Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

The Next Generation of Arts Leaders

Since the world didn’t end today (yeah!), we thought it was time to look forward. Katherine Schouten from the Masters of Arts Management program at Carnegie Mellon University is our guest blogger today. Pittsburgh is blessed to have such a fantastic program to train the next generation of, well, us! Here’s more about what she has to say about the program and the exciting things they are bringing to Pittsburgh’s art scene:

Final exams are done. Grades are all submitted. Students have dispersed to home towns and countries for the winter holidays. Hamburg Hall is conspicuously quiet. The fall semester of the Master of Arts Management (MAM) program at Carnegie Mellon University has reached its end, giving faculty and students alike a chance to relax and reflect on what has been, for all, several eventful months.

August saw the introduction of the 25th incoming class to the MAM program. As an academic discipline, arts management is still a relatively young field, so that the MAM program is celebrating its silver anniversary is a major milestone indeed. Only a handful of programs in the country are older, and only the MAM program at CMU combines rigorous quantitative training, managerial skills, and practical experience to prepare its graduate students to serve in this nation’s next generation of nonprofit leaders. Those new to the program (myself included) learned to flex analytical muscles around a host of current challenges and trends in the arts industry, a practice that will be deepened in coming courses. Those in the second year of the program undertook in-depth systems projects, working with regional clients to tackle an issue specific to their organization, and most importantly, to propose a solution.

Together we listened to esteemed professionals as part of the monthly MAM Speaker Series, including Terre Jones, CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, and Rick Lester, Founder & CEO of TRG Arts. And in collaboration with MAM alumni, faculty, Pittsburgh-area arts managers, and keynote speaker Doug McLennan (Founder & Editor of ArtsJournal), we launched the first annual Symposium on Arts Management and Innovation. The day-long event explored questions of audience and community engagement, technological innovations, communications strategies, and artist contracts.

Integral to the MAM program are the remarkable relationships we are privileged to have with Pittsburgh’s robust cultural community. As we look ahead to 2013, we endeavor to connect with more of our fellow emerging arts leaders in Pittsburgh and beyond. To that end, we invite all PEAL participants to join the MAM program at future MAM Speaker Series events (next up: Max Wagner, January 18); watch videos of this year’s Symposium panels; save the date for the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Pre-Conference in June; and follow us on Twitter (@CMU_MAM). Our hope is that by intermingling the knowledge, experiences, resources, and insights among us, we will all be better equipped to boldly and creatively lead.

To register for Max Wagner’s lecture on January 18 or for future speakers, visit Heinz College Events.

Are you, an intern, or colleague are interested in furthering your arts management education? Applications for the 2013–2013 academic year are due on January 10. For more information, see Heinz College Application Process.

 

Musings on Traditions in the Arts

The Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, my place of employment.  A Musical Christmas Carol at the Pittsburgh CLO.  The Chief at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.  The Holiday Pops at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Holiday Unwrapped at Attack Theatre. Whether we who work in the arts like it or not, as with everything else that comes with the holiday season, performing arts organizations in particular seem to have their own traditions that they celebrate. Traditions in the arts allow us to celebrate our artistic past in the contemporary present, but at what expense and to what end? Or, if looked at from a positive perspective, why are these holiday traditions important to keep (if some may feel otherwise)?

Thomas Cott from “You’ve Cott Mail” sent out in his daily wrap up from December 6 five separate pieces all tackling this issue. A tension seemed to exist in these articles regarding the necessity of appreciating these traditions and the desire to find a new tradition or at the very least something refreshing.  But won’t that new tradition ultimately become the same staid tradition that so many seem to simultaneously enjoy and despise? And since when did something or someone ever set out to become a “tradition?” I’m not really sure we have the power to control that. But traditions—as they should be—provide a backbone, a stabilizing force, in the seas of change that non-profits constantly find themselves in.

