Have Things Changed Since 2008?

I am going to be traveling and preparing to take up a new position so I am dipping back into the archives to help provide some content while I am busy elsewhere.  One of the first entries I came across in my review of old posts seemed to be well-suited for re-examination. Back in 2009 Andrew Taylor made a post about survey work his students had done at the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) in Denver. Happily the links to his original post and survey results I included in my post reflecting on the survey results still work if you want to see them.

The conference was a meeting by members of different arts disciplines, including service organizations like Theatre Communications Group, Opera America, Chorus America, Dance/USA and League of American Orchestras. One of the observations made in the surveying was the different cultures of each discipline. I wonder if people feel things have changed since 2008/2009 or if this still generally describes things:

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.

Other topics I covered in my post had to do with degree of trust between arts administrators, community engagement practices, government relations, knowledge sharing throughout disciplines, as well as lack of sleep and succession planning.

While the status quo feels like it has remained in place on all these fronts, the one area covered in the survey which seems like it is finally being addressed seriously these last few years is diversity. Some of the summarized responses are a little cringe-worthy.

“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.”

Here is the original survey report if you want to take a deeper dive.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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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