GIA Conference D1: The Times They Are A-Changin’, The Times They Are A-Changed

So, how does one take a dozen pages of hastily typed notes covering approximately seven hours of a conference day, including plenary, panel presentations, and forum-type sessions?

Hell if I know. Let’s call it a blog in process.

I have to give everyone credit for how things kicked off. Right from the start, Janet Brown set a tone that was both welcoming and fun. And Janet went straight to GIA’s past president Vicky Benson who delivering a Coen Brothers inspired welcome message via video that kindly reminded everyone that this particular conference was off-limits to fundraising. Not just for those who were from the potential and obvious world of grantees, but consultants, and even funders pitching each other for project support. No deal, as the saying goes. And, fair enough.

Vicky hit the high note when she suggested that the food could be greatly improved by the addition of a nice green jello dish with bright red carrots and whipped cream. Straight out of Fargo. Nice, very nice touch. And lo and behold, a couple of hours later, that dish was presented to Vicky in the flesh, prepared by the hotel chef.

The opening plenary featured Marc Bamuthi Joseph, sporting one heck of a stingy brim fedora.

“I am a grantmaker, I give and receive, I sustain culture, I am an artist, I give and receive, I sustain culture.”

Getting quickly to a sweeping review of the history of the NEA, Marc got to his point, a good way to set the tone for the entire conference and underscore the theme: Embracing the Velocity of Change.

The point: art as product, commodity, and the ways in which the funding community has coalesced around this model needed to be refocused into art as process and art as community builder. Rather than a world of winners and losers, a culture of scarcity, Marc’s work and what he argues for is that it is “not enough to place art in community without community context…No amount of Facebook or flyering can substitute for genuine public proximity and investment.”

Marc explored “Critical adjancies.” Think about the strip mall, where a locus occurs around commerce. Think of art placed into a community, where the art brings together a broad array of people through the process of art making, expression, community, and democracy. It is a model for brining together arts, audience, organizations, artists, and more, all through artistic process, with potential to grow investment, audience, creative process, and seeks to lift all boats. It is an interdisciplinary, multi-organization, multi-sector model. A big umbrella vision of arts integrated and combined with health, environment, shared values, and all with a highly intentional design.

It was a fine example of the ways in which artists are seeking to explode existing models, recognizing the changing/changed world and the need to get ahead of the change. It also recognizes the ways in which the field hurts and hinders itself. Is it even a field…?

“…art happens anywhere and can happen for anyone…”
“…import performance aesthetics into non traditional public spaces…”

Takeaway: maybe partnership and community can have life breathed into it in a way that can reshape the world for the better.

Don’t be late to class. It’s funny, but there is something about moving from one session to the next—as you walk the halls from room-to-room—that reminds me of high school. By the time you leave a session that went a bit over time, you’ve got to get to the next session and as you walk the halls you see friends, but there isn’t enough time to talk, as you’ve got to get to that next session. Just like high school. Gotta beat that bell!

Next up: The Big Shift, The Velocity of Change in America’s Aging Society, hosted by the super great Rohit Burman, featuring  Tim Carpenter, founder and director, EngAGE; Marc Freedman, founder and CEO, Civic Ventures.

Big demo changes set the stage. Kids being born today will live to 100. The population above 65 is growing. The notions of age grouping, infancy, childhood, youth, middle age, retirement, etc., are really artificial and have been evolving over time. It is a spectrum and the opportunities for engagement in and with the arts are a vital issue in how the big middle (my term, ignore at will), meaning those who are not children in school nor seniors, make the creativity part of their lives. Here the arts are part of what can make for a vital life post core working years. Forget the idea of a golf swinging retirement. People will live longer, be more active, and seek to return to or discover creativity. Moreover, there are enormous opportunities to place artists into communities of those in this big middle (my term), to help provide tools for powerful creativity throughout life. There are opportunities to retrain artists to bring their arts to new audiences, in new ways, not just for young or mid-career artists, but for aging artists as well. What is even more, the real need to make retirement communities as well as assisted living better places resides in part, in bringing thoughtful, genuine arts to these worlds.

A final note: what we continue to learn, is that the making of art and growth in arts engagement is not solely for those whom we might have viewed as being in their prime years, or for youth in schools, but a core part of what is human and possible no matter the age. Think further: It is not as simple as life-long learning, which tends to be “edutainment.”

“Arts is something people do dust off when they are older. There is a natural unveiling of one self when you get older. It is just tapping population with skills and time and passion, and what if you applied that to society’s problems.”

