Art Works Blog

A report from WESTAF on "Engaging the Now"

by Shannon Daut, Deputy Director, WESTAF

"Question Mark Phoenix" by Mark Blumenthal via Flickr

In 2009 the country was being raked by the uncertain winds of deep recession, change rooted in the adoption of new technologies, and a seeming repositioning of participation in the nonprofit arts in the United States. With uncertainty reigning, WESTAF convened its 12th symposium in Aspen titled Engaging the Now: Arguments, Research and New Environments for the Arts.

The purpose of the symposium was to gather cultural policy experts, arts researchers, and arts-administration practitioners to discuss the critical issues facing the arts community. The symposium yielded few answers, but it contributed to a better understanding of the challenges facing the field of arts administration. (You can read a published version of the symposium here.)

A highlight of the symposium was a discussion on developing arguments in support of the arts. Like the adage about a drunk searching for his keys under the lamppost (because the light is better there!), arts advocates may be searching for a “silver bullet” argument for the arts that expends a lot of energy and resources but is not to be found in the small circle of light where we are looking for it. Rhetorical scholar Danielle Endres, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah, presented the ways argumentation is constructed, consisting of a claim (what you want), support (evidence to support the claim) and reasoning, which is the connective tissue joining the claim to your supporting data in a way that makes sense to the audience.

The key to effective argumentation is your audience. No two audiences are the same, and each deserves tailored messaging and arguments---parents will be motivated to act on behalf of arts education differently than will school board members or legislators. The important element to keep in mind when discussing the value of the arts is that your arguments should always follow the audience and the context in which they sit. Arts administrators know deeply the myriad of ways the arts benefit our society---economically, socially, in community building, and creating more innovative thinkers. The challenge, as laid out in the symposium, is to begin to tailor these value statements and arguments to stakeholders in our communication strategies. One size does not fit all.

Another presentation at the symposium featured ArtsJournal.com editor Douglas McLennan who discussed the ways in which new technologies are reshaping everyday lives---crowdsourcing and interactivity are now the rule rather than the exception. Cultural organizations can now build relationships with prospective audiences that can be leveraged into participation. However, this must be deeper than just starting up a Facebook page; as with face-to-face interactions, real relationships take time and must be nurtured in either in-person or virtual settings.

Another hot topic was a critique and defense of film incentives. With film-incentive programs being spawned at a rapid rate in calendar year 2009, Massachusetts-based economic development consultant Ned Rightor presented a critique of the efficacy of film incentives. Jon Hendry, the business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees in New Mexico, responded based on his experiences in New Mexico where, under Governor Bill Richardson, the state became a leader in the development of film incentives. He reported on the ways film incentives function in New Mexico and provided an overview of the short- and long-term benefits of such incentives to states.

In another session, titled “Where are the Young People if They’re Not at the Symphony? Shifting Gears in a New Era of Audience Participation and Engagement,” Canadian DJ and blogger Kwende Kefentse and cultural policy scholar Steven Tepper talked about the participation of young people in the arts and creative activities. They explored studies indicating that fewer young people are attending traditional arts events against the backdrop of the fact that young people’s attendance at rock and indie-music concerts continues to be strong. They also noted that young people were more likely to purchase the latest iPod and other technologies in great numbers, go to guerrilla-knitting circles and other DIY activities, and spend more time connecting with friends and cultural groups on Facebook. (The audio from this session can be downloaded here.)

The next WESTAF symposium is scheduled for Spring 2012. We will consider the manner in which streams of data related to culture and creative industries are being sourced, managed, and made available for use through new technologies.

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