Mounting A Performing Arts Conference When No One Wants To Travel

Two regional arts conferences, Western Arts Alliance and Arts Midwest partnered on offering a single online conference to replace their respective in-person events.

I will say right from the outset, I really need an in-person conference which takes me away from my job. The online conference doesn’t offer enough content to justify my staying at home all week, but trying to participate virtually with the demands and distractions of my job is not working.

I am not saying I would have traveled to Omaha this year. I am just recognizing the benefits of intentionally carving time out to devote to your professional development.

Also, the technology they are using to deliver the conference is very frustrating to use. I suspect it looked really well designed when the conference organizers were reviewing it because it brings a lot of valuable features together in one place. I thought they made a good choice when I first poked around it prior to the conference start.

However, in practice when you have over 1000 people using it to view content and interact to conduct business, the shortcomings become clearer. There were some sessions where people have openly commented they are doing research on other platforms for conferences they organize.

This being said, the virtual conference format allows me to have my staff participate, something I wouldn’t have been able to afford with an in-person conference. Being able to divide and conquer when it comes to attending and offering observations on different conferences sessions and performance showcases is pretty valuable.

As I write this, the second day of the conference is drawing to a close. There are still two more days, but one observation my staff and I have made already is that there is a stark gulf between people who have acknowledged the future will not be the same as the past and those that view their current situation as akin to a delayed flight home–incredibly inconveniencing, but you’ll eventually get back to familiar surroundings.

In one session I attended yesterday, I wondered what people had been doing for the last seven months because people were asking questions that seemed to indicate they hadn’t really considered their options for re-opening. Sessions I attended today were much better and assuring. People were offering examples of creative approaches they were using, plans they had for the future and the responses they were seeing from the community.

My marketing director had been in a session on Failure yesterday where the host basically summed up the session by noting if organizations weren’t exploring different options now, in two-three years when new models of participation begin to solidify and gain significant traction, those organizations will be two years behind the curve. Currently, because no one knows what will happen, there is a greater tolerance for experimentation and associated mistakes. It is difficult to criticize a decision as bad if no one can say what the better decision would have been–implementing that better option next time has an almost equal chance of failing in the current operating environment.

What I think will be problematic for the performing artists showcasing at the conference is that they are packaging themselves to suit last year’s paradigm. While their showcases are pre-recorded in venues that show off their talent much, much better than an in-person experience in a conference hotel ballroom, they also don’t have the opportunity to discuss what they have to offer in light of what they may have gleaned from sessions earlier in the day.

To be clear, I definitely don’t think depending on being able to deliver a quality, problem free livestream performance would have been a better option. I am just saying had the performance been delivered live, whether in-person or live stream, artists and agents could have taken what they were hearing venues were saying about their plans and concerns over the course of the day and revised their script to present themselves as capable of providing a solution to those problems.

I was considering writing this post next week after the conference was over so I could provide a more complete assessment of the experience, but I know a few performing arts presenters who may be participating in the conference read my blog so I wanted to get them thinking about these factors which may be shaping how they are experiencing different parts of the conference.

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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