Offline at AFTACON
Americans for the Arts Annual Convention (AFTACON) regularly draws thousands of members of the arts world to one location for a whirlwind four days of workshops, recognition, plenaries, and arts excursions in some of the most incredible and dynamic cities in the country. There is never enough time to attend all the sessions I’m interested in. They all offer an insight into how art influences our economy, education, and communities – and how we visualize and interpret our world.
But, just as important as attending these sessions are the conversations, connections, and friendships that are built offline and in-between “official” conference business.
The theme for this year’s AFTACON centered on “power and empowerment of the individual and the greater community.” This theme was articulated throughout the conference and was especially embodied in two “offline” events that to me characterize why AFTACON is such an invaluable event for the national arts community. This is why I go to learn, share and reenergize/affirm my passion for the “arts.”
One particularly empowering conversation came about during the opening plenary. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates, whom I first met in 2011 when he was awarded the prestigious Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize by the Seattle Art Museum. In 2012, I again experienced his work in collaboration with Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s interactive performance, “red, black & GREEN: a blues.” His work is powerful and engaging and to me, he is an artist that exemplifies critical engagement and social cooperation in much of his practice.
While I (re)introduced myself to Theaster as an arts administrator, our conversation became based upon our work as artists. We talked about creating, community practice, notions of collectivism in art and movement building, our respective time spent in Cuba, culture, public art, music, intersectionality, and Black Lives Matter.
In these gatherings, where I typically enter and am recognized as an arts administrator, our heady/heartfelt and brief, yet impactful exchange of ideas reminded me of my artist self – as foundation, as how I enter, and why I do what I do.
My colleagues from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture and I presented a session on equity in the workplace. After our official conversation ended, I gathered with a small group of participants to riff off some of the salient points we weren’t able to fully explore during the session. We discussed creative youth development, the role of arts learning in an environment of high stakes testing within public schools, the impact of charter schools, and building solidarity between teachers and teaching artists.
Our small cohort hails from across the country including Washington, Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey, yet all our work compels us to engage and pull back the layers of equity; how do you define it personally and within your own personal practice? As we stood there in-between sessions, crowding the hallways, we found a common goal and a common bond. AFTACON and its concentrated emphasis on individual and community power and equity in the arts brought these conversations to the forefront and spontaneously created a community hungry for these kinds of experiences and opportunities.
The four of us made a commitment to stay in contact, and support each other’s leadership in our respective cities and centering our organizational work on equity.