What We Learned

What is the state of the arts in America and where does Austin fit in the mix?

What We Learned
Illustration By Robert Faires

They came, they saw, they conferred.

Over six days in early June, arts leaders and arts administrators from across North America made Austin the epicenter of discussion about the current state of culture on the continent. The annual gathering of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (June 10-11, organized by Austin Script Works' C. Denby Swanson and Zachary Scott Theatre Center's Ann Ciccolella) and the 2005 meeting of the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts (June 8-13, sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts) saw culture mavens from coast to coast talking about the place of the arts in American society, new methods of creative collaboration, public and private arts funding, the role of the artist as citizen, and much more, even as they downed mojitos at Habana and boot-scooted at the Broken Spoke. What ultimately came out of all this deliberation? A few conferees – some local, some visiting – offer their thoughts.

Brian Quirt

Founder and artistic director, Nightswimming, Toronto, Canada

Favorite moment of the LMDA conference: [Kirk] Watson's keynote speech: His directness was refreshing; he made politics seem less cynical, at least for a moment; he offered concrete opportunities for connection between civic action and artistic production.

What you took away from the conference: A healthy reminder that the culture of the U.S., and indeed of the U.S. theatre scene, is far more varied than one often thinks it is; that the desire to work in and with other disciplines is active and alive, if (for some reason) less understood by many dramaturgs; the difference between a mojito and a margarita.

What you learned about Austin: That music can be a bond amongst citizens; that Texas stereotypes are dangerous; that dry heat can be beautiful.

Other thoughts raised by the conference: That dramaturgs too often sell themselves short; this is happening less in the U.S. than in the past, but it continues to be an undercurrent in our conferences. I was delighted to hear and see less of this in the Austin gathering, but it remains a professional doubt that LMDA can and will work to alleviate and eliminate. A dramaturg's professional curse is to see both sides of everything. That can be a weakness in looking at one's own profession; we are working very hard to turn that into a strength.

Liz Engelman

President, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas

Favorite moment of the LMDA conference: Being in the Collaboration Project [which teamed a playwright and a musician from Austin with a visiting dramaturg to develop a new work] and feeling that art was in the house. I had a moment of glowing recognition inside that we made art in three days. Sure, there were six weeks of conversation over e-mail and phone, but once four groups of three individuals get together in a room, magic can happen, and it did onstage, and that was glorious for me.

What you took away from the conference: Conversation matters. Conversation is crucial among ourselves, between us and artists, between us and the city. I learned how grateful artists are to be invited and asked to participate and be part of something and how the temperature in the room changes when they're there. The buzz is greater, the energy is hotter and higher. Art matters, and conversation matters.

What you learned about Austin: I knew it was a colorful music scene, I knew it was a colorful city. I didn't know just how much theatre was going on and how many writers lived in Austin and how many people are excited to be doing what they're doing living where they live. I saw a lot of happy artists proud of what they do and proud of their city, and that was great for me.

What you think people got out of having the conference in Austin: I really felt like we were able to talk about the topics because Austin framed every conversation we had, [and I saw] how important a keynote speech is in framing the conversation throughout a whole weekend because Kirk Watson's top 10 list was the sounding board and jumping-off point for every other discussion that we had over the weekend.

Ann Daly

Arts consultant, moderator for AFTA panel "Artist as Citizen," Austin

Favorite moment of the AFTA conference: Listening to choreographer Liz Lerman talk about making art with scientists, shipyard workers, and all sorts of other people. Liz reminded me that when we think about the arts as a means of developing Austin, we mustn't limit our planning to the installation of another outdoor sculpture or to the presentation of another arts festival. Art is a process. Art is a form of inquiry. Art is a mode of problem-solving. Art is a community activity. If the arts are going to be more than window dressing in Austin, then we need to think much more broadly and systematically about the process of art, rather than just its end-products.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez

Artist, panelist for AFTA panel "Artist as Citizen," San Antonio

What you took away from the AFTA conference: The size and the mix of individuals and the sense that there is a rather large battle on behalf of the arts being waged. I'm always being reminded of just how many corners of the U.S. are touched by it. The other thing that struck me – and this came up not only in my session – is the kind of work that is talked about. Liz [Lerman] mentioned the Nineties and the type of "identity-based work" that was popular then. Now, to hear Liz and Sam [Miller] talk, as well as other individuals from other sessions, the type of work that's most enthusiastically discussed is the work that brings disparate communities together for the purposes of doing something: cleaning up something, exposing something, celebrating something. As in the case of Liz's work with genome scientists, is that project an example of identity work still because it exposes two identities – artist and scientist – in relief to each other? Or is that something else? And is that something else somehow better positioned to do the work of justifying and celebrating the cultural industry in the U.S.? How might cultural expression and cultural advocacy be related right now?

