AFTA: 50th Anniversary Summit

This past weekend, Baltimore hosted the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) 50th anniversary summit. AFTA became AFTA over 50 years of mergers and movement and work. It was quite an honor to have the conference here in Baltimore, and it makes me stop and think about Baltimore’s growing national reputation as a thriving home for the arts. The AFTA conference has a similar format to the majority of national arts conferences–a mixture of keynotes, lectures, discussion, networking, and professional development sessions. A couple of sessions really stood out to me–including one where Frank Hodsell, former chairman of the NEA, spoke on international exchange, one on advocating for public support of the cultural sector, and another on the shift to individual engagement in the arts–which featured Doug McLennan of ArtsJournal, Melanie Joseph, Artistic Producer at The Foundry Theatre, Patrice Walker Powell with the NEA, and Diane Ragsdale at Mellon (this was an amazing session–the kind you wish you could capture live and show it to all of your friends). Rocco Landesman, current chair of the NEA gave a keynote and mentioned Station North, where the GBCA offices are located, and where he visited several months ago for the ground breaking of the City Arts building.

A small smattering of big take-aways to chew on from the conference in sound byte format (and without attribution–my notes weren’t that good):

“Public money isn’t coming back. There will be no more surpluses.”

“The case for public support is made with economic impact figures and individual stories of art affecting people’s lives.”

“Thing big.”

“Institutions need to not become ‘gatekeepers’ of art, but to broker the exchange between artist and audience.”

“Websites are becoming a cross between a community center and a TV station.”

“Institutions need to follow in the example of the web. When it went to Web ‘2.0’, it when from push to push/pull. We need Culture 2.0.”

“Don’t try to break the younger generations coming through the ranks. They may be headstrong, but they are not stupid, and they are not just fuel for the institutional fires.”

Enough. I could go on and on. I may revisit some of these themes, though.

One final thought–I was lucky to hear Fred Lazarus, President of MICA, talk about his personal history with AFTA, and the long, arduous journey AFTA has taken in its unwavering support of the arts. It was a bit of a wake-up for me to hear him speak, and for me to remember that the non-profit arts field is only 50-60 years old, and that there are some amazing people out there who have shaped the field–from the early days to the foundation of the NEA, through to the Culture Wars and so on. It will be this younger generation, my generation, who will see us through the next 50 years, and it’s important essential to understand the history, and what has brought us to where we stand today.


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