… and Another

by Roya Amirsoleymani
Community Engagement Manager
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Roya AmirsoleymaniAs part of a 2014 NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative (MLI) award, Marielle Allschwang and I have been attending key field gatherings to strengthen our understanding of live arts programming and its connections to audience and community engagement practices. Last spring, while Marielle was researching program models to advance some of Alverno Presents’ engagement activities in connection with their new Solo Flight Festival (April 2014), she came across several of PICA’s new public programs and audience engagement initiatives I’ve helped to design and implement in partnership with PICA’s artistic staff. Sensing the similarities in our work, she approached me with the idea of collaboratively applying for an MLI grant. I was immediately curious about the possibility of receiving funding for a self-directed, co-learning experience with someone I’d never met.

After speaking by phone for the first time, we realized that our positions and points in our professional development run parallel: in our late 20’s/early 30’s, we are new to program teams at institutions presenting contemporary performance, working to develop and manage new public programs, audience engagement, and education methods never before pursued or provided by our respective organizations. As part of program staff, yet still removed from curatorial and artistic programming, we both desire more exposure to its overall life cycle – from research to presentation. Yet, we lack organizational and individual capacity to travel to sites most fruitful for this kind of on-the-ground, in-depth transmission – which is how the MLI grant has been most supportive.

We agreed that working remotely alongside each other, with the help of our existing mentors (Rory Trainer at Alverno and Erin Boberg Doughton at PICA), would enhance professional development outcomes and experience by permitting a generative exchange of skills, content, research, challenges, and new ideas as peers in the field. Thanks to the internet, we’re able to stay in touch about our experiences and share resources as activities progress; and thanks to NPN, we’ve met twice in person with our mentors at core sites of learning and sharing – the 2013 NPN/VAN Annual Meeting in New Orleans and the January performance festivals in New York (COIL, Under the Radar, American Realness).

In reflecting on the NPN/VAN Annual Meeting, Marielle and I both found the Idea Forum, Then What? Taking a Long Look at What You’re Doing with artists Emily Bivens, Michael Premo, and Steve Lambert, to be most resonant. We were struck by the shift in field-wide culture marked by this discussion – that of arts administrators turning to, and directly adopting and adapting from, artists and their creative processes for engaging communities in meaningful ways. To hear artists talk about how they plan for public participation – from considerations of space to designs for post-project surveys – made us think not about artists as institutions (or the professionalization of artists), but about institutions more thoughtfully and intentionally looking to artistic process, particularly when charged with re-imagining or re-interpreting best practices and methods for designing and measuring programs with open-ended results, or those for which deep engagement matters more than numbers. This session was a reminder of an increasingly dynamic and reciprocal flow of knowledge, power, and practice between artists and institutions.

In discussing what feels most valuable in today’s professional arts landscape, it is the notion of in-person connection to which we both continue to return. Concrete community experiences are at the heart of PICA’s programs and our annual TBA Festival, as they are for Alverno’s programming and most presenting organizations invested in live arts. Yet for arts managers, it seems rare these days for that kind of encounter to transcend email and web – especially for junior and mid-level staff, who often aren’t able to travel, given nonprofit salaries and budgets. We typically don’t see new work until our own organizations present it, limiting the benefit of an immediate and visceral experience of an artist or piece prior to developing public programs, outreach, or audience experiences in connection with it. We also go without much of the real-time networking, skills-sharing, idea generating, and social engagement afforded by both the formal and informal exchanges at the NPN/VAN Annual Meeting and some of the January festival activity, such as the Under the Radar Festival Symposium.

These occasional convergences of artists, presenters, curators, and programmers are still the most direct means of accessing some of the most forward-thinking people and ideas in the national and international field in one room. In both New York and New Orleans, the MLI grant allowed us to see dozens of shows, familiarize ourselves with as many new artists, and connect with arts leaders and change-makers while shadowing our mentors and downloading together in the brief moments between packed schedules. Interactive dialogue, the chance to put faces to names, and the challenging and honest discussions that can only arise in person were highlights of both trips.

Our travels have also allowed us to witness the rigor of presenting and programming up close, encompassing conversations, questions, and phases of project development to which we aren’t always privy in our day-to-day roles. With our mentors, we’ve been able to observe curators, programmers, and artists in conversation; better understand the finances, logistics, and innumerable steps involved in bringing a piece to a site, city, or festival; and recognize how each organization wrestles with both unique and common challenges relative to its mission, vision, identity, community, and resources. To gain a sense of other institutions’ struggles and successes, and to be embedded in lived moments that merge not just organizations but individuals across such divides, has proven insightful and inspiring.

Most importantly, our MLI process is helping us to more clearly visualize the broader performing arts landscape and to place our organizations within it – culturally, aesthetically, programmatically, and operationally. As we continue piloting public programs and refining new engagement initiatives, we can draw on a wealth of expertise through expanded national networks, while more conscientiously considering the complexity of our communities.

Read Marielle E. Allschwang’s perspective here.

March 2014

The Mentorship and Leadership Initiative, as part of the Community Fund, is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and American Express.

Past Issues