You can't hula hoop in this town without bumping into an arts workshop or seminar. These kinds of well-intentioned arts gatherings have been a popular activity for as long as I can remember. They are an easy and cheap way to educate a bunch of nonprofit arts professionals all at the same time. It is commonly thought that a productive by-product of these shindigs is the free time that arts workers get to spend socializing with each other over coffee and cookies before and after the gathering's main event.
In Southern California, arts gatherings are commonly organized and hosted by arts service providers like California Lawyers for the Arts and L.A. Stage Alliance. Government agencies have gotten into the act too with their own leadership and management workshops. Even private foundations are doing it. The Annenberg Foundation, for example, has a complicated program called "Alchemy" that involves numerous workshops and seminars and is supposed to help board presidents and organizational executives work together. But no matter the type of gathering or its subject matter, these arts workshops and seminars all have one common characteristic: one group of people does all the talking and another group of people does all the listening.
The talkers: I'll call them Those-Who-Know. They are consultants, funders, and arts officials. Those-Who-Know have plenty of power, resources, and influence. At arts gatherings it's easy to identify Those-Who-Know -- they are a small group, well-dressed, elevated.
The listeners: Let's call them Those-Who-Don't-Know. They are a much larger group comprised of arts workers, managers, administrators, and artists. They sit quietly in low-lying rows taking notes.
Those-Who-Know organize these gatherings because they think that if arts workers were better educated about things like financial management, fundraising, marketing, planning, and board development the arts field would prosper. They also think that convening people is an important activity in itself because if arts workers get to know each other, they'd be more apt to work together.
The relationship between Those-Who-Know and Those-Who-Don't-Know is complicated. Those-Who-Don't-Know know very well that no matter how profound the art project, without grant money and visibility their project won't survive, so they willingly put on a façade of earnest engagement and show up at gatherings offered by those holding the power and resources that are critical to their success.
If you scratch the surface of Those-Who-Don't-Know you'll find that they know plenty. It's not lack of knowledge and education that keeps them from advancing -- its lack of time, manpower, influence, and financial resources that has them hamstrung.
While I'm sure there are isolated incidences in which arts seminars and workshops have been helpful to a smattering of arts professionals, I don't think traditional offerings such as these have advanced the arts field in the least. And frankly, I am surprised that with all the talking and thinking arts leaders do, there hasn't been more time spent trying to develop new, more effective methodologies. Now is the time for designated leaders to experiment with types of gatherings that will more directly address the real challenges that artists and arts groups' face, like pervasive isolation, marginalization, and lack of financial resources.
Whether or not we succeed in developing different, more effective support programs for the arts field is greatly dependent on our willingness to take risks and experiment -- to consider new ideas, no matter how improbable they may at first appear.
Here's an example of an interesting and productive type of gathering: A couple of months ago, I went to Bootleg Theater for L.A. Ladies Arm Wrestling (L.A. L.A.W.), where performing arts organizations challenge each other to arm wrestling matches. L.A. L.A.W. goes something like this: performing arts groups pick their strongest female, create a bad-ass persona for her, put together an entourage (because every wrestler needs one) and show up at Bootleg to challenge the strongest females from other arts groups to an arm wrestling match. Each group -- wrestler and entourage -- makes a theatrical entrance, talks smack about this and that, works the crowd into a frenzy. Wrestler after wrestler meets her opponent. The matches, by the way, are judged by real-deal professional arm wrestling judges lending an official air to the proceedings. The winning wrestler's organization takes the lion's share of the box office. This event repeats itself four times a year and involves local groups such as: ircle X Theatre, Opera del Espacio, cARTel, Bootleg Theater, Showbox LA, Moving Arts, Ghost Road, Son of Semele, Poor Dog Group, and Sacred Fools, among others.
L.A. Ladies Arm Wrestling is an off-shoot of C.L.A.W. (the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers). Originally the idea was developed as an on-going, quarterly fundraiser for the performing arts community but the event I attended at Bootleg got me thinking way beyond fundraising. I saw some interesting possibilities for relationship building, problem-solving, and creative and administrative collaborations among like-minded people.
One of the most intriguing characteristics of the L.A. L.A.W. gathering is its hybrid theater/sporting event structure. The underpinning of competition serves as a catalyst for quick engagement among both the participants and the audience. In this environment the possibilities for exchange are endless. A couple hundred people with similar passions -- all of whom have worked hard in the nonprofit arts trenches and know first-hand what the real challenges are -- all gathered in the same room pumped up on theatricality and competition and engaged with one another is fertile ground for collaboration, learning, and the unimaginable. L.A. L.A.W. and other gatherings like this have the potential to address what I believe are the three most critical issues facing artists and arts groups today:
Isolation, Marginalization, and Money
It's no secret that creative expression, even among performing artists, is a solitary activity. Artists dig deep into their psyches and rely on their own experiences and skill sets to manifest artistic vision. In a place like L.A., with its sprawling geography and gridlock, artists can easily go months without interaction with other creative individuals or groups. These two factors combine to create the perfect storm for artistic isolation, which hampers production and can distort artistic vision. It's easy to see how regular shindigs like L.A. L.A.W., with its ability to engage both participant and on-looker and its kegger-like atmosphere, could go a long way toward ameliorating the isolation.
Throughout modern western history, artists have been marginalized by main stream society. Over the years, they've learned to live with this marginalization, often wearing it like a badge of honor and working hard to distinguish themselves as the excluded; the fringe. But now artists are up against something much more dangerous and insidious than disregard from the general public. Now artists who exist solely to create excellent and captivating work are being marginalized from within by arts leaders and funders. Arts Education is the clarion call of those in power. The artists who really matter to authorities now are those who devote their lives to the betterment of certain others like the underserved, the impoverished, the children. The new value of an artist, we are told, lies in his ability to teach.
The importance of regularly bringing together like-minded artists with shared values cannot be underestimated. Artists must to be able to look one another in the eye and really see each other and learn the value of each other and maybe even find a combined voice loud enough to push back on dangerous trends.
And, of course, there's money. It's time to wake up to certain funding realities: as hard as it's been the last couple of years to find funding for projects that can't be positioned as useful to education or social service, it's probably not going to get any better. In 2011, total charitable giving in the U.S. was around $298 billion, individuals account for about 75 percent of that amount or around $223 billion. So why not forget about foundations and grants for a while and think about people and their willingness to open their wallets to talent. So to arts groups: Why not try something new? L.A. L.A.W. might just be on to something here. And to funders: Why not set aside your agendas and your lectures and put your coffee and cookie budget into something like this? You never know what could happen.
The next LA LAW event is at Bootleg Theater on February 14th, 2013. See the Bootleg website for more information.