Professional Development: Not an Add-On
Last summer, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating an Americans for the Arts Annual Convention session with Ryan Deal and the late Ebony McKinney. Our topic was professional development—for internal staff, for grantees, for artists, for the public at large. Our room was packed. Then a funny thing happened. Early in the question-and-answer portion it became evident that many attendees were arts educators. They saw “professional development” in the session title and assumed we would focus on the K-12 context, not on arts administrators. They were not expecting the conversation we wanted to lead.
The experience showed me a disconnect within our field. When we think about partnering with schools, we’re generally pretty clear that success requires changing how work is currently getting done. We’re also (usually) clear that it’s unfair to ask people to make such a change without providing support. Within that context, professional development is a no-brainer.
In arts administration and within local arts agencies, however, professional development is often considered a luxury investment. The hidden assumption in this attitude is that changing how we work is rare, or undesirable. The truth is that any arts organization operating under a “business as usual” mindset is in for an awakening—if not now, then in the near future. Local arts agencies have a responsibility to create space to support those awakenings—and a responsibility to prompt them.
The Los Angeles Arts Commission has recognized this for decades, as evidenced by its longstanding and ever-evolving investments in professional development for the field. Our Organizational Grant Program (OGP), which currently funds more than 400 arts nonprofits in the region, has always had professional development baked into its design, pairing grantees with consultants to increase organizational capacity (in the early years), or providing grantees access to local courses covering arts administration topics. More recently, we have defined our role as cultivating the skills, knowledge, and networks for artists and arts administrators to succeed, and have consistently convened groups including arts service organizations and municipal arts funders to create space for bridge-building. We’ve discussed professional development as a strategy to support not only grantees, but all of our constituents, creating an organization-wide Task Force for planning and to share lessons learned.
The ever-evolving nature of our profession left us well poised to pivot with our Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative (CEII). The result of an 18-month public process examining what could be done to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the County’s arts ecosystem, our CEII Report published in April 2017 outlines concrete recommendations to address these issues. One of the recommendations immediately approved by our Board of Supervisors is a policy change. Beginning fall 2018, all OGP applicants will be required to submit board-adopted cultural equity statements, policies, or plans in order to be eligible for funding.
This is an “awakening” moment for some of our grantees. Many of them were founded, implicitly or explicitly, to address cultural equity issues. Others were not, but are tuned into the social and political realities of our time and had already started to have discussions about the impact on their work. Still, others face challenges in how to provoke meaningful dialogue about cultural equity within their organizations. Acknowledging this, we’ve set out to provide a forum for organizations to explore how to deepen or shift their perspectives. As of this writing, we have wrapped up our first series of eight full-day workshops offered throughout the County, with many follow-ups in the pipeline. Addressing cultural equity is far from a “one and done” conversation. Grantees who attend a workshop often leave with a realization that they have much more work ahead. By creating a space for them to start that conversation, however, we believe we are doing more than helping them jump through a bureaucratic hoop. We’re asking them to think critically about their role within the broader arts ecosystem, and how they—consciously or not—are either alleviating or exacerbating equity issues. We believe that this, in turn, will help them be more resilient in the long term.
We also recognize we cannot ask such questions of others without asking them of ourselves. As grantmakers, the Los Angeles Arts Commission has practices that need to be re-examined with equity in mind. In recognition of this, last month we convened our municipal arts funding partners—such as the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood—for a full-day, facilitated session to examine different ways in which cultural equity can manifest through the arts, and how our current practices support or hinder those visions. We are planning to follow up on this conversation with more reflections for staff, Commissioners, and other partners, especially in moving toward one of the other CEII recommendations: to create a comprehensive, and first-ever, cultural policy for Los Angeles County.
Arts administration is still a relatively young field, but as with all professions, “best practices” are not static. If we do not invest in ongoing learning and growth, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our artists, and our stakeholders. Supporting, providing, and engaging in professional development is fundamental to our identity.