Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I Brought Back: 

Americans For The Arts 2014 Annual Convention

Rock God & All Around Nice Guy Ben Folds posing with Kelley

On June 11th, in the midst of a planning frenzy for the Impact Arts Conference on June 27th and other events coming fast and furious that same week, Cultural Alliance President Mary Anne Winkelman and I left York for the sunny, music-soaked streets of Nashville, TN to attend the Americans for the Arts 2014 Annual Convention (AFTACON14). Thanks to the scholarship I received from AFTA, we were both able to go. Though on the plane ride out, while I was feverishly updating to-do lists and writing scripts, I thought to myself; "What was I thinking? I don't have time for this! I have our conference in two weeks! I have a board retreat coming up! What about the Litter Letter Project?" If it hadn't been for the scholarship and having to go to honor that agreement, I would have backed out. And our events would have been the worse for it.
Not only did I gain professional knowledge and inspiration, but AFTACON14 gave me so many ideas to help our Impact Arts Conference and other events better serve the needs of our community. Below are three takeaways I received at AFTACON14 that I brought home to York & immediately put into practice at our events:

Takeaway One: People working in the arts need & feed off of time spent with others doing exactly what they're doing. 

Learning so much from my counterparts across the country
I didn't realize how extremely important it was to meet and talk with other people from outside my town/region who are working day in and day out, like me, on making their communities better through the arts. And not just my fellow colleagues at United Arts Funds such as Louisville, KY, Cincinnati, OH, and Chattanooga, TN, but those doing projects and programs on a scope I cannot even begin to imagine, such as Graham Beal, Director, President & CEO, Detroit Institute of Arts; and Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado, Executive Director, School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza. Just having a chance to hear their struggles and successes put so much of what we are doing here in York into perspective. And you realize that there's a support network of professionals all over the country that champion what you do & want to hear what's next in your community. 

After AFTACON14, making sure our attendees at the Impact Conference would be able to network with one another and feed off of each other's experience in the sessions was made a priority. And we encouraged attendance by creatives outside of our region's borders and brought in speakers from across state lines to help broaden the view of what's happening in the arts past our own community.

Takeaway Two: Thinking creatively & creative thinking are two different things. 

I think creatively. My mind works a little differently, so my thought processes follow a less beaten path on occasion. But I made the mistake of thinking I was using creative thinking, which I discovered at AFTACON14 is not the same thing. Creative thinking is a way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first). Creative thinking can be stimulated both by an unstructured process such as brainstorming, and by a structured process such as lateral thinking.

When Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado, Executive Director of the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza told me to draw planets in my notebook during her "Leading From The Edge of Your Authority" session, I really didn't get it.  "It's not a to-do list!" she commanded. "You make too many to-do lists!" and she was right about that. "This is your worlds. Organize them like planets, in order of importance. Then you'll have an image of the important places to you, and where you need to visit in order to keep in touch with them."  I now have a list of ten circles, rotating around one another. At the center is my family, then the Cultural Alliance, and then my other commitments such as my York College teaching and volunteer work. My solar system, right in front of me. It really helps re-organize my perspective on what's important, and what I have time for. All of the planning I was feverishly worrying over for our Cultural Alliance events got much more manageable once put in that perspective. I can do this; I've got planets.

My Planets
In "Planning & Facilitating Community Meetings" with Kirstin Weigmann of Forecast Public Art, there were big white easel pads and doodling. I'm not a doodler. It's not in my wheel house. But I realized that the more I was encouraged to write down whatever words and ideas popped into my head, the more the ideas and thoughts on our topics flowed. My table mates and I fed off one another, and at the end we had some really thought-provoking answers among our drawings of curly cues and seagulls (I did the seagull!) We implemented this method of capturing feedback at our Board to Boards retreat with our eight partner organizations the very next week.

Takeaway Three: Hearing thank-you from someone you admire can take you from burnt-out to brand-new.

When we attended the lunch-time Keynote of AFTACON14; "The Power of Art To Transform People;" I hadn't looked closely at my program to know who was scheduled to speak. That is, until I looked up from my plate and saw the back of Ben Folds' head at the next table.  

My heart made a sound I can only describe as "Sqeeeee!" BEN FOLDS. HERE. Amazing musician, a huge advocate for the arts, and a personal hero. I was so excited; was he scheduled to perform? But little did I know that his musical performance would be the icing on the cake.

Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, introduced Ben Folds, who came up to talk to us about what the arts mean to him. "Up until 5th grade, I was a pain in the ass.  I didn't get good grades, and I didn't get along with the other kids.  I didn't have a lot of confidence. And as soon as I started playing music, I can see what I learned from that, and how it got me where I was.  It was on the backs of so many people.  And if it wasn't for what you do, and for the people that did that before you, I wouldn't be here."

That one sentence was so galvanizing.  Could it be possible that there was someone, out there, that someday might find what I did valuable? Could I be responsible for helping to move the next Ben Folds forward? It was enough to make me feel a renewed belief in my work, and that was worth all the time away from the office to be in Nashville. (That, and getting my picture with Ben Folds. SQUEEEE!)

When we returned to York, I knew that I wanted to give the attendees at our Impact Arts & Culture Conference the same experience. We were fortunate to have Patrick Dahlheimer, bassist of the multi-platinum rock band LIVE and native Yorker attend to welcome everyone. He spoke of the influence that his middle-school music teacher, Mr. Carn, had on him, and how that interaction opened his eyes to the world of music. Then, he put a challenge to our attendees. "One person dared me to dream. My question for you today is 'who are you going to dare to dream?'"

As one attendee put it; "That challenge was just what I needed. It re-ignited my light." It was the perfect way to begin the day, and set the tone for the rest of the conference.

Thank you to the Americans For The Arts Scholarship Committee that provided me the means to attend AFTACON14. Without that time spent with my peers absorbing new ideas in new ways, our community events and conference the following week would not have been as effective.  

Can't wait to meet up with all my new friends in Chicago for AFTACON15 and bring back even more to York!