Pinatas Today, Politics Tomorrow

Maybe there is something in the water in Texas.

In July I wrote about an artist who created a fake campaign promoting the restoration of El Paso’s trolley system as a thesis project. That campaign garnered so much enthusiasm, the trolley system actually ended up being restored. The artist parlayed that success into a successful campaign for a seat on El Paso’s city council.

Now over in Dallas, an artist who started using pinata houses to draw attention to the way gentrification was displacing the Latino community has declared his intent to run for Dallas city council.

According to another article in the Dallas Morning News containing more detail, as part of the project the artist, Giovanni Valderas, leaves the back of the pinatas open and has placed postcards with the same sad house motif bearing the message, “All I want for Christmas is affordable housing,” that people can mail to the mayor. (Though he said he also leaves the back open so people can see there is no reason to break it open for candy.)

Valderas, thinks more artists should become involved in politics.

…since placing the houses and doing a few other artistic projects around the issue, his neighbors began asking him what’s next.

“I wish more artists ran for office, because they are often the most creative problem-solvers,” Valderas told the Dallas Morning News. “We know how to run a shoestring budget. Through art, we already know how to engage and motivate people. This city could benefit from more creative people running. We can’t leave it up to developers and business people who are all about the money aspect of things. Imagine how much a community could change with an artist at the helm. There would be some crazy ideas, but it would be pretty fantastic.”

Some Last Thoughts On Conferences For Awhile (Probably)

I know I have been harping a lot on conferences of late, but you know, ’tis the season!

Because I had been in the process of moving to a new job, I just caught up with my blog feed this weekend and read Barry Hessenius’ piece on effectively exploiting the conference experience for people at different stages in their careers. Which he wrote a few weeks before my first post on the topic, proving once again that he is at the forefront of arts management theory.

Don’t misread my previous posts about how to improve the conference attendance experience as disgruntled criticisms of any conferences I have attended or contributed to. I was approaching the topic in the same spirit as I approach arts attendance experiences: questioning what it is that conferences, like the arts orgs they serve, need to do in order to provide participants with a valuable experience.

Hessenius’ post is especially useful for first time attendees because their conference experience is going to be all about networking. He identifies common features of arts conferences and provides advice about how to exploit these dynamics to best effect.

For example, regarding the plenary luncheons:

I never sit at just any table, nor am I the first one to seat myself. I wait until the tables begin to fill, quickly identify a table occupied by people I might want to talk to and those I might want to get to know. Even if your seat mates are serendipitously determined, that’s ok, because often times you end up meeting someone who will make an excellent contact. Note too that keynote speakers are often inspiring and motivating, but few keynotes will offer you much practical advice that you can use, and thus the before, and during conversations with those at your table may be more valuable to you in the long run.

The one bit of advice I felt was valuable for people of any level of conference attendance experience was in regard to preparation:

One final piece of advice:  there is a lot of talking that goes on at conferences.  Learn to listen and listen well.  And please, if there are recommended reading materials and / or research available before the conference for a session you might want to attend, don’t put that off until you are on the plane.  Do your homework, if there is any, beforehand.  If you give yourself more time to think about the subject, you’ll get more out of the presentation, and you’ll be able to formulate good questions to raise.  Relax on the plane.

If there is one phrase I have heard at conferences over the last decade or so it is along those lines. People say they meant to review a text in advance or they downloaded the book planning to read it on the plane or listen to the audio content as they drove but didn’t get to it.

I understand that. For a whole lot of people attending a conference means cramming all the work you aren’t going to be around to do into the last few days before the conference. There is even less time than usual available to preview conference content.

But as Hessenius implies, you are carving out time to attend a conference to help yourself be better at your job. If you only have a precious few days in which to do that, it is worthwhile to prepare the soil in which this valuable content can thrive and grow.

Whew, Who Knew Finding Your Passion Was Such Hard Work?

Back in July there was an interesting piece in The Atlantic examining the value of the claim “find your passion and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

As I was reading the article, I saw that this concept had a lot in common with the idea that artistic achievement is the result of inspiration or genius rather than the result of a long period of practice, experimentation and experience. I have written about this idea often in the distant and recent past.  The study reported on in The Atlantic piece continues to extend and add evidence to my thinking on this topic by suggesting you develop your passion rather than being struck by it in a momentary flash.

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

[…]

People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field.

I was particularly interested by this idea that “find your passion” developed out of a desire remove the intimidation factor inherent in “find your genius.” It seems like something of an admonition to pay attention to the inherent implications of any new phrases that crop up to replace “find your passion.”

Show Of Hands- Conference Professional Development Sessions Mostly BS Or Sources of Valuable Info?

While I wasn’t scheduled to sit on any panels at the ArtsMidwest conference last week, I did end up leading (or at least shepherding) one.

Actually, I made a tongue-in-cheek claim I was hijacking the session because it was originally cancelled but I decided it should go on if there was enough interest.  What had been scheduled was a book club type discussion of Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance. The person who had been scheduled to lead the session couldn’t make it so I decided if enough people walked up and expressed disappointment at seeing the cancellation notice, I would pull the sign down and make sure it happened.

Sure enough, two other people quickly came up and said “awww” so I pulled down the sign and took over the room. We ended up having about 15 people attend, half of whom had read the book and the other half who intended to read it and wanted to know more.

Given that mix of experience and perspectives, it was pretty easy to provide a valuable and informative session. (Though if I had had more notice, I might have tried to get a computer so we could show one of Nina’s TEDx talks)

Earlier in the week, there was another session that had been cancelled because the presenter couldn’t make it. This one was geared toward helping people take a look at the physical surroundings of an arts venue from a different perspective to identify what features might be sending unwelcoming messages to some groups.

From the session description:

“Oftentimes the greatest asset of any arts program is its physical space, and yet it’s frequently overlooked when it comes to access, inclusion and diversity…if we aren’t paying attention we can inadvertently send the wrong messages. Like tourists with fresh eyes participants will go on a walking tour of the Indiana Convention Center and explore how to identify and mitigate the psychological, emotional and physical reactions that occur in response to a physical space.”

I had seen this at previous conferences and had conflicts so I intended to participate this year and I was a little disappointed that it got cancelled.

I overheard a number of other people express similar disappointment at it being cancelled and then rhetorically ask if the conference couldn’t have just found someone else to run the session instead.  My feeling is that being sensitive to and aware of these problematic features is a pretty specific skill set.  It isn’t as easy to find a suitable substitute as it was for me and others to step in and lead the book club discussion.

I mentioned this to a couple of those making these comments and they seemed pretty reluctant to concede this was the case. This reaction made me wonder if conference attendees perceived the content of these sessions to be marginally valuable BS that presenters spouted and therefore was easily substituted on short notice by other people who happened to be around.

And yes, granted a lot of times conference content can be full of empty platitudes about how everyone must love the arts but sessions like these are more about specialized practical skills and less about advocating for the value of the arts.

I suppose a more charitable read could be the perception that everyone in attendance but oneself is a highly qualified expert practitioner and therefore could step in to provide illuminating perspective on the problem.

But if it is the assumption that half of what you are hearing is B.S., then arts conferences have a challenge about communicating their value for professional development.

Thoughts?

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