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Arts Presenters 2012 Edition

I have been attending the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference this past weekend. I am sure I will have more to say on the subject in future entries, but I wanted to post a few reflections and impressions while they were fresh.

First, I wanted to give some congratulations and props to Mario Garcia Durham, the new President and CEO of APAP on this, his first conference with the organization. I had met Mario a handful of times before in his capacity as the Director of Artistic Communities and Presenting at the National Endowment for the Arts. I was always set at ease by his open and welcoming manner when I had consultation sessions with him.

I took it as a good sign that he invited the Emerging Leadership Institute participants and alumni (of which I am one) up to his suite to discuss what we felt was the future for the field. We didn’t have a lot of time with him, but it was a promising sign. I also thought it was a promising sign that he got a standing ovation at the start of the conference from the membership. (And even more promising that he decides to discard a long speech he had prepared at another gathering!)

For this conference, I decided to break out my laptop and do a little live tweeting from different sessions. I had a great time doing it and could really see the utility of the activity for the conference, and somewhat by extension, for Tweet Seat programs that have been emerging at various arts events. I will say though that I really felt that I ended up missing many aspects of the sessions I was attending. Not only in terms of not entirely absorbing points people were making, but also some of the nuances of what they were saying. Even though my brain and multi-tasking abilities may not be on par with those of the younger generation, I can’t help but think they would indeed suffer from the same situation.

I was also surprised given the size of the attendance that more people weren’t tweeting from the various discussions going on, at least not on the official hashtag, #APAPNYC. Didnt see much on the counter-conference hashtag #APAPSMEAR, either. Many people used the hashtags to promote their showcases, but didn’t really seem to overdo it.

I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more people tweeting from the sessions because there were often a number I wanted to attend running concurrently and with a few exceptions, no one was reporting what was transpiring in those rooms.

On the other hand, there were a fair number of people following along. I appreciate all those who signed up to follow my twitter feed. Between those who started following me and those who were tweeting themselves, I found a number of new interesting people to follow in turn.

One interesting thing I noticed was a change in the underlying theme of the discussions at the conference. In the past it has often been about declining attendance and funding. This year it seems to be more focused on social and cultural trends, perhaps thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movements. People were talking about loss of identity, disenfranchisement, fragmentation and polarization of society.

Questions were raised about what role arts organizations would have in addressing this and place in the community rather than how to get more people through the doors. One of the major speakers at a few of the sessions was John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, PA who has attracted a lot of national attention for his efforts to revitalize his town and reverse the decline by the use of art and community efforts. As part of one effort, they took the bricks from a demolished garage to make a communal bread oven.

I will try to post more on the conference in the weeks ahead as I am able to digest the experience.

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Even Great Artists Need Recess

I may be beating a long dead horse here but last week the National Endowment for the Arts linked to a NY Times article from their Twitter account asking what people thought. The article in question was about how public schools in NYC were having arts classes during recess. I tweeted in response that I thought it was great, but that when I was a kid, I had art, music AND recess. The title of the article touts the school as being highly rated.

While I am happy these kids are getting some arts exposure, I wonder how it can really be seen as an improvement and a credit to their high rating that they had to do it during recess. It’s a shame that that the only time students can have the experience. It is with some chagrin that I tell the story of my first day in high school where I was trying to figure out when we would be allowed outside for recess. The memory of realizing I wouldn’t be having recess any more still causes a little ache.

I have to wonder, is there really so much more to learn these days that they have to squeeze arts classes and recess out? I know arts get cut for financial reasons, but if a school has the resources to offer it during recess, then they could offer classes as well, right? It has been 30 years since I was in elementary school, but I don’t think there have been that many developments in history, reading, mathematics and science in that time that can’t be covered in the course of all the elementary years of school.

If they have to spend so much additional time teaching and testing material for kids, that must mean those of us in the previous generations fell short of learning all that was required of us, correct? I quake in fear for what it will mean for me when these kids grow up and bring their superior knowledge capacity to bear, pushing me out of my job.

Okay, while it may indeed happen one day that my knowledge will be obsolete compared to younger people, I am fairly certain it won’t all hinge on the differences between what we learned in elementary school. In fact, I may retain my superiority over them simply because of the freedom of recess I enjoyed in elementary school.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan recently had a piece on the Creativity Post about this very topic. (my emphasis)

If you want children to do well in school, give them dedicated time to play, sing, dance, build something out of wood, or whatever their fancy. There is a myth that time spent in these activities is time better spent cramming in more information for all important high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. We each have a finite amount of willpower and when this willpower is exhausted, carrots and sticks are not going to change this fact. Our brains need time for restoration and replenishment. Discover what kids are passionate about and set them free to pursue it. Let me repeat that, set them free. Do not overly structure their recess. Do not overly structure their play time. This is a time for them to recharge their batteries. In return, you will get a greater frequency of creative, curious, critically thinking youngsters. You will get attentive, engaged students.

