Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Delicious Tension of AftA

Jonathan Katz, longtime and now retiring leader of NASAA, and Maryo Gard Ewell, second generation community arts activist and teacher, decided to write a book each about the history of their respective areas of arts support.

This isn't the start of some fictional novel. This conversation actually happened during the AftA National Convention in Nashville in the middle of June. I was lucky to be standing there when they chatted and vociferously encouraged both of them to write those books. What a blessing for our field that would be, to have these first-hand accounts of what really happened over the course of the last sixty years during the rise of state and local arts support. For all the talk about the coming massive leadership shift (1 in 4 within five years), we have to acknowledge the body of wisdom that has the potential to be lost during it.

Marcus Shelby
AftA is informally about that delicious tension between learning--and learning from--our history and creating entirely new ideas, tools, and relationship. During the closing session, Bassist and Composer Marcus Shelby took us on a journey through music history with his gorgeous upright, helping us hear how music builds upon itself in its use as inspiration in times of struggle. Knowing the past, knowing the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, is critical to achieving new heights.

Adapting, changing, tweaking and finding what works for your art/organization/community: again and again the conventioneers talked about "what was" compared to "what can/should be." One of my favorite sessions was this very debate: support what was or demand what should be? Aaron Dworkin, of The Sphinx Organization, and Devon Smith, of Threespot, impressed with their passion, cogency of thought, and active listening of each other's arguments. The sanitized title "We should let arts organizations that don't adapt die" doesn't come close to the furor that I'm sure is often underlying the debate outside of the
convention setting. But at the heart of this argument is learning from history, not being beholden to it, and building on it to create a thing (art, relevance, conversations, organizations, etc etc) that matters.

Learning this history can be difficult in our field: time-consuming at the very least, to seek out information, even in this internet age, as a lot of it is not online (yet). Katz and Ewell are talking about writing books, after all, and even if I pre-order them, how many of my rural colleagues are likely to get a copy? I'm extremely blessed to have spent the last three years learning a lot of the history, both by attending AftA and through my Goucher graduate studies. But not everyone can take advantage of this opportunity, which is why those of us who can must take our knowledge from AftA and spread it around back home. Share the accumulated knowledge so that, rather than reinventing wheels, we can put those wheels together and really go.