Janet Seibert

Civic art & design coordinator, city of Austin Cultural Arts Program

Favorite moment of the AFTA conference: Dinner Sunday night outside at Serrano's with six other people. It was a perfect evening, cool breeze, special Austin place. The synergy was incredible, we all participated in the same conversation; it felt like I was in a creative think tank. I came away somehow transformed, full of ideas and new thinking. This event characterizes what I find the best about these conferences: I am rejuvenated, energized, ready to tackle the world again, ready to implement new ideas.

What you took away from this conference: Raised awareness about our young adults, the 20-year-olds, a new generation that I haven't thought much about. I knew we had them and that we old guard are looking for ways to engage them as audiences, but this conference really drove home to me the generation gap and how we need to be listening to them carefully.

What you think people got out of having the conference in Austin: A number of people told me they fell in love with Austin. I think people have heard so much about Austin through Austin City Limits, Richard Florida's writings, and the buzz Austin has across the country. Experiencing it for themselves is another dimension. It's magic! The Saturday event (art car parade, stops at La Peña, artwork in the Scarborough Building, Mexic-Arte, Arthouse, and AMOA) displayed such a range and diversity in art: outsider art, community-based art, superb quality Mexican art, cutting-edge contemporary art, and a community contemporary art museum. Add the many opportunities for great music throughout the conference, and it adds up to an incredibly diverse, robust, and high-quality art experience.

Cookie Ruiz

Managing director, Ballet Austin

Favorite moment of the AFTA conference: At the end of Ballet Austin's two-hour presentation [about Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project] when we were flanked by individuals from all over the country wanting to speak to us about bringing/replicating the project in their communities. We addressed the conference on the issue of human rights and what happens when art is used as a catalyst for this conversation. We were asked hard, probing questions. This was not a group that deals in the superficial. It was exciting and mentally stimulating to realize that our commitment to the study and understanding of our topic (the Holocaust and its impact on contemporary issues) positioned us well for this audience.

What you took away from this conference: I met people from all over the country who are passionate about the arts and understand their capacity to address issues of critical concern to our communities.

What you think people got out of having the conference in Austin: There was a palpable excitement to be in Austin. While folks were interested in the conference curriculum, they seemed equally excited to get out and experience Austin. From our airport to the exceptional staff at the hotel ... I heard comments over and over about the friendliness and openness of our city.

Emily Cicchini

Manager of arts education, VSA arts of Texas

Favorite moment of the AFTA conference: When Moy Eng, program director of the Performing Arts Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, mentioned seeing a trend among large foundations toward the funding of individual artists. She talked about the role of foundations to support individuals who can truly innovate culture, and that was refreshing and exciting. I asked her if there had been any discussion among foundations about sustainability issues for individual artists, which is a particular issue for artists with disability. For me, these are the basics, like a place to live, a hot lunch, health insurance. Most philanthropic funding is still for projects, not general support, but she saw this as potentially changing.

What you took away from this conference: A new perspective on my role(s) as artist/administrator/educator through the arts – a little less apprehension about wearing all the hats at once, but mainly a continued sense of urgency about the need to raise the value of arts in the public eye overall.

What you think people got out of having the conference in Austin: Our casualness, our friendliness, our art-in-everyday-life quality. I had a sense that we in Austin take our arts for granted. Many of the folks I talked to from places near and far don't have a fraction of our luxury.

Austin came off well – lovely new hotel, well-organized conference with interesting side trips, stellar host performance by the Texas Commission on the Arts and city Cultural Arts staff – but I felt sad that we as a city have not built our basic infrastructure for arts and arts education as strongly as other communities. We have some great artists and organizations but currently we have no organized business support network for the arts, our schools recently cut fine arts services, and our city arts funding program is still in transition. Politically and economically, we are not maximizing our much lauded creative capital, to use an already tired phrase. It seems ironic when the arts are a huge part of why so many of us stay – or maybe not ironic, just lazy or proud or stubborn, which is worse. end story

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