My First AFTA

AFTAI recently attended the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Annual Convention for the first time. Unlike the AIMAC conference (International Association of Arts and Culture Management) I will be attending next week, AFTA is not academically oriented. It also is very much its first name: American. The conference “centered on Power and Empowerment, and the role of the arts in empowering communities and individuals.” This concept of empowering individuals is unique to – or, more accurately, more prevalent in — the US than perhaps any other country. The Declaration of Independence was published the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This is not a mere coincidence, but rather a confluence of Enlightenment thinking that has led us to believe, profoundly, that individual rights are paramount.

With individual rights comes individual responsibility as well. The session I was asked to moderate at the AFTA conference was titled by the conference organizers, “How Can We Nurture Artists as Entrepreneurial Drivers of Creative Economies?” I suggested at the onset of the session that it is not the responsibility of the individual artist to drive the economy but rather that it is the responsibility of the artist to make art. I reframed the question as “How Can We Nurture Artists as Entrepreneurial Drivers of Their own Economic Lives?” In an economy built on the concept (rightly or wrongly) that individuals operating in their own self-interest will collectively serve the common good, we must give artists access to the knowledge, skills, and ability to maintain their creative practice in an economy that is not particularly friendly to them.

One of my co-discussants, Carla Dirlikov, talked about cultural entrepreneurhip as a move toward changing belief systems about the value of art in communities. The other, Beth Flowers, talked about setting up programs that incentivized people to work together to act on the arts business training they receive by building partnerships between artists, businesses and other community organizations. I shared some research we did about field-based arts business training. There was a theme shared among the three of us, as well as the over 50 people who participated in the discussion, that more can be done to remove barriers and obstacles to artist sustainability. In no particular order, here are some of the other topics, themes, and issues that were raised:

  • There are emotional barriers to accessing the business of art bred by traditional conservatory artistic training
  • Arts agencies can help artists with the “red tape” of dealing with bureaucratic issues like permitting and licenses [Revolve Detroit publishes a guidebook for use locally in this regard]
  • More can be done to engage the business community in partnering with artists [Some examples of this being done, in addition to Revolve Detroit, are Spaceworks Tacoma and Irrigate]
  • Teach artists how to identify resources
  • Consider that we are in a purpose economy and an experience economy where social entrepreneurship can be successful
  • Concentrate on cooperation and the aesthetics of the art rather than fostering competition among artists
  • Help mid-career artists [Pave has recently published a resource guide on “Asset Building for Artists“]

It was a lively and very positive discussion and I only tap the broadest themes here. The discussion participants included people from local and state arts agencies, artist services organizations, a few educators, citizens advocacy groups, and artists (mostly Chicago-based). To sum up my initial answer to the question both as posed by the organizers and reframed by me, I quote from Theaster Gates’ keynote address: “it starts with listening.”

(Stay tuned for news from the AIMAC conference in about two weeks)

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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