Local Arts Leader Moves to the National Stage (from Arts Link)

Posted by Tim Mikulski, Apr 15, 2011 0 comments

Michael Killoren

The following is an extended version of our Q&A session with Michael Killoren, Director of Local Arts Agencies and Challenge America Fast Track at the National Endowment for the Arts, featured in the current issue of Arts Link, our quarterly member newsletter.

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What is your overall role as the director of Local Arts Agencies and Challenge America Fast Track at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)?

I’m responsible for the oversight and management of these two program areas, in alignment with the new strategic direction under the “Art Works” guiding principle.

You transitioned last fall to the NEA from the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs in Seattle. What’s it like to move from a local or regional organization to one with a national reach?

In a single word: exciting! Obviously, shifting from a city portfolio to a national portfolio is both daunting and humbling. One of the first things I did was to place a large map of the U.S. next to my desk as a constant reminder of that charge.  Adapting to the scale of a national platform provides an amazing learning experience.

There is rich history around every corner, and amazing opportunities to see what’s happening nationwide. My colleagues and the team on my staff are some of the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. And it’s also been an adventure adapting from west coast Washington to east coast Washington – there are definitely different styles and subtleties.

What’s been the most surprising aspect of your new job?

The sheer volume of activity around the NEA is astonishing. There are thousands and thousands of applications and a constant stream of panelists from all across the nation, all part of the day’s work.  Since I am a direct import from the local arts agency (LAA) field, I know firsthand what LAAs do, and that LAAs are like snowflakes – no two are exactly alike. What may work in one community might not succeed in another.

I thought I knew that research was an important function of the NEA’s work, but I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the NEA’s ongoing commitment to understanding our field, such as the recently released groundbreaking research on festivals, and the on-going study of public participation in the arts.

What are some particular new challenges you face as a director at the NEA?

This is an exciting time to join the NEA. “Art Works” is a dynamic organizing principle for our work under Chairman Landesman’s leadership. I’m very proud to be part of this alignment and new direction, all backed by a very clear strategic plan – one of the best I’ve ever read. I am very impressed by the agency focus on meaningful outcomes.

NEA applicants are now asked to choose from one of four outcomes: the creation of new work, public engagement with art, lifelong learning in the arts, and livability – strengthening community in the arts. And, on top of it all, there is an interest in understanding and promoting innovation in our field.

Essentially, these four outcome areas describe what a local arts agency does on a daily basis. There is no doubt in my mind that this new direction will help the NEA and the American people better understand the impact of NEA programs on the artistic vitality of our nation.

What do you see as the greatest challenges or opportunities for local arts agencies in the coming years?

I’ve always believed that local arts agencies are on the front lines of innovation. I still believe that. In some ways, the federal agencies are only now catching up with local practice, at least so far as inter-agency cooperation is concerned.

For those working at the local level, this has been standard practice for many years. But as I look at research reports, I think the biggest opportunity for local arts agencies to embrace - in a meaningful and authentic way – is the demographic shifts happening in communities. It may be counter-intuitive in this fiscal environment, but LAAs need to figure out how to expand, not shrink the portfolio to be ever more inclusive.

Perhaps the best place to start is to make sure that the board and staff are an honest reflection of their community, in every way. The LAA field is comprised of some of the most resilient, optimistic and creative people I know, and they play a critical role in sustaining a healthy arts and cultural sector. Local arts agency leaders are able and willing to adapt to the changing environment, and I look forward to doing what I can in my new role to be a helpful partner in those efforts.

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