“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson
I’m a junkie for professional development.
I loved school, so it’s no great surprise that I love learning environments. I even adore conferences, though I find that what happens in the hallways between conference sessions is often more interesting than the sessions. Or what happens at night over dinner. I was awarded an Emerging Leader scholarship to an Americans for the Arts conference several years ago, and it was at an after-hours beer-swilling event that I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas. Ian, in addition to being totally brilliant and the editor of the Createquity blog, is a super cool guy, and my work in the arts is better for being connected to him. So it’s both the learning and the relationships that I love when it comes to participating in professional development opportunities.
I’ve had a hard time getting to conferences since my little ones were born. But I’ve enthusiastically thrown my hat in the ring for the Chief Executive Program through National Arts Strategies. It speaks directly to my professional development junkie heart, in that it is an extended, in-depth, intense program focused “tackling the big questions facing the field”. It’s highly competitive, so I’m not holding my breath about getting invited to participate, but even the application process was thought-provoking.
The application began with four short essays (yay! I love writing essays!) about organizational and personal goals, challenges, and leadership styles, ending with a straightforward question: what do you see as the four most important issues facing the arts field as a whole? I quickly brainstormed a list (of a dozen issues) and then narrowed it down to my four. But I wanted to know how the great minds around me would respond, so I wrote to my staff, my friends, and my family to give me their answers.
I’m very fortunate to be related to and friends with artists, performers, writers, and arts administrators across the country. So I was able to open up this conversation to folks like Dan Kois (Senior Editor at Slate), Catherine Trieschemann (playwright), Jonathan Farmer (poet and Editor-in-Chief of At Length) Sean Williams (actor, producer and co-founder of Gideon Productions), Linda Worsley (composer), Ehren Gresehover (co-founder and Creative Director of Stellar Engine), and many more, as well as the excellent staff of the Arts Council. Common themes emerged from this poll, but what interested me more was the commonality of passion and frustration I heard in the answers.
Here’s a sampling of the issues the group identified, and some related quotes:
- The failure and de-funding of arts education in public schools. This topped everyone’s list. In fact, one respondent said, “The arts have been taken away from our schools, and our kids, and the result is the loss of patronage and audiences, even public awareness and interest in the arts, for generations to come. This has to change. I can’t come up with any other issues that mean more than this.”
- The rapid elitification of arts – both real and perceived. “Practically, a huge amount of art — especially high-culture-type art — is prohibitively expensive and intimidating. But there is a huge amount of art that is in fact affordable and accessible. But the other side of the coin is that the PERCEPTION of art in America is that it’s an elitist/frou-frou/impractical thing, and so huge numbers of people don’t take advantage of opportunities.” Said another, “There is a stereotype that art is formal, dry, cold, and elite. Classical music, the Louvre, Shakespeare, those are art. The creative things that happen in our day to day lives are seen as something else. We miss how creative we all are, and that our creativity is art.”
- Outreach (which is related to #2). “We need to find a model that brings art to people where they will best use it. How do we put art in peoples’ homes, how do we make it part of their couch experience?”
- Equity in arts funding, and what is considered “art”. “There are many cultural groups that participate in creative practices with long, rich histories, which are extremely artistic, but these practices are not considered ‘art’ by funding groups, and in some cases not even recognized by the participants as ‘art’”.
- Raising consciousness of the public value of art happening in our communities. “The problem, as I see it, is that most people think that their cultural life is centered on things that happen other places, when the most vital experience can be had for a few bucks 10 minutes from where you live. The challenge is finding ways to get people to engage with the things that are actually happening where they live.”
- Access to the arts. “There is little engagement for middle-low income families, especially for undocumented, houseless, and LGBTQ communities.”
- Funding for non-commercial art. “Finding funding for art that furthers the field but isn’t self-sustaining financially.”
- Unions. “Destroy them and start over,” said one respondent. “The fact that Brad Pitt can be a hardcore leftist while being a member of a ‘union’ with an 80%+ unemployment rate is disgusting. I’ve been hearing my whole life that the unions are better than not being in a union, all the while every union member is sneaking around behind the union’s back and every employer is disgusted with either the requirements being too stringent or being ridiculously contemptible.”
- Art and technology. “I don’t think the internet is killing art or anything, but I do think technological advances have changed it across fields in multiple ways, and we’re still steps behind in figuring out what any of it means and how it affects us.”
- The “reality TV myth” – the perception that art requires no real discipline, work ethic, or time to develop. “Art is a process. It’s that which makes great people even more able to do great things. When the process, when the journey, isn’t valued, we lose the value of what art and artists are.”
- Passive entertainment. “Before we had so much access to passive entertainment, we had to make our own. I get the impression that more people drew the world around them or played instruments or sang or whatever in regular way.”
- A radical re-imagining for financing. “Start by disregarding pay-for-art-ingested, crowdfunding and public subsidies and see what’s left.”
- No growth. “So many arts organizations are flat. Flat in terms of budget and audience growth. Flat in terms of excitement and dynamism. Flat in terms of leadership.”
- Life without the arts leads to lives with no meaning. “Art should be a means and not an end. The biggest issues have to do not with serving ‘The Arts’ but with serving people who need to be served.”
Interestingly, the folks I polled all mentioned funding for the arts as a major issue so obvious that it wasn’t worth listing separately.
My top four are related to many of the issues on the above list. Here they are, with quotes pulled from my application:
- The decimation of arts education in schools. “By not providing children with access to explore the arts, we are decimating the pool of future artists, arts appreciators, and funders. And we are devaluing the arts on a massive scale, which means dramatically fewer people – adults and children both – are enjoying the benefits of creating or enjoying the arts, leaving lives less rich, less diverse, and less interesting.”
- Declining arts audiences. “Our theaters, dance companies, symphony orchestras, art galleries, and museums are closing their doors while we watch movies and play video games on our smart phones.”
- Raising awareness of the availability, accessibility, and value of local arts. “In many communities, there are diverse, engaging, and affordable arts experiences at the ready. But community members either don’t know about them, or it would never occur to them to attend.”
- Fundraising and financing the arts. “I work in California which has the honor of being dead last in the nation for per capital arts funding. The NEA’s budget continues to be under fire and is not nearly adequate to ensure that our great nation will have the great art it deserves. This top-down devaluing of the arts affects even the smallest arts organizations.”
So many of these issues are intertwined. None, I think, stand alone. Barry Hessenius, on his blog, just pointed to a Pew Survey on the perception of Americans as to how specific groups contribute to society’s well-being. According to the survey, only 30% of respondents believe that artists contribute “a lot” to the well-being of America. This is down 1% from the last time the survey was taken, in 2009. No wonder financial support for the arts is at such a low. And yet, as evidenced above, we have so many rallying points, and such clear challenges. We have the data and the passion to make our case. Why haven’t we as a field mastered how to effectively advocate for the arts? Whether or not I get invited to participate in the Chief Executive Program, I hope, over the course of my career, to help find answers, and solutions.