences, and supporters in artistic disciplines we know.

But every now and then, during a caucus roundtable conversation or in a workshop session, somebody raises the question: is the performing arts community really only that? What about commercial organizations that present live performances -- promoters, stadium shows, nightclubs? What about informal community groups that lack an organizing structure and often lack a budget? What about forms of performing expression not generally organized under a nonprofit or public structure -- rock bands, folk groups, cultural heritage centers, urban poetry slams? What about individual artists who spend the bulk of their days as piano teachers, high school music teachers, and critics or scholars of music or dance or social expression? What about the phalanx of popular reality shows built upon singing, or dancing, or acting -- American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, Step It Up and Dance, or even Inside the Actors Studio?

It may sound like an endlessly complex and nuanced exercise, but defining who's in and who's out of a ''community'' is often a necessary first step of how that community might organize and mobilize to advance its common goals. Without that definition, we can easily miss many powerful and persuasive partners in our efforts. Or we can dull the focus of our strategies and tactics for collective action.

We're not likely to resolve the question anytime soon. But it's glorious to watch as 3500 people make the effort.

Posted by ataylor at 11:51 AM | Comments (1)

June 17, 2008

Changing the players, and the game

Last week's National Performing Arts Convention ended with a massive gathering of about 1300 performing arts professionals, all in one room, to review and select a collective agenda for action to advance the field. The big three bullets were about increasing resonance and value of the performing arts among citizens and communities, reforming and reframing arts education and lifelong learning, and building a more inclusive and diverse voice for the arts and in the arts. Full details of the final strategies selected will likely be posted soon (if they're not, I'll post them here).

But my full week in Denver, with the 12-hour days of convening and observing with the graduate student team I was co-directing there -- along with Elizabeth Lingo of Vanderbilt University and Caroline Lee of Lafayette College -- left me with a much clearer sense of our field's capacity for collective action. Full details of our findings will be published in our commissioned report in a few months. But my own reflections -- which may or may not reflect the opinions of my peers -- suggest the following:

  • Nonprofit performing arts professionals are passionate and resourceful
    It was astounding to hear how the smallest organizations with the tiniest budgets were still finding ways to vitally connect to their art and their communities.
  • We are also fun to hang out with
    Laughter and camaraderie abounded in Denver, even among former strangers.
  • We're conflicted about where we fit in the 'performing arts'
    Being unique, under appreciated, and in constant jeopardy seem to be part of our DNA now in the nonprofit performing arts, whether or not the evidence supports the assumptions. And our perception of commercial entertainment as the ''other'' and the ''enemy'' still block our larger understanding of our work.
  • We're missing the forest for the trees
    The daily grind and excessive demands of our professional work lead us to focus on a fairly small circle -- our organization, our community, and sometimes our discipline. This makes a larger conversation about a vast and complex ''performing arts community'' difficult to frame and advance.
  • We're unaware of the resources around us
    I heard often during convention conversations that ''there ought to be an organization or resource that...'', describing an entity or resource that had actually been around for decades (arts education on-line repository: ArtsEdge, national advocate for the arts in the public sphere: Americans for the Arts, detailed information on community demographics and trends: American FactFinder from the U.S. Census). It's clear performing arts professionals don't currently have the time or incentive to explore these larger resources, or to understand and inform their value or potential.
  • Our art forms tell compelling stories, but our industry does not
    So much of the conversation in Denver was driven by frustration with the lack of perceived resonance, value, and importance of what the performing arts do for society. Government doesn't support us enough. Schools don't work hard enough to sustain and integrate arts education. Audiences don't spend enough on our tickets. We tended to blame the outsiders for this problem -- if they only understood us, they would value us -- but every now and then someone would ask the deeper question: Are we telling our story well? Are we building our story on the values and interests of our community? Are we being as compelling and clear in our organizational narratives as we are on our stages?

My reflections above suggest a specific direction and effort for the national service organizations that hosted this historic convening. I'll dive into those ideas later this week. In the meantime, I'll admit that the sight of so many cultural professionals in one place -- some 3500 or so, in all -- inspired more hope and optimism than I was prepared for. We have extraordinary energy at our disposal, if we can focus and harness it effectively, we'll be a force.

Posted by ataylor at 8:47 AM | Comments (2)

June 18, 2008

Posting results, pondering impact

The National Performing Arts Convention has started to post the results of its final Town Hall meeting over on their convention weblog. These are the categories and strategies presented during the massive final meeting of the convention, and voted on by some 1300 conventioners. The three-day process leading up to this final event included large caucuses of convention conversations -- tables of 8 to 10 participants from different disciplines, clustered in rooms throughout the venue. Each of these caucuses explored a specific question, and all of those answers bubbled up to a ''theme team'' that selected the most mentioned responses to feed into the next day's conversation.

The goal was to collaboratively develop three primary categories of action to improve the state and status of the performing arts in the United States, and then to generate and select two or three primary strategies within each of those categories at the national, local/regional, and organizational level.

While these goals and strategies may seem broad and vague, they generated some wonderfully specific conversation at the table I was observing during the Town Hall. I hope the weblog posting, and opportunity to comment, captures a portion of this nuance and texture.

Meanwhile, blogger Doug Fox has posted a critique of the convention's use (or limited use) of communications technologies and blogger networks in spreading the conversation beyond the physical space in Denver. Good points about the convening, as well as the on-line capacity of our industry.

