Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Old School AND not VERSUS New School: Happy Together at Americans for the Arts Convention

Upon checking in at Pittsburgh, participants were given a tote bag full of goodies, including a real paper notebook and a real wood-encased pen. I was pleasantly surprised, as I always feel like the only person in the room not using a laptop to take notes. At our first Emerging Leaders preconference session (with the incomparable Margie Reese and Maryo Ewell explaining our place in the history of community arts), I saw many more attendees using the notebooks provided or--like me--had brought their own pads/paper/writing implements to use.
afta13 notes
Worlds collide.

Being (mostly) Millenials, we also proceeded to pull out our smart phones to tweet the conference session. Folks would jot a note, then tweet the next profound statement, comfortable switching between both written forms. During networking sessions, we exchanged paper business cards, then went and connected with each other on LinkedIn.

Throughout the conference, this happy mingling of traditional and newfangled continued. A session presenter would tweet questions before the session, then use a magic marker and easel pad to write audience response. Prezi presentations with modern graphic imagery gave way to colored beads in a jar showing the importance of diversity within organizations.

Sessions themselves free-wheeled from "using social media to engage your audience" to "how to make sure your business model works for you." The pinnacle of the dichotomy was the opening reception outside the Warhol Museum: pioneer pop art paired with old-world, potato-filled pierogies. Perfectly coexisting (and perfectly delicious!)

In this day of always-on social networks making it possible for this emerging leader in rural North Carolina to have regular conversations with service organization executive directors in California or cutting edge arts researchers in New York City, a national conference is almost approaching old-school itself. And yet, they are both necessary and meld quite well. Most of the people I tweet with I would never have the opportunity to meet IRL (In Real Life, for those not up on the lingo) if not for the AftA convention. Words may be perfectly meted and research vetted in a blog post that may itself get lots of interaction, but the idea and energy exchange--even using the same words and research--is more electric when participants are in the same room. It's one thing to debate what and why diversity means from the comfort of your couch, quite another to be seated next to someone visibly different (or not, which is an added layer of discussion). Especially moving are the real-time conference emotional breakthroughs--the profound aha's that may even lead to tears--that are shared between attendees. Meeting idols, making new friends, strengthening bonds, putting faces and handshakes to blog headshots and Twitter handles, all of these are possible only because both of these methods of communing exist.

I often say "it's about building relationships." It's what I do--what we all do, really, with our audiences. Yes, through the art, but isn't that what all the administrative stuff boils down to, too? Asking for donations: relationships. More attendance: relationships. Understanding diverse perspectives: relationships. Advocating for the arts: relationships.

The AftA 2013 conference highlighted for me that the core of our work is building relationships and we should embrace and use ALL the different ways to do that. There are times and places for everything, from cutting edge Vine videos to classic deal-making golf games. There is no magic technology that will solve our problems, no mystical language of lunches that will correct our flaws. All there is is connection. And we should strive for just that, every day.