“What are we doing about the middle years, between youth and old age? It is a giant opportunity to distribute opportunities for creativity through the life force/course.”

“There is something that older generations can teach that doesn’t get taught in curriculum…art of medicine…art…things that are not necessarily technical.”

Takeaway: Art is not owned by the artists nor the arts institutions, and a key to the vitality of arts in America is looking at how arts and creativity are stimulated, supported, and facilitated in the growing number of adults over the age of 50.

Great session!

On the the lunch plenary. After a “random act of art,” featuring double agent conference participants who were actually opera singers, we had the enormous pleasure of a presenation by Dr. Manuel Pastor on key shifts in racial and ethnic demographics.

What can I say? You don’t often associate a demographic presentation with entertainment. But Pastor was the perfect and surprising mix of funny, self-effacing, expert, serious, insightful, and inspirational. Yup, he was all that, an admirable combination the likes of which I have rarely experienced.

Big takeway: not only are we rapidly heading to be a minority-majority nation, but even the ways in which people view their own identity is very much in flux. Case in point: across the last few census (is that really the plural of census?), many Latinos identified themselves as “others.” No matter how the census was redesigned, this number continued to rise. Reason: rather than view themselves as Latino, the might view themselves as Chicano. Identity in flux.

In addition, we are seeing a leveling off of immigration, and in some cases a decline, no matter what the media and politicians tell us. Rather, we are seeing the growth in second and third generations of immigrants.

Interesting case in point, underscoring the nature of change and the need for information: take cities around LA such as Compton, which for many years was majority African American, and known as a hotbed for rap and hip hop. Today, the high school in Compton is majority Latino.

Some leaders like chess; others like jigsaw puzzles.

In chess, to win, only two colors, some pieces more powerful/important

Jigsaw, all pieces equal, no winners and losers, multi colored…

Next Up: Equity in Private Foundation Support for Arts and Culture, a salon session moderated by Bill Cleveland, featuring Holly Sidford.

This salon focused on the release of Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, by Holly Sidford.

The Huff Po covered the release of the report: Arts Funding is Supporting a Wealthy, White Audience. How’s that for a conversation starter?

When philanthropy began in 19th century, it was about focused on elites and Western European preservation. Those early patterns persist, but today more and more artists and organizations today advancing principles of social justice, yet 55% of foundation support goes to less than 2% of cultural orgs (with budgets of $5 million and up.

Okay, despite the wonderful facilitation by Bill Cleveland, this session was a mess. It was a close to a philanthropic Tower of Babel as I’ve have heard in a long time. And, while presenters took great pains to be objective, forthright, and avoid throwing bombs, there is simply now way you can avoid a difficult conversation about “canonical organizations” versus the new world of arts, artists, and arts organizations. As much as there was a call to avoid the binary way of viewing things, this session was a pretty tough slog.

Only 10 percent of grants go to marginalized populations, less than 2 percent advance social justice goals. The larger the arts portfolio, the less a commitment to social justice. 84 percent of all the arts organizations have budgets under 500K.

Artists are also marginalized…well educated, but make less money, hold two and three jobs, and are out of work more regularly than the average American worker, although this is changing due to the economy.

In a nutshell, the theme here was philanthropy out of balance. Naturally, it’s a touch subject, leading to criticism and defense of symphony orchestras (one of those pesky canonicals), for example.

It was a good start to a complicated conversation, which might be best summed up by at least one two very thoughtful framing-type comments:

There are large conceptual questions: how private should private foundation money be? What is the democratic responsibility of a private foundation? This will not be settled quickly…we need to spend more time reinvigorating a discourse that is a lot more vigorous than we have now. Trustees and staff hiding behind..we must reinvigorate a critical discourse that creates new meanings that matches new realities…

Conversation around mission has been around tools, but mission should be more broad…say to pursue happiness…and to see what comes…what would that then become…to find new new tools…and a different way of looking at systems.

Okay, last but not least, and my apologies for the long entry, but hey, it was seven hours of conference sessions.

My final session for the day was Building Advocacy Networks, organized by Sofia Klatzker, senior manager, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, with Joe Landon, executive director, California Alliance for Arts Education.

I won’t give you too much of a run down of this session. Let me simply say that the work of these two organizations, in advocacy for arts education, including policy, organizing, media relations, and more, is the most thoughtful, pioneering, and impressive work in this arena that you will find anywhere.

If you want to understand how and what this work is all about. Learn more about both of these wonderful organizations.

The Times The Are A-Changin’. Hey dude, they’re not just changing… they’ve changed. We better embrace it.

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