Collective Action Report For NPAC 2008

Last week Andrew Taylor posted an entry about the release of a report for which his students were involved collecting information at and about last summer’s National Performing Arts Convention. The report examines the capacity for the arts disciplines to engage in collective action.

As you might imagine, I found much of it very interesting. If you don’t have the time to read the whole thing, mores the pity. It is worth jumping to page 59 of the Acrobat document. The following 20 some pages have ideas for collective action on many fronts that came out of the brain storming round tables. These are not the same ideas voted as top priority items by the attendees and may represent fresh directions for you and others to embrace at national, regional and local levels.

One aspect of the convention attendees felt was lacking was a clear sense of who was going to follow up and pursue these priorities. What will likely be helpful at the next convention is if people show up to talk about their attempts to implement some of these priorities at different levels.

Plea To The Reader
If you don’t think you will read the report, at least consider reading the rest of this entry. I often include fair sized quotes that jump out at me from reports and studies because I know people don’t feel they have the time to catch up on all the reading they think they should be doing. Part of the mission of this blog is to present some concepts that perhaps you can think about during your commute if no other time presents itself. Not everything may seem that significant to you, and that’s fair. This report contained a lot of meaty observations including some things I suspected but have rarely heard discussed. So please, read on…

The report began by tackling a basic question–what constitutes the performing arts? In answer to the question, “When you think and talk about the ‘performing arts’ in your region, which of the following organizations do you include in your thinking?” over 50% provided answers that were “arts-focused and primarily organized as tax-exempt. Alternate venues and commercial enterprises were identified by fewer people as part of the performing arts—yet still showed up in significant numbers.”

Lest your take away from those responses is that there was a sense of exclusivity to people’s definition of the performing arts. The report notes that the subject of what constituted the boundaries of the performing arts community was frequently debated and discussed.

Internal Divisions
But heck with those perceived to be on the outside of the performing arts boundaries. There was plenty to contend with over the perceived differences between the disciplines clearly defined as being part of the performing arts.

“Despite the common ground of the nonprofit arts leaders attending the Denver convention, our team observed frequent and obvious disconnects between the language and culture of each discipline. The dress and demeanor of the different service organization membership was a continual point of discussion in
our evening debriefing sessions, and were often heard used as shorthand by one discipline to describe another (“take time to talk to the suits,” said one theater leader to a TCG convening, when referring to symphony professionals). Some of the difference was in rites and rituals: from the morning sing-alongs of Chorus America to the jackets and ties of League members, to the frequent and genuine hugs among Dance/USA members, to the casual and collegial atmosphere of TCG sessions.

Other differences, which manifested in more subtle ways, shed light on the deep underlying assumptions and values held by the respective disciplines. The team noticed, for example, that the word “professional” was perceived in a variety of ways in mixed-discipline caucus sessions. For many participants, “professional” staff and leadership was an indicator of high-quality arts organizations, and an obvious goal for any arts institutions. Several members of Chorus America, however, bristled at the presumption that professional staff was a metric of artistic quality, as they held deep pride in their organizations, which were run by volunteers.

The observation team also saw many sessions peppered with misunderstandings and different interpretations of words and concepts that are fundamental to a collective action effort. Most of these went unnoticed by the group, and unresolved by facilitators of caucus sessions….Catalysts note the need for basic fluency in the business models and challenges of other disciplines. Says one leader, “….I talk a lot with the heads of other performing arts organizations here [from other disciplines], and it’s all right, but oftentimes when we talk I’m spending the whole time explaining the whole story so they can understand. As opposed to sitting with somebody who’s in a different community, you can start the sentence and oftentimes that person can finish your sentence for you.”

Expectation of Cross-Disciplinary Learning
That said, the report notes many went to the conference with the intent of learning about other disciplines and cultivating cross-disciplinary relationships. People were eager to learn about best practices and common challenges from other disciplines. “A full 86 percent believed that the problems and opportunities faced by a small dance company are shared more with a small theater company than with a large dance company.”

Respect to Trust
The next step toward collective action, according to the report’s author’s, is to go from respecting the other guy to trusting them.

“A full 81 and 82 percent of respondents believed leaders in the nonprofit performing arts respect each other at the national and regional/city level respectively. A lesser majority, 56 and 60 percent, believed that such leaders trust each other at the national and regional/city level. This distinction between respect and trust reinforces the distinction between acting for individual and organizational interests, and acting for the benefit of the larger community.”

Things Not Often Discussed
Two of the areas covered in the report that especially struck me were some frank discussions about diversity and the perceived role of government. Everyone talks about the need to diversify audiences and performers. In fact, most funders are interested in collecting information about racial, geographic and economic diversity of audiences and performers. What emerged in the discussion wasn’t as idealistic.

