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It’s Not ‘What Future?’, It’s ‘What a Future!’

Ken Busby

The Americans for the Arts Annual Conference just wrapped up in San Diego. It was terrific!

On the plane from Tulsa, I had begun writing my blog for this week. I had just received an urgent e-mail from the Arts Action Fund that immediate action was needed to oppose any effort to terminate arts education as currently proposed in H.R. 1891, the “Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act.”

I had dutifully written my congressman, using the step-by-step process from the Action Fund website, personalizing my message with anecdotes from my organization, and adding my voice to thousands of others who have written or will write to their congressman or congresswoman on this important issue.

As I was sitting on the plane, thinking about why the arts always seem to be under attack given the mountains of data and research that we have that prove that arts education improves student behavior, keeps students in school longer, improves SAT scores by an average of 100 points, etc., I began writing this blog. It was filled with the reasons why the arts matter.

And I was tying the arts to creativity and entrepreneurship in an effort perhaps to recast the arts into a metaphor for what society, business, and others claim they want and need in the 21st Century in terms of an educated workforce. I finished my rough draft and put it away – to let it simmer for a few days while I attended the conference.

And then, on the final day of the conference and the closing keynote speech, I heard Ben Cameron speak – and I realized that he had jumped light years beyond where I was thinking, as I was mired in the current battle and not thinking about the bigger picture – and I was reborn – not in the spiritual sense, but in the “this is why you do what you do every day, and why it matters, and why you have to keep doing it” sense.

Ben is Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Besides being a dynamic and engaging speaker, his thoughts about where arts organizations are today were so profound! He discussed change and innovation – and how arts organizations would need to position themselves if they were to survive and thrive.

The most salient point to his comments, though, was his comparison of the religious reformation of 500 years ago to the arts reformation of today. He asked the audience to consider how our organizations intersect with and compliment the growing “creative” industries. He suggested that we needed to expand our vision of the arts to include social intervention and interaction. He proffered that we should look at artistic experiences as platforms for appropriate creative energies.

Ben gave many examples of how organizations across the country from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to a dance company in Boise, ID, were revisioning themselves, repurposing themselves, reforming themselves into relevant social conduits for creativity that were engaging new and growing audiences and making a difference in the social fabric of their communities. He suggested that organizations couldn’t rely on being sustainable – that was the old model. To thrive in the 21st Century, organizations must be adaptive and embracing of change – to address community needs in creative ways.

When Ben finished his talk, there was a spontaneous standing ovation. And I personally felt so proud of the work that my staff was doing in Tulsa – that we were embracing change, focusing on our community, and working to be relevant to the 21st century audience. I had renewed energy for my work and a new excitement for how we as a team could really make a difference in our community! It’s not “what future?” it’s “what a future!”

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