Posted by ataylor at 10:49 AM | Comments (1)

June 24, 2008

Americans, as it turns out, are for the arts

I'm just back from another conference, this time hosted by Americans for the Arts. Some 1400 representatives arts organizations, foundations and community funds, arts service organizations, and local, state, regional, and national arts agencies gathered in Philadelphia for the 2008 annual conference.

As ever, the conference confirmed that the true value of such convenings is forged between and beyond the formal schedule -- in unexpected meetings over coffee or in the bustling hallway, in side chatter in the back of the room while a panel presents badly projected and poorly designed PowerPoint slides at the front (red text on a dark background...good choice), and in the speed-networking possible when you can introduce, face to face, two close associates that don't know each other but should ("Oh, you're working on that topic, you really need to talk to Barbara in Cleveland, there she is, let me introduce you.").

It continues to make me wonder what a conference would look like if it were optimized toward these absolute values.

But there was strong content in Philly, as well.

  • Andrew Zolli did a great presentation on dynamic trends that will define our collective future (funny, engaging, personable, although essentially the same presentation he gave at Arts Presenters in January 2007). Spoiler alert: A big transformational dynamic is in how big our future world population will be, where they will live, and the proportion of pre- and post-wage-earners to those in the workforce.
  • A smart bunch of panelists discussed the evidence of arts impact on communities and social issues -- how they're gathering it, how it can be framed, and why we can measure what seems to many to be immeasurable. Kudos, particularly, to Chris Dwyer of RMC Research for explaining the challenge and opportunities of thoughtful research so well, and to Mark Stern and Susan Seifert for their continuing work on the Social Impact of the Arts Project at UPenn.
  • A blazingly brilliant panel -- honestly, I had to squint -- explored the commonly assumed ''leadership gap'' now facing arts and culture...oh wait, I was on that panel. Perhaps I have a bias... Seriously, though, my panel partners Ximena Varela of Drexel University and Mitch Menchaca of the Arizona Commission were funny, bright, and wonderfully blunt about the realities of leadership diversity in the arts (Ximena) and the ''sink or swim'' culture we tend to call ''leadership development'' (Mitch). Thanks to the fabulous Cecelia Fitzgibbon of Drexel University for curating the conversation.

Finally, it occurred to me that the best way to galvanize a community is to have a common enemy. I therefore propose the launch of an arch nemesis to Americans for the Arts, tentatively titled ''Americans Against the Arts'' or perhaps ''Americans Indifferent to the Arts.'' Then, we'd really get some traction.

Oh, and a special shout-out to Paul Tyler from the ArtsKC Fund, who actually took the bold leap of adopting the Pecha Kucha PowerPoint rules for his conference presentation. Amy Kweskin blogged about it here. Props, Paul! May others be inspired by your example.

Posted by ataylor at 10:07 AM | Comments (5)

June 26, 2008

A thought to chew on

Over the two arts conventions I've just marshaled through, one particular comment has been bouncing around in my head more than others. It was said during one of the many AmericaSpeaks caucus sessions in Denver, that gathered groups of 8 to 10 cross-disciplinary participants to talk about larger, common issues of performing arts policy.

The group was bemoaning the disconnect between the professional arts and civic life, evidenced by their tenuous support in city councils, state budgets, and federal policy. And then one participant said this:

''We need to stop making the arts so special.''

The participant didn't mean it in a snarky way. He had just realized the strange and often self-produced gulf between creative expression and everyday life. Art shouldn't be an experience we reserve for sacred and exceptional moments, he said. It should be an expected and completely normal part of everything we do.

There has been a perceived strategic advantage, at least in the past decades, in promoting the arts as separately important to community and society -- a unique and specialized form of expression that demanded special protection and focused support. But the group was coming to realize the downside to that strategy, which is to disengage creative expression (particularly professional creative expression) from the everyday, the expected, the assumed, the obvious.

Art and artistic expression shouldn't be the jewelry of society, it should be part of the blood, part of the muscle, and part of the bone. When our strategies set us apart from the world so that we can be separately admired, supported, and valued, we shouldn't be surprised when we are perceived as separate.

As John Dewey wrote more than 70 years ago:

As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.

Posted by ataylor at 7:36 AM | Comments (5)

June 27, 2008

Not aloof and detached, but deeply, deeply human

This one time, at band camp (okay, orchestra camp), I got to watch a slightly crazy and wildly gesticulating individual convince a roomful of young musicians that their power and calling was more than just learning to play well. Rather, he persuaded us that we were part of a long arc of human expression that had depth, meaning, purpose, and power. This was over 30 years ago, when I was younger and thinner, and had less of a practical professional patina about me.

As a young musician, not aspiring to anything in particular, I bought the message. But since then, I had forgotten.

So I was particularly surprised and thrilled to see that slightly crazy and wildly gesticulating individual today, on-line, in an equally inspiring and aligning commentary at TED from February. The man was, and is, Benjamin Zander. And if you're wondering how to engage a non-arts audience in the arts -- not with gimmicks, but with honesty, respect, and contagious passion -- watch this.

Posted by ataylor at 12:41 AM | Comments (2)

June 30, 2008

July hiatus

June was a brutal month for on-the-road convening. So I'm taking July as a weblog hiatus. I'll be back in August with new thoughts and fresh perspective. Until then, have a great month!

Posted by ataylor at 9:30 AM | Comments (1)

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