4 AFTA Attendees Share What They’re Doing Differently

At this year’s AFTA convention, I interviewed arts leaders to get a sense of the challenges they are facing in their organizations and local communities.

Last month's Americans for the Arts Convention brought together nearly 1,000 arts leaders from across the country in Nashville. Image: Kendra Danowski.
Last month’s Americans for the Arts Convention brought together nearly 1,000 arts leaders from across the country in Nashville. Image: Kendra Danowski.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Nashville to the Americans for the Arts annual convention, where I connected with a wide range of leaders in the arts from across the country. While there, I conducted a few quick interviews to get a better sense of what challenges these leaders are facing in their organizations and local arts communities, and to learn about how they are thinking and doing things differently to respond to the constantly evolving arts field.

I asked:

  1. What is a challenge you’re facing right now that you don’t have a quick solution for? How is it making you do things differently?
  2. What is one thing you or your organization is doing to stay flexible and open to change?
  3. What’s a shift in thinking that’s happened for you so far at the convention?

Esther Park-Clemetson is the Director of Campus Programming at the National YoungArts Foundation in Miami, FL.

1. What is a challenge you’re facing right now that you don’t have a quick solution for? How is it making you do things differently?

Esther Park-Clemetson, Director of Campus Programming at the National YoungArts Foundation. Image: Esther Park-Clemetson.
Esther Park-Clemetson, Director of Campus Programming at the National YoungArts Foundation. Image: Esther Park-Clemetson.

Our biggest challenge right now is identifying our growing organizational structure: Although YoungArts is a 33-year-old organization (founded as an annual scholarship and recognition model for identifying and supporting the next generation of talented young artists ages 15-18 in the visual, literary, design and performing arts), we have recently acquired a campus and are now focused on building year-round programming for both YoungArts alums and the Miami community. 

All of a sudden, we have a new physical space — the historic Bacardi headquarters in Miami — and along with it, we have this new organizational purpose of cultivating that space and bringing in new audiences. It’s as if we’re now like any start-up — determining what will be successful and sustainable for supporting our mission.

We now have to figure out how to shift the organizational culture from being a mobile, scholarship model to being a year-round institution — and make decisions about simple operational questions (like, do staff members wear name badges on site?) along the way. That’s our current challenge: figuring out how our organization maintains its identity while also adopting an entirely new way of working.

2. What is one thing you or your organization has done (differently) to stay flexible and open to change?

A real asset we have is our leadership — our President and CEO, Paul Lehr. Paul is not from the traditional performing arts center/museum sector, yet he has a keen intuition of what works and what doesn’t work in the field of arts. And because he and other key leadership are open to juggling different schools of thought and making decisions with input from multiple perspectives, we’re able to try and consider new ideas. This kind of environment is important, especially since we’re in this kind of start-up phase and are grappling with new definitions and systems for ourselves. Sometimes these old-guard institutional didactics often hinder creativity and vision; YoungArts is all about the future – the future of these talented artists, the future of an artistic community, the future of this nation’s cultural character. 

3. What’s a shift in thinking that’s happened for you so far at the convention?

One thought that really came to fruition for me here is the realization of how many institutional biases arts organizations have. How can we change that? How can we not be having the same conversation in five years?

Nonprofits are used to doing annual financial audits. What if we had systematic audits — in human resources, or of organizational leadership? We as arts organizations don’t usually do that — we don’t analyze management, capacity growth, and our commitment to our audiences as often as we probably should.

Want to learn more about YoungArts? Contact Esther.


Rebecca Burrell is the Outreach Specialist at The Right Brain Initiative, a community partnership that is building the arts back in to public schools in the Portland, Oregon area. 

1. What is a challenge you’re facing right now that you don’t have a quick solution for? How is it making you do things differently?

The Right Brain Initiative is still relatively new — Though we’re part of the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), we’ve only been a separate entity since 2008 and implementing our programs in schools since January 2009.

Image: Rebecca Burrell.
Rebecca Burrell, Outreach Specialist at The Right Brain Initiative. Image: Rebecca Burrell.

Because of this newness, we’re still trying to figure out how to be good at deep organizational planning. Our limited capacity for planning is holding us back. We’re a small staff, and get caught up with the immediate needs of our day-to-day work, and making sure that our program is of the highest quality in the short-term. But now, we’re trying to get to a point where we can start tackling long-term visioning.

