Sunday, October 10, 2010

Oregon Arts Summit: How deeply can we innovate?

By Barry Johnson

The topic of the day at this year's Oregon Arts Summit was "The Art of Adaptation." I was on one of the panels, a journalism panel with the brilliant and talented Abraham Hyatt and Anne Focke, and we were more representative of maladaptation and the failure to adapt than otherwise. At least that was my "role" in the panel as I saw it -- to suggest some of the ways and reasons my business and profession had failed to take reality seriously.

I'm not going to go into that here: I'm just explaining why I didn't sit at the back as I usually do and scribble observations and quotes into my notebook:  Representing the Bad Example proved to be exhausting! And so I don't have a lengthy account of the summit to offer you, though a trip to the Oregon Arts Commission's website should fulfill much of your curiosity about what happened -- the speeches and panels and group exercises mostly devoted to the idea of innovation and how arts organizations, stretched as they are, can bring it about (I couldn't find the promised aggregation of materials this morning -- when I find a good link, I'll post an update).

I'm not sure things ever got quite practical enough to be useful in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way, but some interesting stories were told, interesting ideas formulated, and maybe even some inspiration planted.  No one actually said, "Adapt or die," so of course, I wish I had said it myself.

So, anyway, I sat quietly after the journalism panel. Words cascaded by me, and I barely stirred. Sitting here in the aftermath, though, three audience remarks (two of them linked) stand out to me. They came from younger participants in the conference, and they were critical of arts organizations and how they do business.  The reality they described indicates that some very basic adaptive work remains for our arts groups, adaptations that go to the core of their missions and how they are organized.

1.  The approach to volunteers

One of the panels gathered the leaders of five arts groups and asked them each to give a 10-minute talk on "One Adaptation Worth Spreading."  The stories they told were interesting, and some adaptations did lurk in their presentations, though not in a case-study sort of way. For the panel as a whole, this might have been one of those times when narrative obscures rather than helps.

During the Q and A session, one younger woman nervously told a story of her own, and it wasn't happy. She described how she had volunteered for several local arts groups, showed up, done the work and then left -- with no one thanking her for her efforts, for her contribution, for her support of the organization. And then another younger woman, seated a few rows behind the first, raised her hand and asked why she was given the most mundane tasks to work on when she volunteered, instead of something more substantial, something more in line with her specific skills, although she understood that sometimes, yes, envelopes needed to be licked.  I'm paraphrasing here.

These were stumpers for the panel. Obviously, yes, the first woman should have been thanked, and the leadership of any organization has a special responsibility in this regard. The second elicited one possible explanation: One of the panelists suggested that the staffs of most mid-sized and larger arts organizations were fully professional and that they therefore didn't have important real work for volunteers to do.  He then described a specifically volunteer-driven program his group had organized (helping high school students with their college application essays), which I thought was entirely useful and pertinent. But maybe not quite what the questioner had in mind.

What I want to suggest is that an idea of community is implicit in both questions, a community that identifies and recognizes the skills of its members and rewards them when they are exercised. And that community extends beyond the staff of the arts organizations to include anyone who is passionate about what those arts groups do, passionate enough to volunteer, a word I'd like to replace with "participate" or maybe even better, "contribute." In this idea of community, the non-staff contributor has as much standing as the staffer to participate in the work of the organization, the hardest, deepest, core work, from programming to marketing to fundraising.  The degree of their commitment (measured mostly by time) and the quality of their ideas (as tested by the rest of the community) are the most important factors, not organizational heirarchies.

This sounds a little "communistic," an echo of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," but maybe the culture is running that way, at least the idealistic part of the culture that volunteers to work for arts groups.  The definitions of "engagement" and "contribution" are changing;  the standard power relationships in an organization aren't accepted as a matter of course; and the standard command and control system is under stress.

My sample size for this observation is small (though it's not limited to those two questioners at the Oregon Arts Summit), and maybe I'm just dead wrong. I should acknowledge that many arts organizations, especially small ones, have made this "adaptation" as a matter of course -- they wouldn't exist otherwise.   Many larger organizations have effective ways to employ volunteers productively -- I'm thinking of the Portland Art Museum's excellent docent program, for example.  And finally, what I'm describing may just be a small slice of the demographic cohort represented by the questioners.

But before I "caveat" myself to death here, I should point out that some of the same points were made by one of the presenters at the Summit, Richard Evans of EmcArts, a research and consulting group that helps arts non-profits envision new ways of approaching seemingly intractable problems. (As Einstein said: "Problems cannont be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.")  Again, I can't quote Evans at length here, but he spent 45 minutes or so describing the adaptive arts organization, one that is open, transparent and community-based, without traditional power relationships and orthodoxies and practices, unless they are supported in the community.

