Conference Reflections in a One-way Mirror

I go to three or four professional conferences each year. After each, I routinely post reflections or takeaways here on Creative Infrastructure. I am still processing the experience I had — or wanted to have but didn’t — at a recent “conference” in Dallas. (I place “conference” in quotes because very little conferring actually took place.)

This conference’s stated purpose was to be the inaugural meeting of an arts entrepreneurship educators’ society. It grew out of an invitation-only meeting last summer convened by the conference organizers attended by about 17 people, several of whom were students (I attended for one hour via a WebEx connection). That group was asked to vote on whether or not there should be such a society. Eleven people voted yes, the rest did not enter a vote or otherwise abstained (one could claim the vote was “unanimous,” since there were no negatives). Fast forward ten months and that group of 11 organized the conference held last week.

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll, 1970.

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll, 1970.

The conference schedule seemed “normal” at first: a plenary session, smaller panel discussions. But then there was this issue of “voting.” I queried the conference organizers several days in advance, “I’m looking forward to seeing you both on Friday. I notice that the conference schedule includes two plenary sessions related to ‘voting.’ Are there voting materials (e.g., draft documents) available for review prior to the conference session?” The reply was a simple “we will pass them out at registration.” I had, just the week before, attended another conference at which there was voting on several items, all of which had been distributed in advance and were available on the organization website. There is annual voting in other professional organizations to which I belong and materials are always made available in advance, so I asked again, “If the attendees are being asked to vote on issues or structures that will affect the future of the field, it would be helpful to have this material in advance so it might be given thoughtful consideration. Thank you for your understanding.” To which I received essentially the same reply, “I can understand your perspective. They will be shared on Friday.”

Arriving on Friday, I was handed an envelope that included the conference schedule, a ballot, and a name tag. That was it. No background information to aid in informed decision-making, no listing of the 70 or so attendees. The ballot started with a seemingly simple question about the naming of the organization, but this was followed by great big questions like what is the purpose of the organization (several options plus “table”)? Its mission (two options plus “table”), vision, frequency of meeting, and even membership tiers and levels. A colleague asked one of the organizers if there was going to be a discussion of whether or not there needs to be a professional society for arts entrepreneurship educators. She was told that that vote had been taken last summer and it was unanimous so no discussion was needed or would be held. (Remember the invitation only meeting attended by 17 at which 11 voted?).

As the conference began, there was an introduction, a plenary session, back-to-back panels, and then ballots were due in ballot boxes. There was no discussion. The organizers did not facilitate a way for the attendees, who came from all over the country and a variety of arts disciplines (although it seemed about half were from music) and arts administration programs to meet one another and network. So on top of there being no open dialogue about the really big issues, there wasn’t even a way to meet one another.

As I headed to the airport (earlier than expected due to a sick child), I wrote to one of the organizers, “Especially in a time of scarce resources, to bring 70 people together and then not give them an opportunity to meet and enter into dialogue about the professional issues that brought them together is, at minimum, wasteful, and seems antithetical to the very purpose of forming a professional society. We are unlikely to agree about this, but in the absence of an open forum or venue for dialogue, wanted to make my opinion known.”

This meeting was supposed to be the inaugural meeting of an academic society that works in a field without clear definition (see this and this). It would have been a perfect opportunity for the people who are most invested in the topic to discuss it, delineate the issues and questions that face us, and develop a vision for the future. Instead, I felt like I and my 70 colleagues were looking through a one-way mirror observing a select group discuss (or expound) on matters of interest to them with little concern for their audience or customer. Ignoring the needs and wants of the audience seems antithetical to entrepreneurial action in the arts – or ay other sector.

In a 2001 article in Theatre Topics, Jill Dolan writes, “We should teach our students to enter participatory democracy as artist/scholars with the skills to be competent, engaged, thoughtful citizens.” I assert that we should model, or to use her term, “rehearse” that participatory democratic behavior ourselves. To build academic legitimacy as a field of practice and inquiry, arts entrepreneurship educators, and any organization that purports to represent them, should support open dialogue and debate about the field and its practices, pedagogies, and theories.

(In a related sidebar, the organizers have also launched an online journal. They claim it is “peer-reviewed” but there was no open call for submissions and three of the four articles in the first edition are by the conference organizers themselves.)

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.
This entry was posted in Arts entrepreneurship, Culture and democracy, Higher education. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Conference Reflections in a One-way Mirror

  1. Pingback: SAEE, Take 2 | Creative Infrastructure

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