As the summer schedule of arts conferences draws to a close, I am left with many great memories and some lingering concerns. The National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, convened an international group of 40 researchers in early June to discuss the future of arts participation research. Then in Seattle, at the Orchestra League’s annual conference, I had the honor of delivering the closing keynote address and leading several workshops. Opera America convened its members the following weekend in San Francisco, where I led a plenary session on artistic vibrancy and civic impact. In July, the Arts Marketing Association’s annual conference in Bristol, UK, was an energetic gathering of marketing and development professionals. And the summer conference season concluded several weeks ago in Dallas where 1,400 people from the Tessitura Network, the nonprofit ticketing technology organization, gathered for what is probably the world’s best-organized and best-resourced arts conference.
At these and other convenings, it’s all too rare to find curators, music directors, and artistic directors — except when they are speaking. Their voice is sorely missing in the breakout sessions and hallway conversations that shape the field. What is the point of talking about topics like audience growth and creative health without artistic decision-makers in the conversation? Too many panel discussions are one-sided debates — an endless loop of talking about change without change agents in the room. As discourse in the field increasingly turns to matters of artistic vibrancy and creativity in programming, administrative managers grow increasingly frustrated. In some organizations, marketing, development, and executive directors double as ‘guest curators’ in their own organizations because artistic leaders are either unavailable or uninterested in talking about new product lines.
It’s even rarer to find professional artists at national arts conferences, with the exception of workshops and seminars offered by artist service organizations. Of course there are many barriers, financial and otherwise, to greater participation by artists in industry conferences. Regardless, it is increasingly apparent to me that bringing artists into the center of discourse on critical issues facing the sector — whether through convenings or some other means — is one of the few hopes we have for solving real problems. In fact, more and more artists are venturing into exciting arenas of interdisciplinary, campus-based, and community-based work, and the opportunities for artist-to-artist and artist-to-manager learning have never been greater.
Artists and curators hold the keys to the future of the arts, and we cannot afford to talk around them for much longer. If we need a new kind of forum for bringing administrators, donors, and board members together with artists and curators to discuss and debate the sector’s most pressing issues, then let’s create it. Heaven knows we have the leadership and the resources to make it happen. But do we have the will?