2. What is one thing you or your organization has done (differently) to stay flexible and open to change?

Aside from the fact that we’re a new program and we haven’t had too much time to get into ruts, we try to continue to see our work as still in the design phase. Everything is treated like an experiment! We haven’t yet begun to treat any of our programs like they are “done.”

This definitely helps keep us flexible. The great thing is that because we are interfacing one-on-one with our service population (Portland area public school students and teachers) all the time, we know right away whether a program is working or not, and we’re forced to respond right away and implement important changes.

And because our organization is dependent upon the partnership of many people — like RACC, the City of Portland, the county, the school districts, individual and corporate donors — we’ve become good at reaching out to people. We’re constantly fielding inquiries from the community and our wide range of stakeholders — and we respond quickly, because we’re not bogged down by too many plans.

Our program was designed to be responsive to the needs of our local education system — so we’re obligated to follow through with that. We’ve built a great partnership that works for the community at large.

3. What’s a shift in thinking that’s happened for you so far at the convention?

During the Arts Leadership Preconference, I became really excited by the presentations of people I identify as “new wave arts leaders.” I got this sense that the standard for legitimacy in the arts (among both leaders and organizations) is starting to shift.

In the past, I felt like markers of success were based upon a leader or organization’s ability to appear flawless, or bear resemblance to a leader or organization that already exists.

But, what organizations think they need to do and look like to seem professional — and arts leaders, too — I think that standard is changing.

In my opinion, the “new normal” is Radical Realness! The symbol of excellence is now about how interesting your ideas are, how well you can inspire people, and how your organization’s work affects people to the core.

I’ve struggled with finding mentors in the arts because it’s hard to find people or models that have the guts to be real. But there’s a new vibe happening, and it’s exactly what I want it to be.


Beth Yerxa is the Executive Director of Triangle ArtWorks, a service organization providing support and resources to the creative community in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

1. What is a challenge you’re facing right now that you don’t have a quick solution for? How is it making you do things differently?

Beth Yerxa, Executive Director of Triangle ArtWorks. Image: Beth Yerxa.
Beth Yerxa, Executive Director of Triangle ArtWorks. Image: Beth Yerxa.

Our mission is to ensure that the arts community is recognized, valued, and supported as a business community in our region. Right now, our biggest challenge is securing funding for our work in a region with few arts funders or other regional support organizations. But by working collaboratively with other non-arts groups, we are able to support our community in a cost-effective and more productive way.

For example, I recently attended a hackathon that was part of the CityCamp NC “unconference.” Connecting to our regional tech community has allowed us to explore new methods and collaborators for connecting people to the arts across the region.

2. What is one thing you or your organization has done (differently) to stay flexible and open to change?

One thing we recently did in order to stay flexible is turn down an offer for a physical office. For now, remaining a virtually based organization enables us to think critically about our use of media, to move quickly, and to support the schedules of our very important volunteers.

3. What’s a shift in thinking that’s happened for you so far at the convention?

Because we are an organization that considers the arts community as a business community and serves it as such, I was surprised when I attended my first AFTA convention a few years ago by the lack of emphasis on supporting individual artists and organizations as businesses in order to keep them healthy. However, through the years, I have seen a growing interest in discussing this kind of practice and support. And since I began attending AFTA conventions, I have learned so much from the work that other groups are doing.

This year, I was impressed by many discussions that took an even more in-depth view of how the arts, as a community, is impacting all areas of the larger business community and the public. I am reenergized by the value of the work that Triangle ArtWorks is doing to connect creative people across sectors.


Jessica Gaines is the Project Supervisor for Arts in Education at the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Atlanta, GA. 

Jessica Gaines1. What is a challenge you’re facing right now that you don’t have a quick solution for? How is it making you do things differently?

Sometimes you can feel alone with your challenges while working in the field of arts and education. I’m starting to think more critically about how to work collaboratively with my peers, even if they are outside of my region.

2. What is one thing you or your organization has done (differently) to stay flexible and open to change?

To stay open to change, I have decided to seek and value the input of other industries, too. Learning common practices, standards, and trends in sectors NOT related to the arts brings a holistic perspective that is invaluable when discussing change and sustainability.

About
As the ArtsFwd Editor & Engagement Coordinator at EmcArts, Kendra Danowski produces written material, manages social media engagement, develops content and strategy, and supports community and dialogue-building around ideas of innovation and adaptive change in the arts sector.