I was really disappointed last Friday when I read that Arts Midwest would be pausing their conference. I have a hard time believing it will gear up again in the future. If you aren’t aware, Arts Midwest ran one of the regional conferences that presenting venues attend to book acts. Back in 2019, SouthArts announced they were ceasing operations of Performing Arts Exchange, the conference that served the southeast. With Arts Midwest effectively ceasing to operate their conference, that just leaves the Western Arts Alliance as a regional conference for the western region.
The national conference, Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) continues to operate, as do smaller conferences like Arts Northwest, Arts Market which meets every other year, and state base conferences like Ohio Arts Presenters Network. However, the scope and reach of those conferences is limited. For example, in addition to meeting every other year, Arts Market doesn’t have the professional development opportunities that the regional and nationals offer.
Like many others, I particularly liked the Arts Midwest conference because it was well run and had a smaller, more collegial feel than the NYC based APAP. Even though I moved to the southeast, I continued to attend the Midwest conference. APAP is definitely a great conference and there is more opportunity see performers in their “natural environment” of music clubs, dance studios, and theatres vs. hotel ballrooms, but it is expensive to attend with the added costs of NYC hotel rooms and food.
I enjoy the regional conference because they introduce me to new cities and let me see what is great about them. For people who live in the region, it is easier to drive or take a short flight to a regional than to travel to another part of the country.
Arts Midwest President& CEO Torrie Allen writes that the decision to pause is financial:
We have deep respect and gratitude for this conference family, and we must acknowledge that we are facing a changing industry. Production costs have increased while event revenue has not. We have begun to encounter unsustainable financial losses on this event. While these losses pre-date the pivots we have made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have grown exponentially these past two years. As a steward of private and public dollars, we have a financial responsibility to our communities, partners, and donors to pause and take the time needed to reimagine our presence in this space.
I don’t envy him this decision. He basically assumed the President & CEO role just as Covid began. Attendees to the 2019 conference got to meet him. I was personally excited to see what the future held for Arts Midwest because he seemed to have the energy and dynamism to take the organization into the future. With the conference program being cancelled, I will only be able to watch what happens from afar.
Ultimately, I am a little worried about what this might mean for touring artists and venues in the future. Learning about artists via their website, videos and Zoom is only going to be so effective. Sitting down and talking with agents in person moved the needle for me in ways that digital promotions did not. Walking up and down the aisles in the exhibition halls opened me to exploring ideas and acts I hadn’t been considering. Some of them I booked, others I didn’t but I now viewed those options as possibilities where I hadn’t before.
I wonder if efforts to advance diversity and equity in the performing arts might stall as a result of venue operators only being exposed to and seeking out artists and agents with whom they are already familiar. The other influential aspect of in person booking conferences is sitting down to see something new, being not quite sure if you like it, but having others in the room clapping and stomping their feet in reaction to what they are seeing.
Some of the other conferences might expand to fill the void, but given the economic uncertainty of the times, it is likely to take time for them to scale up and expand their reach to larger geographical areas.
As much as I write about arts administration and practices, if you have read the blog for any number of years, you know that I always come back from conferences with some new insight to discuss. I had my epiphany about building public will for arts and culture at an Arts Midwest conference and always attend anything to do with legal questions. I think the professional development opportunities and chance to network with all sorts of people is valuable for attendees. I worry that the disappearance of the regional conferences and their ability to put speakers and experts of note in front of large convenings will negatively impact the practice of arts administration across large parts of the country.