Conference Shake-up

I posted the following comment response to Diane Ragsdale’s blog post decrying the structure of annual arts organization conferences:

Perhaps the conference model can be reconceived along the lines that some arts orgs are evaluating their value proposition: 1) who is the audience? 2) how best to reach them? 3) what impact or outcomes are desired? I would advocate for taking the first and third questions together and the second may answer itself. If the first and third are taken seriously, its unlikely that Ballroom D at the end of the Hutchinson concourse will be the answer. We are more likely to end up with participatory, diverse, media-rich, and INTERESTING sessions at professional conferences.

My comment hasn’t been moderated yet (is it Sunday in the Netherlands?), but since I’ve been thinking about large public meetings almost exclusively for the last two weeks – I’m hosting one just over 48 hours from now – I thought it an opportune time to build on this idea.

What makes a successful professional meeting? For many attendees, it is the networking over coffee before the morning session or at the lobby bar after the evening one.  Kidding aside, what makes a successful meeting is giving the audience what they need.  I don’t mean this in the market sense of what will “sell,” but what the attendees need to meet their professional goals.  What community is being served by the conference?  Why not ask the community what it needs?  The first p.a.v.e. symposium on entrepreneurship and the arts in October 2008 was intellectually successful, but its impact was severely limited by low attendance. A small group of practioners and scholars were talking to themselves. In contrast, in planning this year’s symposium, the first thing we did was ask the stakeholders (see question 1 above) what they wanted from future symposia.  “Hands-on workshops” they replied.  That’s why, in organizing this year’s event, we organized the schedule around four interactive workshops led by arts entrepreneurship educators, arts activists, and, yes, attorneys.  Why attorneys?  Because the audience told us in advance that would help them in their professional practice

What impact or outcomes are we looking for?  More than anything, p.a.v.e.’s goals are to increase artists’ capacity to produce creative work by employing entrepreneurial thinking.  This is hard to measure, but our keynote address, workshops, and forums are designed to broaden an understanding of entrepreneurial habits of mind and habits of action.  We are asking for feedback on the requisite feedback form, but will also follow up with focus groups after the close of the event to asses to what extent our desired outcomes have been met.

Conferences, symposia, meetings, oh my! They traditionally imply a structure that is one dimensional: talking heads on a platform in front of rows of chairs in, as Diane vividly describes, Ballroom D at the end of the Hutchinson concourse.  This is due, in part, to the need to reserve space a year or more in advance, and in part, to sheer inertia.  Given that many of use get together to talk about reaching our performance audiences more effectively, more broadly, and more deeply, we should be able to give similar consideration to how to reach our professional audience/community. If we’re moving to a more participatory arts consumption model, why not do the same for conferences.  We can do things differently –interactive workshops, mixed up with a traditional lecture, mixed up with a creative activity: imagine going to conferences that include creative charettes, not only for students, but for senior professionals.  I hope the next conferences I attend will provide participatory experiences that build both knowledge and community.  And, I certainly hope we’ll provide that for the attendees at the Creating Infrastructure for Creativity and Innovation symposium this weekend!

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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1 Response to Conference Shake-up

  1. Pingback: Weekly Digest of Inspired Writings: Stress, Yoda, Creative Friction, Arts Cuts « innovative ideas in performance and pedagogy

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