Commentary: Arts conferences -- too much talk and no action?

Eleanor Turney, The Guardian [UK], 8/23/11

A group of like-minded people gathered in one place could put serious weight behind something and make a practical difference. However, many of the recent [arts conferences] I've attended have not taken advantage of this fact. These events have, at best, been a showcase of great work without much other content and, at worst, been mutual commiserating or back-scratching. I know big conversations happen, around the country, daily. Arts organisations are innovating, taking risks, finding new methods and partners for collaboration. So why doesn't this creative, intelligent, forward-thinking attitude translate into organising good conferences? And if these conferences are part of the arts' public face, shouldn't they be, well, better?  Last year's Media Festival Arts gathered 400 people at London's Roundhouse, and allowed speakers, including culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, to talk - seemingly - about whatever they liked. It cost up to 700 + VAT to attend. And they ran out of lunch. Speakers came with an agenda or a script, stuck rigidly to it, and then scarpered. Similar problems afflicted Arts Council England and the Royal Society of the Arts' State of the Arts conference earlier this year. TEDxYork, the most recent conference I attended, got closer to hitting the mark. It stuck to the TED format, where each speaker is invited to present just one idea. The speakers who stayed with this format were engaging, interesting and sensible. Those who strayed were the ones who wanted to share their latest brilliant project. Some of them were beautiful, creative and original, but the attenders are not the people who need convincing. I am not a big fan of the "open space" format favoured by the Devoted and Disgruntled organisers, either: with no chair to guide a discussion, nothing gets done. A great deal is said, but after a day of talk and tea, you end up no further forward. If anyone has an example of a tangible, practical change that has come out of an open space discussion, then I'd like to hear it. Ironically, the event that most closely resembles a drunken, setting-the-world-to-rights chat - Twespians - is actually the one that seems to get the most done. A meet-up for people who have spoken on Twitter, there is a real sense of energy and community about attenders at Twespians events, and an offshoot fringe starting with how journalists and PRs can work better together looks likely to be the start of something useful and interesting. Here's hoping.


Commentary: A conference without formal sessions?

Keir Winesmith on his blog, 11/20/11

Frontier 2011 marks the first time Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia have combined forces to host a conference. Perth was a fitting venue for a conference about frontiers and there was a healthy representation of locals, mixed in with the usual suspects from the east coast. The conference had a broad remit and ran a full 5 days. I could only make the final two days and was pleasantly surprised by energy and attendance on the final few sessions of the last day.... As always with such conferences there were energetic conversations in the halls, pubs, galleries, museums and foyers during the week. Considering all the networking, dealmaking and discussion, I wonder if it would be more productive to have a conference without formal sessions. Hmmm, nope, it would never get funding.


Commentary: A new invocation for every arts conference in 2012

Andrew Taylor, ArtsJournal blog "The Artful Manager", 11/14/11

I hereby nominate this video and this song ["It's Okay To Not Like Things"] to serve as an invocation to every professional arts conference in 2012. It's short. It's to the point. It carries an important message. And it sticks with you (boy, does it stick with you). There are big changes coming in the ways we make, curate, produce, present, distribute, and support the arts. Those big changes will require some big ideas, many of which we'll find difficult or surprising or challenging or even frightening. It's okay to not like these ideas. But let's follow the precept of the song, as we engage what's next.


50 winning tweets from 2011 National Arts Marketing Project Conference  NAMP website

On November 12-15, 2011, more than 520 arts marketers convened in Louisville, Kentucky to swap ideas, share success stories, and learn the best practices for engaging and winning audiences. More than 4,500 tweets captured the energy & enthusiasm that took place inside and outside of the conference headquarters. In our newest e-book, 50 Winning Tweets from the 2011 National Arts Marketing Project Conference, you'll see the most insightful, inspiring, and awesome takeaways straight from the #nampc tweet deck. Whether you attended the NAMP Conference or you are seeking bits of marketing wisdom, every arts marketer is sure to enjoy this compilation of our most favorite, stimulating, and memorable tweets.


Commentary: Creating learning experiences that connect, inspire, and engage

Beth Kanter on her blog, 1/5/12

How to deliver learning experiences for nonprofits that connect, inspire, and engage? [After] talking non-stop for more than 10 minutes, people start to tune out. If your true goal is inspire people to learn, then you need to incorporate techniques so people can process the information every ten minutes.

1. Begin Connections: The minute participants enter the room, they should be engaged in meaningful, topic-related activities that help create a learning community bond. A few ideas:

  • Assigned seating or "social engineering"
  • Ask folks to jot down their questions or what they'd like to share
  • Facilitator greets everyone individually and [introduces] them to others
  • A networking activity that encourages people to interact with people they don't know.

When the session formally begins, it usually kicks off with brief exercises. The most important thing is that it has to relate to the content in some way. The KSTool Kit has a list of icebreakers.

  • Share Pairs are when you ask folks to find someone in the room and discuss a question. I use this for groups to get them to reflect on their successes/challenges and offer peer advice.
  • Spectrogram: This is a full group exercise that you can use to bring out ideas or different views. People line up in the room as to whether they agree or disagree on a provocative statement related to the content - and then interview people. This is useful if you anticipate some skepticism about your topic or want people to feel safe expressing their point of view.
  • Network Maps: When the intent is to develop a network, I use this exercise. It takes time and is good to do with a smaller group. Each participant introduces themselves with 3 keywords on a sticky note that explain what knowledge they can share and what they're looking to learn about. Then the group draws the connections.

2. Balancing Content Delivery and Sense Making: This is the meat of your training and it is important to balance content delivery with opportunities to process and apply what is being taught:

  • Interactive Lecture: You need to think about your content in 10 minute chunks and take pauses for participants to reflect on the content.
  • Living Case Study: The living case study is when you make participants part of the content. [This] is less formal than your traditional case study, because it covers a work in progress. Often they're messy, but vibrant and all about real-time learning.
  • Working in Cohorts: It is a good idea to break up a training day into small group and full group work - small groups give people more time go into more depth. These can be conversations, peer assists or shares, or an exercise that can be done collaboratively or working alone together.

3. Social Media Integration: Intentionally integrating the use of social media for knowledge capture and to extend the conversation to people outside the room can enhance the learning. I like to have participants using these skills during the training as much as possible - as long as it doesn't become a distraction to their learning. Some people actually learn this way, but others don't.

4. Great Endings: If you have designed your training well, you've created a community by the end. So, you need to have a ceremonial closing of the learning experience that will inspire people to continue the connections to the other people and to applying the skills. I have lots of different closers - gratitude circles, Just Three Words, 35 cards to write down what they put into practice, etc. I've just learned about a new one called River of Life and can't wait to experiment.

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."