This sort of organization would be more experimental, provisional, "porous" and creative than traditional ones, though I'm not sure he used the word "creative," a word that my fellow journalism panelist Anne Focke, who has thought deeply about arts organizations, would use.

One last point: Organizations usually aren't "either-or." They are "more or less." Should the symphony's  community determine how the orchestra should approach a bit of Brahms? Of course not -- that's something the music director, conductor and musicians will figure out (actually, I'm probably for more advice and consent on this sort of matter than currently exists in most orchestras, but that's another matter).  But the community has a lot of other decisions it can make together -- or at least consider together.

We are now smack in the middle of a persistent theme of Arts Dispatch -- democratic systems as "inquiry machines" as well as decision-making machines.  We'll be getting back to it at another time.

II. Where's the social justice fit into your mission statement?

During the Summit's wrap-up session, another young woman rose to ask the Social Justice Question. She wanted to know why, in all the talk about adaptation and innovation, more time (any time?) hadn't been devoted to the basic issue of accessibility. How could arts organizations make their art more available to those they don't now serve? How could they be more inviting to people who don't know their rituals? How could they reach beyond their strongholds (the theater, the concert hall, the museum) to touch people who needed what they offered but were remote (in a number of possible ways) from those places? How could they make the bar of entry (price, education level, language, cultural familiarity) as low as possible?  Shouldn't programs that arts organizations usually label "outreach" actually be their central, mission-defining philosophy?

See what I mean about the "idealism"? Here in the middle of the toughest financial times many arts organizations have ever experienced, the question of their responsibility to our cultural watershed at the convergence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers was raised and raised forcefully.

The question/comment passed. But it stuck with me --  when I think of a successful, adaptive culture, it's not exclusive to specific genders, ethnic backgrounds, financial status, ages or levels of formal education.  Culture is shaped by all of us; we all participate.  The arts both preserve and invent ways of thinking about our lives and our lives together, and so are crucial to making a culture healthy. So, if they aren't inclusive, if they don't reach out to and aren't informed by all parts of our region, then they aren't as valuable as they should be, as they can be. And if they miss very substantial numbers of people, then our culture becomes less useful to us, less satisfying, less worth preserving.

This gets back to the Arts and Elitism post from last week. The arts groups in town that I know want to be inclusive. They don't want to be consigned to a small corner of the culture by the massive engines of attention formation that have been invented to drive the culture toward empty spectacles, useless and harmful products, dysfunctional attitudes and sham politics.  I only question whether they understand how desperate this battle has become, how dire the outlook is. Because if they saw as the young woman does, then they'd be directing their energies in different ways.

At one of the panels, Elaine Calder, the President of the Oregon Symphony, said that the debate within her organization divided along two separate lines of argument. The first is that the symphony should concern itself only with producing the very best concerts it possibly can.  Its pursuit of great music is all that it controls, and the more it succeeds, the more attention it will receive, the more central it will be to the culture.  I like the simplicity of this argument: Who can oppose the single-minded pursuit of great music?

But inside the question at the Summit is a view of the world that is much more convincing to me. It's heterodox, it admits and even celebrates individual differences, it suggests that "great" is a social  term that profits from discussion and negotiation, it argues that cultural gifts should be available much more widely than they are now and that this cultural transfer is a two-way street. And that's the second line of argument at the symphony, the one that emphasizes inclusiveness and responsiveness, the one that listens at the same time that it plays.

Maybe not so strangely, the volunteer question and the social justice question are related. They get at the heart of how all organizations, not just those devoted to the arts, view and conduct themselves. And they indicate how deep the innovation and adaptation may have to go before our organizations and our culture are repaired.


MightyToyCannon said...

Barry, you did a fine job as a member of the panel discussing your dying industry. The quote from the letter Hunter S. Thompson wrote seeking employment with the Vancouver Sun was a nice closer:

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity."

I'm still processing my response to your comments about volunteers/participants, and about social justice and access.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, MTC. As you've noticed during the past few years, those are the very questions I've been worrying, first one way and then the other: The definition of community, the transfer of responsibility and control as widely as possible within the community, the role of the arts in creating the common ground for the culture as a whole, the special obligation that imparts on arts organizations to reach as widely as possible, etc. Which is to say anything you can suggest to help, would be much appreciated!

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