Shop Talk: Arts Impact Ohio

The panel for the opening plenary session, The Akron Cultural Plan: The Impetus, Process, and Outcomes

Momentum is fragile, but with the re-convening last week of the Arts Impact Ohio state-wide conference for the for the first time since before the COVID Pandemic, the Ohio Arts Council seems to have some.  The conference took up major issues of the day, including the need for major institutions to back up diversity rhetoric with action.

Some history is in order. OAC’s tradition of state-wide conferences culminated in the late 1990s, but was interrupted by the September 11 2001 attacks, the attendant uncertainty and shifting priorities, and the subsequent economic downturn.  The gathering did not reconvene until 2018.   Anecdotally, that 2018 conference in Columbus seemed to re-awaken state-wide interest in networking. Plans were well underway for a 2020 gathering in Akron, but then along came the pandemic.

A little more than two years later, those Akron plans came to fruition October 5 and 6, and approximately 300 arts professionals from around the state attended the conference.  It did not disappoint: an unrelenting schedule of presentations and panel discussions filled every moment with information and choices about which information to take in: a mega dose of shop talk.   Several of the workshops explored subjects for the insiders of non-profit arts administration: Building donor retention, getting to know the Ohio Arts Education Data Dashboard, understanding design and maintenance needs in public art, etc. One session was crowd-sourced: attendees were invited to submit ideas for workshops, and then by popular vote the whole group chose which ones would come to fruition that afternoon as impromptu, participant-led discussions.  CAN was honored to present a talk on its origin story and evolution as a collective of Northeast Ohio visual art organizations collaborating to make their own media, and the community-building power of that effort. All attendees of the conference were given copies of the current CAN Journal to take home.

Writer, Poet, founder of Streetlight Guild Scott Woods

Importantly, though, a keynote presentation by Columbus based author and poet Scott Woods took up the critically important need for major, “predominantly white institutions” to “walk the walk” of diversity, equity, and inclusion: to “Get Past the Brochure,” as the title of the session urged. He spoke during lunch on the first day.  Woods’  2017 event Holler: 31 Days of Black Columbus Art presented a different, art-based show by Black artists from Columbus every day for a month. It was a wake-up call to the cultural sector in that it gave a sample of the vast number of skilled Black artists that call the city home, day after day, week after week, not just during Black History month. He says 100 artists participated. It led to his 2019 launch of Streetlight Guild, a non-profit organization whose goal is to “generate, curate and preserve Columbus-based art and culture in a variety of disciplines with a focus on local, original work from underrepresented voices.” All of Ohio’s major cities have significant Black populations, and it is safe to say that in all of them, People of Color are under-represented on arts calendars.

In the context of a gathering of arts administrators, it is common to hear how hard organizations are trying, and to hear them tout their successes. Woods spoke in a deliberate pace as he told the room full of arts administrators that as much as he and other Black artists appreciated getting hired for certain events, the institutions had to do more—much more—to get beyond tokenism. As he said in a 2019 interview, at Streetlight Guild “We labor to fill the awareness gap from a position of agency, not just the occasional gig or job.”

It was a notable level of candor in front of a room full of art administrators which reflected the overwhelming white-ness of that sector (including this writer).

Other sessions took up related issues, such as a cultural equity planning workshop, and a session called Using Art to Understand Implicit Bias. Underscoring the strength and legacy of Black culture in Ohio, CEO Tony Sias and COO Aseelah Shareef tag-teamed a history and status report on Karamu House, which is the oldest producing Black theatre in the United States.

Just about every minute of the two-day conference was programmed. And already there was talk about the next one. There’s plenty of material that will be relevant, certainly including the ongoing need to actually do the work pointed up in Scott Woods’ presentation. And by the time the next conference rolls around, it might be time to talk about local, county-based proposals to develop public funding streams. A conversation about re-engineering Cuyahoga County’s cigarette tax (which included not only a re-definition to include all tobacco products and vaping products, but also eligibility for any county state-wide above a certain population to put such a policy before their own voters) has gone idle during the COVID pandemic, but might be due for revival.

And speaking of statewide efforts, some kind of structured networking—perhaps separate sessions for museum staffs, orchestra staffs, and staffs in many different areas of the arts sector—might be welcome: an opportunity to connect with colleagues, with greater odds than the chance meeting at a cocktail reception. It’s one of the most important things a conference can do.

The strikingly beautiful ceiling of the Akron Civic Theater, site of an evening reception

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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