Ballmer

I spent my weekend up in Baltimore at the Americans for the Arts Mid-Century Summit. It was awesome.

I presented on a panel called “Leadership and Influence,” and talked about my experience “embedding” myself in the DC area arts community after moving here two years ago. I spent quality time with the Emerging Leaders Council members doing a lot of our annual work over a few days of meetings and networking sessions, and I really enjoyed meeting the new arts professionals who attended the convention, many for the first time.

I left with a lingering question, though, which was: where were my literature peeps?

The Americans for the Arts Convention drew about 1,000 people from all over the country. It seems evenly split between professionals who work in state and local government agencies and professionals in private nonprofits. Many of the panels and talks are oriented toward business-related concerns; this year, for example “exploring new business models in the nonprofit sector” was a big and important topic–and also a slightly incendiary one!

Over the course of the weekend, I compared this crowd and experience with AWP’s annual conference, which now attracts over 8,000 people, most of whom are employed by or involved in higher education. But through my involvement with AWP’s Writing Conferences & Centers program, I know that there are a significant number of independent nonprofit literary organizations who attend AWP, who present there, who exhibit there. These organizations would really benefit from a connection with Americans for the Arts, and I think as our world becomes more interdisciplinary and “hybridized,” connections with our arts colleagues in other areas will be more and more important.

Consider, for example, that a huge portion of the Americans for the Arts event is build around Arts Education–both understanding what makes it successful and how to rally public and private support for it. But many organizations in the nonprofit sector also engage in arts education, including literary organizations like The Writer’s Center, so it benefits us to be connected to the larger discussion, to have colleagues in the field.

The Emerging Leader Council has been a true gift to me personally and professionally this past year, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve on it. The convention this year will full of young leaders and leaders new to the arts administration field who represented workers at all levels in their organizations. The literary world, too, is full of smart, passionate, and entrepreneurial leaders who found presses (No Tell Books), establish affinity organizations for writers (Kundiman), and convene (Lambda’s seminars for GLBT writers), yet those perspectives and talent were absent from this weekend.

When you consider that more and more of “literary” (scare quotes intentional) publishing is moving into the nonprofit sector, I wonder why more and more professionals aren’t reaching out to be a part of the sector as a whole. We rely more deeply on governmental grants and funding from philanthropic foundations, yet we aren’t a part of the organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of art everywhere.

Is it too incendiary for me to posit that we might be reaping too many benefits and sowing too few seeds?

From my perspective, with seven years of experience in this field, I can honestly say I feel dance and literature are the two arts most commonly “left off” the catalog of arts disciplines in our country. I’d say that even film, despite its connection to a robust for-profit enterprise, is still more commonly recognized as “art” than writing and dance are. Yet writers are one of only two kinds of artists who receive direct financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a strange conflict to witness. I’ve watched literary orgs jump back and forth between arts councils and humanities councils because their programming seems to wear the other hat (or both, or neither distinctly enough for their tastes). And now I feel like I see the community of literary professionals forsaking involvement in the greater arts conversation that could, over time, get us a better seat at funders’ tables.

Does literature’s symbiotic relationship with the academy separate us from the arts community? I did notice that another underrepresented group at the Americans for the Arts Convention were arts administrators who work within systems of higher education. (In fact, the first time I attended this Convention was during my tenure at ASU, and I came away feeling like there were no colleagues for me or information relevant to my job at that event.) And it’s true that for many university presses, rather than lobby their elected officials for funding, they lobby their administrators and regents instead.

But I can’t help feeling that the stronger our arts field is, the more inclusive and diverse it is, the stronger our impact will be, the more readily funding will be made available and a greater diversity of voices will be heard.

What do my literary colleagues think about this?

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