“Diversity was the most polarizing priority in the AmericaSpeaks process, and the issue for which there is the most disconnect in language and priorities….Some flatly stated that they did not think diversity was a priority, and others noted that people in their organizations may claim to support diversity, but don’t really mean it. Many noted ambiguity in defining diversity: that diversity “means different things to different people—there is no common agenda for inclusion.”

This was revealed in the stark differences in responses ranging from the claim that minority arts groups don’t have to make any efforts at white inclusion (“Why is it that primarily Caucasian-based groups look to ‘diversify’ their audiences while minority-based groups do not?”), to people who thought diversity meant “Getting minorities to see the importance of what we do.” Still others rejected the audience development perspective and saw the need for more systemic change. Said one respondent, “most of our organizations are not ready—we want to talk about it, but we are not prepared to become ‘diverse’ and accept the changes that may follow.” Some acknowledged that there were challenges in terms of comfort zones. Some noted that tying funding to diversity or pursuing diversity and losing money on such efforts might be counterproductive…

Respondents were more concerned with what they saw as others’ failure to address or understand diversity than with their own ability to effectively address the issue. As such, many did not envision opportunities for progress although they agreed that progress is needed.”

Community Engagement Approach
While some people may not be prepared to actively engage in addressing diversity in their organization, I was encouraged by the comments of one person who wasn’t talking about diversity per se. He/She did seem to embody the mindset of an organization that could achieve diversity without actively pursuing it.

“One leader notes, “That’s been one thing that we’ve been most proud of. Our whole organization takes this community engagement approach. It’s not outreach. Outreach doesn’t take into consideration who you are, what your background is, what your context is, or why people should care. That’s the fault of the old outreach concept, is saying you should come hear us, maybe we’ll come to you so you’ll come hear us. That’s missing the point, saying, ‘Where do we connect?’”

Government’s Role
In relation to the role of government (my emphasis)..

“In one intriguing disconnect, respondents in the post-convention survey hope for future NPAC connections to include elected officials from local (57 percent), state (64 percent), and national (70 percent) government. Yet not one believe such officials would influence if and how they might take action on the selected agenda items. The disconnect suggests, as we will later discuss,
that while participants see elected officials as potential focus of advocacy and engagement, they do not see them as a source of insight and knowledge—even though these actors drive the decision and governing systems that inform local policy. They are eager to talk to elected officials, but not inclined to listen

…Interestingly, some constituents with relatively greater perceived power also had relatively lower perceived knowledge of the field and its challenges (political leaders at federal, state, and local levels, for example.

From my point of view, there is a whole lot to be addressed. Quite honestly, I think this almost sums up the attitude arts organizations have toward most sources of funding. There is an eagerness to talk to funders and make your case but not a lot of willingness to have them involved in your business. Except for foundations with an arts focus, those representing funding sources don’t understand the field too well because of a desire to keep them on the fringes.

Some Tunes I Have Sung Before
There were a couple topics the report touched upon that I have addressed quite a few times in the past so I won’t get into them at length.

Lack of Knowledge
One observation that was made of convention attendees was how little knowledge people had about available resources and about how laws and policy affected those resources. The report notes that a lot of time was spent discussing how helpful it would be if some source would provide resources when in fact that very situation existed.

“These indicators suggest a systematic issue around knowledge dissemination in the field. Arts leaders either lack time or incentive to discover and use existing knowledge resources, or effective knowledge dissemination mechanisms do not exist to get this information out.”

Lack of Sleep
Which goes hand in hand with the fact most arts professionals are already over worked and may not be a wits end about how to participate in collective action.

“We have a lot of passionate and highly productive people that all tend to over-extend themselves as it is ‘for the love of their art.’ I think it is difficult for many of these same people then to prioritize what they may have to stop doing in order to thoughtfully and actively participate in this ‘national dialogue’.”

Lack of Succession
Finally, there is the issue of emerging leadership. According to the report, 79% of respondents to pre-convention surveys were worried a little to alot about identifying new blood and succession planning. At the convention however, “it was striking how little conversation focused on the discovery and development of future leaders, and the skills and abilities they might require. There were a few specific sessions that touched on the topic, but the issue received little traction or attention elsewhere.”

I imagine it comes as no surprise that the performing arts sector has quite a few issues to address. You need not have attended the convention to come to that conclusion. But since the report notes that one of the major historical hurdles to collective action has been that the various disciplines don’t sit down and talk to each other, the fact they did so and produced quite a few pages of ideas for collective action likely represents a valuable first step.

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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