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.