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Americans for the Arts Does Nashville

June 23, 2014

Last weekend, I attended the Americans for the Arts annual conference in Nashville, home to country music. The overall theme of this year's conference was Community, and many of the sessions were centered around the impact of the arts on communities.

In one session, which I moderated, three community leaders talked about their institutions and the communities that they serve. Billed as "The Power of Art to Transform Communities," the Saturday morning plenary session featured Marc Bamuthi Joseph, artist and Director of Performing Arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco; Graham Beal, Director, President and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Arts; and Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, Executive Director of Turnaround Arts California.

The 30-minute discussion, which can be found on YouTube, centered around two core ideas:

  • The first concerns the ways that arts and culture can best serve to transform and empower our communities, and
  • The second centers on how best to translate the positive role of arts and culture in a community into actual public value.

Instead of paraphrasing each panelist's comments, here are some tweets from each, which can be found at #aftacon (note: some of these tweets have been combined or altered slightly for editing purposes):

Graham Beal

  • "What we're doing is giving hints and giving suggestions. Not telling people what to do."
  • "When someone is standing in front of a work of art, they're asking 'what does this have to do with me?'"
  • "The visitor needs to be in control of the experience in a museum. Make the visitor experience exciting, relevant, interactive, engaging."

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

  • "Embracing the power of our compassion is a strategy - a way of being in the world."
  • "There is a way that I can be and make art so that people can meet me at the point of curiosity."
  • "The issue does not have to be 'how do we get people to our institutions?' It can be how do people access art in their lives?"
  • "I do not try to convince people of things they don't believe in - I try to express my beliefs and make it safe to do so."
  • "Where do we go to think together? Where do we go to be more than just entertained but to be inspired?"
  • "Intimacy is important to me as a driver for how we form relationships in our institutions."
  • "You know a show is successful when no one leaves the building."

Malissa Feruzzi Shriver

  • "Parents don't value the arts until they know they're missing."
  • "STEM is applied math and science. Why aren't we talking about art as applied creativity -- not just an activity for the elite?"
  • "Let's work to define arts education as 'applied creativity.'"
  • "Standardized bubble tests are NOT learning, and it's an insult to teachers. Teachers and students need to be respected."

The 900 participants in the conference were treated to a number of speakers, panels, debates, discussions, interventions and performances centered on themes of Arts & Community, Building Core Skills, Embracing Diversity, Reinvention & Sustainability, and Supply & Demand. Artist and Activist Ben Folds gave the opening presentation, and a panel of artists, including poet Delali Ayivor, opera singer Carla Dirlikov, and composer/musician Marcus Shelby closed out the three-day meeting. In between, participants also experienced the County Music Hall of Fame and a "Culture Crawl" through Nashville.

The American Express Emerging Leaders Award was presented to Chris Appleton, Co-founder and Executive Director of Wonderroot in Atlanta, Georgia. Wonderroot is an arts and service organization with a mission to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change.

What do you think? How do the arts empower communities and bring public value? If you have a comment, please share it here. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

P.S. Did you know that more than 40,000 musicians, artists and filmmakers call Nashville home?


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