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Convention = Learning + Colleague Inspiration

Graham Dunstan

This is my 13th Americans for the Arts Annual Convention—that’s if you count me crashing the closing reception at the World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta in 1999 even though I wasn’t a registered attendee. (That took effort, so I count it).

I spent some time yesterday thinking about what Convention offers me and if I rely on it now for different things than I did earlier in my career. When I was working at the Fulton County Arts Council in Atlanta from 1999 to 2004, Convention for me was all about helping grow the fledgling emerging leaders program and gaining the tools I needed as a new arts administration professional.

And I’ll tell you, I looked forward to Convention all year long. When I arrived on site I’d absorb the information from the program book—circling sessions I wanted to attend and creating a complicated schedule with different colored highlighters so I best take advantage of every session and networking opportunity that interested me. 

I work for Americans for the Arts now, and I think what I get most out of the Annual Convention is the opportunity to be inspired by my colleagues and friends from across the country. It feels like there are too few opportunities for those of us in the arts field to come together in person and share a meal or grab a drink at the bar and just talk. And I don’t even mean always the sharing best practices and innovations. Talking about day-to-day work and common frustrations and stories makes me feel a part of a larger community beyond my work at Americans for the Arts. It helps me remember that whether an organization is local, regional, or national, we still share common values and challenges.

Yesterday’s Convention day in San Diego was a perfect mix of networking and learning. While I garnered some really powerful information on social media and communications, the personal connections stand out to me most. I got to meet and laugh with Sebastian Guajardo from the City of San Antonio Office of Cultural Affairs, our local host organization for the 2012 Annual Convention.

And while I was sitting alone at a corner table during lunch so I could check the Convention’s Twitter feed, an Convention attendee I didn’t know invited me to her nearby table so I wouldn’t be alone. It said a lot about the caliber of people who attend this meeting.

Those same kind of memories stand out year-to-year from Annual Convention. Watching the sun set during a reception on the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. A night of great Mexican food and margaritas in Austin with friends. Coworkers getting funky with a great dance troupe in Seattle. Being in stitches as John Waters performed for us in Baltimore.

When I think back on my first conference experiences now, and really focus on what was most special, I am surprised that all much hasn’t changed.

While I did gain some fantastic professional development (and continue to do so still), what inspires my work most is being in a room full of hundreds of people and feeling like I belong. That was the case in 1999 in Atlanta and it’s certainly the case now in 2011 in San Diego. While the professional development I gain here helps me do my job better, it is the people who inspire the actual work.

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