Reflections on Over 20 Years of Americans for the Arts Conventions

Posted by Mr. Gary P. Steuer, Jun 11, 2018 0 comments

In 1993 I became the Director of New York Programs of the Arts & Business Council Inc., the national organization for the network of Arts & Business Councils and Business Volunteers for the Arts programs around the country, and in 1996 I became its President and CEO, the same year that the National Association of Local Arts Agencies and the American Council for the Arts merged to become what is now Americans for the Arts. As head of a national partner arts service organization of Americans for the Arts, I began what has become a very long association with the organization and its Annual Convention, literally attending the first Convention under the Americans for the Arts name—and nearly every one since.

I have watched the organization, and its signature convening, grow and evolve over time—responding to the field’s changes and the external environment in which we all operate. There have been so many conventions, over so many years, that it’s hard to pull memories out of the haze where they all blend together. I remember a cultural tourism preconference at Convention in Atlanta, where I learned so much about Atlanta’s African-American cultural heritage—knowledge that helped me greatly when later I served as Chief Cultural Officer for the City of Philadelphia and worked on how to better support and promote that city’s extraordinary African-American heritage. Another memory that stayed with me was the public art precon in San Diego, where we toured the extraordinary UC San Diego public art collection, and also visited Louis Kahn’s iconic Salk Institute.

I remember at the Convention in Milwaukee being so impressed with the extraordinary Calatrava architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum (as well as their excellent gift shop, where I snagged my treasured Gee’s Bend quilt-inspired tie). There have been great sessions on our evolving understanding of the areas of “creative economy” and “creative placemaking.” And I have seen the various precons and their supporting Councils grow into their own forces—especially the Emerging Leaders Network, which gives me such hope for the future of our field.

In 2001, I was the co-chair of the host committee for the Convention in New York City (with Nicolette Clarke, who was then executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts). We struggled with the challenge of how to ensure that all Convention attendees fully experienced the cultural assets of New York and got out into neighborhoods. We felt it would be a huge loss to host the Convention and have the vast majority of our attendees spend their time just at the convention hotel in midtown Manhattan—yet we also knew that visitors new to New York might feel uncomfortable traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods and navigating mass transit on their own. So, we invented the ARTventures—organized excursions with different themes that extended the conference into communities all over the city. I love that this has become an established and cherished part of Convention to this day. Also in 2001, the Arts & Business Council, which had created the National Arts Marketing Project with significant early support from American Express, mounted the first National Arts Marketing Project Conference. With the conference taking place in October of that year in San Francisco, right after the 9/11 attacks, we were expecting a very poor showing, and even considered canceling the conference. Instead we experienced a surge in registrations as arts leaders from around the country sought out the opportunity to be with colleagues in that difficult time, and also to learn how to communicate with the public about the value of the arts in the face of tragedy. This reinforced for me the huge value of convenings like Convention and the NAMP conference

Then, in 2005, the Arts & Business Council began discussions about partnering more deeply with Americans for the Arts. In the middle of those discussions Americans for the Arts learned of the significant Ruth Lilly gift, and the discussions shifted into a conversation about how we could utilize that enhanced capacity to be more impactful at the national level in fostering private sector support for the arts. Ultimately Americans for the Arts and the Arts & Business Council Inc. merged, creating the new Private Sector Affairs department, with the Arts & Business Council of New York being born (or re-born) as part of the New York City private sector chapter, operating under the umbrella of Americans for the Arts. Thus began my phase as part of the Americans of the Arts staff, serving as the first Vice President for Private Sector Affairs. Not long after, we also merged with Business Committee for the Arts, creating the strong private sector programs and leadership that continue to thrive. So for the next few years, I was not only attending the conference but organizing the Private Sector programming that was a part of it; as well as continuing to grow and strengthen the National Arts Marketing Project and its conference, which had come under Americans for the Arts management with the merger.

In 2008, the Convention came to Philadelphia, which ironically happened to coincide with the election of Michael Nutter as Mayor, who began recruiting me to serve as his Chief Cultural Officer and head the City’s new Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. It was actually at Convention in Philadelphia that I sat down with Bob Lynch and broke the news that I would be leaving Americans for the Arts.

But of course, the connection did not end there, because as head of Philly’s local arts agency, I was still a part of the Americans for the Arts family, and ultimately served as a member of the Steering Committee for the US Urban Arts Federation. And again, the Convention became a valued part of my learning and professional development every year—connecting with colleagues, hearing great speakers and artists, visiting and learning about new communities. Over the years I remember having the opportunity to hear such inspiring artists and speakers as Anna Deavere Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Alejandro Escovedo, Sir Ken Robinson, and Ben Cameron (to name just a few).

My career took another turn in 2013, which once again kept me in the Americans for the Arts Convention “family.” I became President of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation in Denver, Colorado, and in that role have become one of the hosts and funders of the 2018 Annual Convention in Denver. We are so excited to be hosting this conference, and know that the content will be informative and inspirational, and that the City and its cultural assets will enchant. I hope that my decades of experience being a part of the Convention in so many different capacities have perhaps helped shape a convention that will make the investment of your time and resources well worth it. And don’t forget—just like the importance of the “19th hole” in golf, some of your most memorable experiences may take place NOT in organized sessions, but in the bar at the end of the day, in random conversations in the hallway, or in follow-up after Convention with connections you made while there. We also hope you will take away a deep and abiding love for Denver and for Colorado, and will return to experience our culture, community, and exquisite natural beauty.

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