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.