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Reflections of an Arts Administrator on her Umpteenth Americans for the Arts Convention

Sally Gaskill

My first convention was in 1983 or 1984 in Hartford, when the then National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies met with the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. (Those were not only the pre-digital years, but the period when the acronyms – NALAA and NASAA – were more in alignment.)

I was a fresh-faced community development coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. I remember what a rush it was to meet people like me from all over the country.

We did communicate back then – there were telephones, and we actually wrote letters and posted them in the mail – but there sure wasn’t Facebook or Twitter to keep us in touch with each other by the minute. So meeting up at convention was a big deal.

As the years have passed, I have been a frequent attendee of these annual meetings. Americans for the Arts has always been my home, because my work in arts administration has been grounded in community arts.

I have had periods of working as a consultant, facilitating cultural plans for communities across the country, and served as the CEO of arts councils in Rochester, NY, (7 years) and Bloomington, IN (5 years). I became passionate about the political process and got involved with arts advocacy on the state level in both New York and Indiana.

As my career has evolved, my relationship with these conventions has changed.

Ted Berger, the long-time director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, once told me at a small, sparsely-attended conference for local arts agencies in upstate New York, that if he got one good idea that he could implement from a conference then it was worth his time to be there. That stuck with me, and one good idea is what I have always looked for since then.

From 2005 to 2009 or so, I sat on the State Arts Action Network (SAAN) Council of Americans for the Arts. Learning from my colleagues in the state arts advocacy business was the number one thing I got from conventions during those years. It was also a privilege to be welcomed into that group.

Each convention has been different, of course. I love the ArtVentures, which let you experience the arts of the host city in a focused, close-up way. I have heard some fabulous speakers, from the civil right leader, John Lewis, to Malcolm Gladwell and our own Ben Cameron. One cannot shrink from Ben when he is on the podium. Today he breathlessly ranted for 45 minutes about innovation and change. He makes so much sense. I wish we could get beyond listening and work to change our entire industry from the ground up.

Much was made of Ben’s sense of style before he talked today – the tie, the suit, the shoes.

The first time I remember hearing/seeing Ben Cameron was at a long-ago Minneapolis convention, when he talked about Joan Mondale’s impeccable manners. He wanted us to know that Joan – Joan of Art – followed the rules and only wore white shoes between Memorial Day and Labor Day. (Years later, that’s what I remember about Ben’s talk in Minneapolis? I can’t even remember if he had hair.)

This year, after 25+ years of attending conventions, I was invited to speak for the first time. In my evolution as a cultural worker, I now manage a very cool academic research project, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project or SNAAP – and I presented some of our findings as part of a panel on recent research.  As a presenter, I also led a “dine-around” with my colleague Steven Tepper, and was invited to blog. These are my first blogs, ever!  So, a memorable convention for me.

2011 is also memorable because I arrived in San Diego covered with poison ivy, contracted last week in my front yard in Bloomington, IN. I spent the entire convention resisting the urge to scratch. A special shout-out to whomever from Americans for the Arts listed two local pharmacies in the program, because yesterday my doctor phoned in a new prescription for steroids to combat the wretched rash.

Thanks to the folks at Americans for the Arts for reinventing the convention year after year. Spending a few days with old friends and new, who believe in the value and power of the arts in American communities, is what I take away and live on for the next year.

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