There is a great NY Times magazine article on the science behind the finite nature of willpower. There is a shorter version of the information on NPR if you don’t have the willpower to read the article. ;) (Though as you will learn, you might be able to get some will power by eating a cookie!)

The more I read about the importance of allowing kids free time, the more I appreciate that my elementary school emphasized self-directed learning. (Albeit under the withering gaze of nuns which I am sure counteracted some of the benefits the freedom afforded.)

It occurs to me that arts people shouldn’t just be advocating for arts in the schools, but the free time to explore and express it. I am sure artistic and creative people are well aware of examples from their own disciplines in which a strict teaching environment has had a stultifying effect on the development and joy of young students. The advocacy can’t simply be about providing arts education if it is bereft of an opportunity to play. If students choose to spend their free time peering down at a cell phone texting their friends, it may be in part because they were never provided the opportunity and encouragement to spend it any way else.

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Funding The In Between Places

Scott Walters over at Theatre Ideas has been looking at how the National Endowment for the Arts distributed funds for its “Our Town” grant program. In the last three posts on the topic, he has been critical of the way the granting process is structured and executed, perceiving a surprising bias against rural communities given that it takes its name from Thornton Wilder’s play set in a rural location.

Scott’s initial criticism sort of deflated my sails when, by his criteria, the award to the Wallkill River School, Inc. in Orange County, NY where I grew up was not being made to a rural arts organization given the population of the county. I was excited to see that their project whose purpose is “To support the development of economic strategies for long-term, sustainable partnerships between the arts and agriculture in Orange County,” was funded.

I have to concede that the population has increased quite a bit since I was growing up and its psychological distance from New York City has diminished since then. (Though it still qualifies as “way upstate” in minds of NYC residents.)

I was also happy to see that the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), headquartered in Boise, ID had gotten a grant. (Full disclosure, we will be presenting the dance company in Spring 2012.) Though it isn’t rural per se, Boise qualifies as fly over country in many people’s minds. I have found Trey McIntyre’s decision to locate there rather than NY, Chicago or L.A. to be commendable—and so has the population of Boise who treat them like celebrities. The group has made great efforts to expand the concept of a dance company’s place in the community by appearing anywhere and everywhere from flash mob like performances to dancing at the local NBA farm team games to creating their own art installation in a hotel room (forward to 3:30 to hear McIntyre talk about the installation)

I was also very happy to see a local burgeoning effort in support of Hawaiian culture was funded as well. I can probably devote an entry explaining how valuable this award is going to be in planting seeds for greater things.

All this being said, I felt Walters did a credible job in his entry today arguing that many elements of the application and review process placed rural arts organizations at a disadvantage.

As Walters acknowledge in his analysis on Monday, the NEA did make an attempt to enlist the participation of arts centers in rural areas and didn’t receive a very strong response. However, in reviewing the comments on his failed grant application, Walter notes that the criteria being used to evaluate his application wasn’t appropriate for the project he was proposing.

“When I consulted the NEA as to why my own “Our Town” grant was not funded, the notes from the review committee focused on excellence: WHO is going to be providing the art, and what are their credentials? Notice that my proposal was for a participatory arts program, and so the artists would be members of the community, not imported “professionals” from outside the community. Participatory arts, as the NEA knows from having recently published it own studies on the subject, is about enhancing the creativity of the citizenry. Credentials and press coverage are irrelevant.”

He also notes that since rural arts organizations don’t have large staffs, the three weeks notice they were given between being invited to apply and the deadline was barely enough time to compose a proposal. When they made it past the first stage, they were given only a month to assemble a complete proposal, an immense task given the length of the application and the limited staff with which to do it. These small staffs may also lack the experience and advisers to guide them in infusing the grants with the polish that granters like the NEA have come to expect.

I actually faced a similar situation here. A grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities specifically focused on community colleges was announced in June with a deadline in August. One of the things they are looking for is involving up to 12 other colleges in a partnership. So not only do you need to try to assemble a work group of professors and administrators on your own campus during the summer after everyone has scattered to the winds, you have to get buy in from the same nearly non-existent groups on other campuses as well!

