Last week, I was honored to attend the Americans for the Arts national conference right here in Pittsburgh. Since I’ve become such an arts advocate, I knew I’d benefit from attending. Plus, it was practically in my own backyard!
On Thursday, I attended the Emerging Leaders pre-conference at Carnegie Mellon University. It was an impressive group of mostly young professionals who are poised to take on the mantle of arts administration. Sessions included an eye-opening retrospective on the history of the arts in America, career development, advocacy, and changing demographics (which proved to be a theme throughout the weekend). There were also opportunities for roundtable discussions and networking.
Before the main conference opening session on Friday, I attended a friendly newcomer orientation to get some professional advice from AFTA veterans: a dizzying icebreaker activity; pro tips from AFTA staff, including CEO Bob Lynch; and plenty of time for Q & A (my contribution: the definition of yinz).
The first keynote session of the conference proper opened with a bang: Cello Fury and Texture Ballet. Manuel Pastor & Jim Messina spoke on the changing demographics of America. Friday afternoon’s sessions included promoting the public value of the arts and arts education and using mobile marketing to connect with stakeholders.
The day closed out with a beautiful walk to the Andy Warhol Museum, guided by Pittsburgh legends. We started by meeting the neighborly Mr. Rogers in the lobby of the Westin. We were met by dancer Martha Graham and led underneath the convention center to playwright August Wilson. At the lip of the bridge (they closed the Andy Warhol Bridge for us!), we were met by environmentalist Rachel Carson. Gene Kelly danced us across the bridge to meet the inimitable Andy Warhol. The whole street was shut down for a block party that lasted for hours, featuring food (including the pierogi truck and the Pgh Taco Truck!), drinks, entertainment, and admission to the Andy Warhol Museum. The evening ended with a jam session back at the Westin.
Saturday morning included a session on how community partnerships can advance arts education, which led into the keynote luncheon. Several awards were presented, and there was a town hall discussion. Over lunch, I was able to catch up with one of AMP’s partners: Mark Despotakis of Progressive Music in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. We had a great conversation about local music programs and the state of music education here in Pennsylvania.
In the afternoon, I attended a session on shared business models (three different panelists discussed how they were able to form successful partnerships with other arts organizations in their communities) and a rapid research roundup session. Afterwards, I walked to Point State Park to check out the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the newly restored fountain.
Sunday was a short day. I sat in on a session about cultural planning, then attended the closing keynote. It was much more intimate; most attendees had already left! There was an amazing African drumming performance followed by a discussion with the CEOs of both PBS and NPR.
It was a great weekend, and it was an effective way for me to get an overview of the arts on a national scale. I was able to get a feel for where the Association of Music Parents might fit in. Thanks especially to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for making it possible for me to attend!
Along the way, I learned a few things that might help you do what you do:
1. Not everyone sees the arts and arts education as a public good.
A study done in Cincinnati showed that the public generally regarded the arts as entertainment. People saw the arts as a “private matter,” a “good to be purchased,” meant to be experienced passively, and a “low priority.”
The folks in Cincinnati kept at it, though. While they found several approaches that didn’t work, eventually they found something that did:
“A thriving arts sector creates ‘ripple effects’ of benefits throughout our community.”
They found two ripples that were especially effective: a “vibrant, thriving economy,” and “a more connected population.”
So how can you use this information?
Leave the idea of an economy behind, and apply the “vibrant, thriving” part to your school, your school district and your community as a whole. In your communication, contrast this to the opposite end of the spectrum: a school without arts education. Point out that arts education creates “a more connected population” in your school, district and community. The arts help people express themselves, and make themselves more easily understood. There’s much less conflict in a community like that.
2. A lot of nonprofits exist to support arts education, but we should create more opportunities for collaboration.
This was a common thread throughout the conference. If you can find a way to work with other organizations in your community, it will make you and your partners stronger. Build on one another’s strengths! For example, maybe a band booster group could work with their local government to make a strong win-win for everyone (like this story out of Carmel, IN). Find a way that your organization could partner with local businesses or other local nonprofits for everyone’s benefit. The possibilities are endless!
3. Creativity, taught through arts education, is going to be increasingly in demand in tomorrow’s workforce.
Our world and our economy are changing. The kids we’re educating today will have jobs that haven’t even been invented yet! The stable jobs that our parents told us to get, like accountant or middle manager, are disappearing. The people who will be successful will be the ones who can take constantly changing parameters and roll with them. You know who will be great at that? Music students.
4. The demographics of America are changing. The arts will be a powerful bridge between diverse groups of people.
By 2050, according to demographer Manuel Pastor, America will be “minority majority.” That means that less than half of Americans will be Caucasian. There’s a lot of potential for conflict over that! You know which people will be best equipped to handle it? Music and arts students. In music ensembles, you learn to play well with others. The arts bring people together: music and the arts are a powerful way to remind people that there is more that unites us than divides us.
Overall, learning at #AFTA13 this week was a lot like trying to drink from a firehose. Still, I was able to absorb a lot of information and make some new friends who feel as strongly about arts and arts education as I do. It’s for the kids, after all.
Want to see even more? Check out my #AFTA13 Storify!