Useless Meetings

Even though I know Andrew Taylor has been in Pittsburgh at the National Performing Arts Convention this past week, I have been checking his blog reguarly. Even though I have seen the same entry that he will be out of town about 5 times now, today I actually followed one of the links. He and about 20 grad students have been attempting to track and report the events of the convention in real time and report back to the convention before it is over.

The link I followed actually took me to the Bolz Center webpage where I noticed he had a link to a report by a group at Princeton University about the value of such conventions and meetings in forming cultural policy. The monograph, “The Measure of Meetings: Forums, Deliberation, and Cultural Policy” finds that with few exceptions, conferences don’t help set policy at all.

Because I often find conferences to be fairly useless in this regard, I was interested to see what the exceptions might be and what changes they suggested. Now it should be noted, they were just focussing on the value of conferences to formation of policy and not the value to networking, training or dissemination of new information to attendees.

The monograph is fairly long (106 pages, double spaced) and begins with exploring the elements and influences that contribute to policy formation in other arenas like government. Anyone with a general knowledge of the political process won’t be surprised to learn that government policy is often created outside of formal meetings. Likewise, special commissions formed to address a problem are susceptible to shape their findings by political pressure and there is no guarantee that the person/body which formed the panel will actually heed its advice.

They do cite evidence (also not terribly surprising) that face to face meetings are more effective to policy development than just sending written reports to the same people. However, the meetings/interactions have to be on going rather than just one time seminars or conferences in order to build trust and looking relationships between the members. There seems to be less trust in what one hears at this one time events.

The monograph points out a number of impediments to the formation of cultural policy

In the arts, not only is visibility low, but there are also few “focusing events” or crises that demand a policy response. Second, there are few existing indicators,
especially ones that can be counted, that point to potentially serious and urgent problems facing the cultural sector. Sectors like housing, for example, rely on indicators such as new home purchases, rates of home ownership, the number of abandoned properties, and the number of homeless; transportation has statistics on highway fatalities, airline safety, U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and the capacity of public transit systems. In health care there are indicators for the number of uninsured citizens, per capita health expenditures, infant mortality, and the spread of infectious disease, among others. The cultural sector lacks these indicators, especially at the national level. Third, compared to other domains, there are few well-organized stakeholders in the cultural sector that exert consistent pressure on the political stream. Fourth, the cultural sector lacks a major public agency or department, where resources and decision making authority is centralized and where policy activity coalesces. Finally, the cultural policy community is highly fragmented with little agreement on common policy problems or concerns.

Part of the reason why conventions are such poor venues for forming cultural policy is that this is rarely the purpose of the gathering or it is poorly organized if it is.

However, a scan of the field indicates that, compared to other policy domains, strategic policy- focused convenings (task forces, commissions, and study groups) are not a regular part of the arts and culture landscape and remain underutilized policy tools. There are exceptions, some of which we will discuss below. Nevertheless, we argue, that those meetings that are organized around cultural policy issues tend to fall short of many of the criteria important for altering the public agenda or influencing decision makers. Arts meetings usually produce reports with vague and general recommendations that have little direct connection to specific policy actors; they often discuss broad issues, but fail to define clearly problems that have immediate and recognizable sequences.

They typically over represent the arts community and fail to engage effectively other policy areas and leaders from other sectors (they fall into the trap of “preaching to the choir”). Tepper and Hinton 31 Arts meetings rarely take into account the political opportunity structure, nor do they include a political strategy to move findings or recommendations into action. Dissemination and follow- up is often weak and special convenings and commissions in the arts tend to call for additional resources and new programs (“wish lists”) rather than
examine how existing programs and resources might be improved (administrative reform). Finally, these convenings rarely collect new data, nor do they involve a systematic and rigorous investigation of an issue.

In policy making, the paper identifies 10 steps that must be mounted to create good policy: Trends, Strategic Thinking, Concerns and Problem Identification, Policy Alternatives, Windows of Opportunity, Policy Barriers, Consensus Building; Selecting a Solution; Setting Priorities, Action Plan – Assigning Responsibility, Policy Enactment, Policy Implementation, Evaluation and re-design.

The study the authors conducted found most conference participants (73%) focused on the first three steps and very few (27%) focused on any steps beyond that. The authors point out that while this may make it appear that the arts are a “culture of complaint and not activism,” most conference enviroments are not designed in a way to facilitate a transition from broad to specific thinking.

A reason why conferences may not be designed to aid in effective policy formation is perceptual. The authors found that people had a “top down” view of policy making beliving that government, national organizations and foundation program officers were responsible for policy formation.

There is also a perception that the big cultural organizations set policy and that studies of cultural institutions only examine and discuss the needs of the large players. The smaller ones feel they have no choice but to follow in their wake if they are to survive because others are setting the standard for what is to be presented and funded. Conferences are seen as a good place to pick up short term strategies and best practices, but not as a forum for long term policy development.

Another obstruction to creation of policy is who is being invited to the conferences:

“[T]he vast majority of all speakers and panelists represent nonprofit organizations and that most of these are from arts-based nonprofits (both presenting and non-presenting organizations)…In fact, government representatives are visibly absent from the programs of the major
presenting arts associations…From our perspective it appears that, associations look to their own backyards when searching for speakers and panelists. In addition, if we look at trends over time (table 8), we find a decrease in the number of representatives from government and in the number of non-arts
related nonprofit speakers…In spite of the frequent rhetoric by cultural
leaders of imploring arts advocates to build bridges and make connections to other sectors and fields, it appears that, at least in terms speakers at the large annual meetings, we are increasingly drawing from within rather than from outside the arts.”

Tomorrow I hope to discuss the solutions the monograph suggests for more effective policy creation.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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