Via the citation of a comment by Ian David Moss, Walters wonders if the NEA is suited and equipt to directly pursue its mandate of geographically diverse funding. He discards Moss’ idea of directing more funding to trusted partners in rural states and letting them make decisions in favor of asking the NEA to become more accountable by cultivating stronger relationships with organization that work closely with rural arts groups and making a better effort to recruit people with an understanding of rural arts operations to serve on grant review panels.

While I disagree with Walters’ criteria about what constitutes rural, I am generally with him about the need to make the grant process more accessible to arts organizations in small communities. A decade ago, heck, even 5 years ago, I would have said the NEA faced an immense task trying to identify and reach out to rural organizations. But with email and social media, it is fairly easy to create focused email lists and Twitter feeds with which to deliver information to these groups.

It is just a matter of enlisting the rural arts service organizations that provide support to these groups to assist them in making them aware of the channels the NEA will be using to communicate with them. As Walters suggests, a time table and structure that recognizes both the limitations and different array of opportunities specific to rural arts organizations. Given how few organizations applied, even an increase of participation by a handful of groups will allow the NEA to claim a many fold percent growth in rural program support.

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Making ‘Em Want To Sing, One Seventh Grader At A Time

I spent the morning talking to 7th and 8th graders about careers in the arts. The assistant theatre manager (ATM) and I sort of tag-teamed the presentation which included slides on some of shows to help communicate the need for good skills in research, reading, writing, communication, collaboration, math, technology and dedication alongside the specific skills you need for each discipline. Since the ATM and I had different career paths that brought us to our current jobs, we talked a little bit about that while quizzing the students on their knowledge and involvement in the arts.

On the drive over today, I couldn’t help feeling I might be selling the students a flawed bill of goods. The radio was full of stories about proposals to liquidate the National Endowments and the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores. Against a backdrop of news that arts and literature were not valued in the country, are students going to believe that the arts have something to offer them? Now granted, many 7th and 8th graders don’t listen to NPR every morning, but the message is still out there, each story contributing to students’ general outlooks and attitudes.

The only bit of sunshine was a story about Portland, OR which discussed that people keep moving to Portland even though there aren’t enough jobs. What keeps drawing them there? The overall culture and atmosphere of the city, including a mention of the music scene. I knew I had heard this sentiment before so I did a Google search before sitting down to write and sure enough, I found stories from 2010, 2009 and even earlier where people talked about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene. You can find plenty of blog entries on the subject as well. I was pleased to continually hear a story where the arts were mentioned as an attractive element of a city.

When I got to the school, we discovered we were assigned to choral room. That seemed like a good environment in which to talk about the performing arts. We spoke to the music teacher there and he told us because of the high stakes testing, they no longer had a drama program in the school. This was rather disappointing to us, of course. However, we also discovered that he has over 200 students auditioning for 65 slots in his choral classes. He said it used to be 100 students until American Idol first aired and he got a surge of interest. Then when Glee started airing, he got another surge. Now he has to turn away twice as many students as he can accept. The choral director actually used to teach band at the high school down the street from me, but moved when he started a family because he wasn’t getting home until 10:00 pm and then had to get back up at 5:00 to return to work.

Next door was the band room where the son of one of our college’s retired music professors teaches music. According to the principal, both the professor and his wife come in pretty much daily to help their son teach the class. If music gets cut in their school, (and the choral teacher is getting a masters in another subject area to hedge against that), not only will the school lose its music teachers, but the efforts of two parents as well. If the arts programs get cut from these schools, it won’t be because of lack of interest from students or lack of dedication from teachers.

This school does not serve zip codes where the education reflects the values of an affluent community either. This isn’t to suggest that the parents aren’t pushing their students to do well, merely that the school isn’t in a place where people automatically assume the students will excel and succeed based wholly on the neighborhood. I was pleased to see that the arts didn’t face an entirely uphill battle in relation to communicating the value of the arts in one’s life to their students. There were some good role models and practices in front of the students.

Americans for the Arts has set up an easy way for you to write your representatives in Congress about continuing to fund the NEA and arts education. I like the format because it is much more flexible about allowing you to mix your own thoughts with pre-written text than most email campaigns allow. I have had it bookmarked for a couple days because I didn’t really want to go with a lot of the pre-generated text, but hadn’t quite thought of a way to make what I had to say personal for my representatives. Thinking about what I saw today, I think I finally have something that will create the connection I want them to make.

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