“Now what do we do” — Report on National Performing Arts Convention 2008

October 27, 2008  •  4 minute read

Report on National Performing Arts Convention 2008, by MK Wegmann After the first National Performing Arts Convention in Pittsburgh in 2004, the original organizations, who had combined their annual meetings for this ground-breaking national gathering, invited NPN and about 30 other national organizations to join the effort. The second NPAC in Denver in 2008 was framed with the expressed interest to find a way for the nationwide performing arts community to “Take Action Together.” When the five “core” organizers met with us to form a coalition for the purpose of planning NPAC, we all agreed to the importance of engaging the larger performing arts community, and especially wanted to ensure that independent artists would also be present and visible. The NPN board affirmed that NPN’s active engagement with NPAC could provide an important forum for our sector of the field, and could bring to this wider group the viewpoints of artist-centered organizations committed to cultural equity. For 3 years, I attended meetings with this group of leaders as we planned the content for NPAC in Denver, and designed the process for engaging America Speaks, whose methodology provides forums where all voices can be heard. When NPAC took place June 11-14, 2008, more than 3,500 individuals, including more than 600 independent artists, convened in Denver. By combining our four usual Regional Meetings, and with the generous support of Altria, NPN convened about 120 NPN Partners and artists to participate in NPAC. On the surface, 120 people out of 3,500 is a small minority – less than 4%.  Our first challenge was to become a vocal and visible minority – and when a second challenge emerged, how to be a radical minority. Our Thursday morning orientation meeting became an organizing meeting. We armed ourselves with language and discussion points based on work done by Dudley Cocke to create a Declaration on Cultural Equity. “Cultural equity is a pillar supporting our aspirations as a performing arts community.  Further, we affirm:
  •     Our nation’s cultural diversity is a National Treasure
  •     Equitable exchange among cultural communities builds mutual trust and understanding
  •     The Federal Government has a leading role to play promoting cultural equity at home and abroad.”
We recognized the opportunity presented by America Speaks, a caucus process thatstarts with tables of ten. By distributing ourselves throughout the various tables, each of us could voice a point of view that encouraged inclusion and equity in setting priorities for action. At this organizing meeting we also learned about the unfortunate circumstances that led to Madhusree Dutta being dropped from the Friday plenary session, “Radical Ideas from Beyond the Border.”  This act of self-censorship by some of NPAC’s leaders was a sad and frustrating corollary which threatens the coalition that derived from bringing so many sectors of the national performing arts community together for the first time. We struggled to find an appropriate way to protest this act.  We did not want to disrupt the event, we did not want to derail the agenda, and we did not want to disrespect the speakers or the artists. But we also did not want to let it go silently by unprotested. It took another day to devise a strategy, one that was, as a journalist put it “a quiet and respectful” protest. We made and distributed about 100 signs that were held up at the end of the plenary, simply asking the question, “Where is Madhusree Dutta?” (For an overview of NPAC and the Theater Communications Group (TCG) meeting, see https://www.tcg.org/Events/NationalConference/PastConferenceArchives/2008.aspx.) The Town Hall meeting that concluded the America Speaks process at NPAC identified 27 strategies, nine in each of three priority areas: Value/Advocacy, Arts Education, and Diversity. The strategies are divided into three arenas, national, local and individual. As President of NPN, I stood on the stage along with the other host organizations, and committed to follow through on the national strategies.  For a summary of the entire America Speaks discussion point, go to www.performingartsconvention.org. I think the general consensus is that, based on these outcomes, our voices were indeed heard and that our points of view represented. Value/Advocacy: 1. Organize a national media campaign with celebrity spokesperson, slogan, unified message and compelling stories 2. Create a Department of Culture/Cabinet-level position that is responsible for implementing a national arts policy 3. Lobby elected officials for pro-arts policy and funding; demand an arts policy platform from candidates Arts Education: 1. Devise an advocacy campaign to promote the inclusion of performing arts in core curricula 2. Enlist artists as full partners in all aspects of arts education through training and by creating an AmeriCorps/WPA-type program 3. Lobby for education reform, rescinding the No Child Left Behind Ac Diversity: 1. Charge national service organizations to promote diverse art and artists through dialogue, convenings and training programs, and specifically to partner with grassroots organizations that are already connected to diverse communities 2. Diversify boards, management and staff in all national arts organizations 3. Create a media campaign with artists from diverse communities including celebrities to provide exposure to diverse art Follow-up meetings have been held by the national organizers of NPAC, evaluating and discussing the convention and beginning the process of understanding what implementation steps are necessary to honor our commitment to the strategies prioritized at the Town Hall meetings. We have also had a meeting dedicated to better understanding our differences and the process of decision-making, which led to Dutta’s non-appearance. Most importantly, we are outlining principles by which we might continue to work together as a coalition at the national level, principles which affirm an open, equitable and transparent process. What’s next is to continue our engagement in the coalition of performing arts organizations, to continue to understand what we have in common and how we differ, to work together to support cultural equity. NPN stood on the stage next to our colleagues and pledged to work to fulfill the directives of the NPAC participants, and we will honor that pledge.