Let us not forget, too, the ever important factor that money plays in this whole game as well. With such “valued” traditions comes with a certain responsibility of organizations to uphold, maintain, and build upon this perceived cultural value—whether or not it advances the art form. And let’s be honest—as a few of the articles from You’ve Cott Mail pointed out—these holiday traditions help keep the doors open.

Certainly, these traditions are for many their first introduction to a particular art form, something that entices them back to another production or event. Perhaps we need to think of these traditions as “gateway drugs.” Or if nothing else a sugar high that the consumer will hopefully remember a few days from now.

But then there are the traditions internal to our art forms. Whether it’s the obligatory “break a leg” in theatre or “merde” in dance before a performance, small thank you gifts that actors leave one another in theatre, the shuffling of the feet for applause that occurs in symphonies, or the flowers that are given to the principal ballerina’s at the end of every performance, there are traditions that even those of us who might balk at the “traditional holiday performances” still participate in. Superstitious? Perhaps. Obligation? That might be part of it. Or is it that we feel a responsibility to others in our professions to partake in these traditions, whether or not we find value in them, because they have become meaningful to the art form and reinforce our artistic communities?

And then what to do with those things coined as new “traditions”—Midnight Radio at Bricolage Production Company, for instance (and yes—someone from the organization mentioned a review describing Midnight Radio as ‘a fun fall theater tradition’)? Is something so edgy and artistically innovative as Midnight Radio diminished or enhanced by thinking about it as a “tradition?” Innovative and traditional are two adjectives I would not immediately put together, and yet there they are.

Readers, what are your musings about traditions in the arts during this whirlwind holiday season? And what other holiday art traditions am I  missing that are also important (especially among visual, literary, and media arts–help me out!)?

GPAC Annual Meeting Takeaways

This morning I had the pleasure of sitting in the theatre of the August Wilson Center with almost 400 of my fellow arts leaders from the Pittsburgh community at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s annual meeting. The energy in the room was palpable (likely from the gigantic pastries they were serving us for breakfast and the large vats of coffee they had available. Trust me–not complaining, but just a simple observation. I digress…), and from the updates from GPAC staff and board members to the down-to-earth, quite funny keynote from Americans for the Arts CEO Robert L. Lynch, the meeting left me feeling motivated and rejuvenated to continue doing what I’m doing. That’s always a good thing 🙂 Kudos to GPAC for putting together a great meeting of the minds!

The meeting contained many salient takeaways for me.

  • Coming out of a recession (or still in one, depending upon your viewpoint), GPAC has managed to increase their artist opportunity maximum grant awards from $1500 to $2500. How cool is that??? Of course, they couldn’t do it without the pretty amazing foundation community we have in Pittsburgh. Doubly cool!
  • We need to be loud and we need to be proud of what we do as artists for the communities we live in. We have economic impact. We have social impact. We have emotional impact. We have political impact (thanks for sharing your enthusiasm, Senator Costa!). We have personal impact. And we have larger community impact. Let’s celebrate this–and be loud when we do it! Thanks for the reminder, Bob. This especially was the kind of  positive statement that I needed to hear.
  • Pittsburgh’s got it going on. 7 different arts-related national conventions coming to town this year. Our Cultural District serving as a national model for urban revitalization and renewal. The support of local foundations and corporations is immense (see bullet #1). And of course–we have the art! All kinds, all sizes, everywhere–in our theatres, in our galleries, in our streets, and in our homes. This is not something that everyone is so fortunate to have in their communities. We have art!

And there’s sooo many more points from the meeting I could talk about, but I want to hear from you. What were your favorite points or takeaways from today’s GPAC annual meeting??

Showing Gratitude as an Arts Leader

As someone with a theatre/performance background, when I think of ‘gratitude’ many small moments come to mind – the little notes and gifts that sometimes appear on opening night, flowers, mush notes in the program to friends and family. Alyssa and I have spoken about gratitude traditions in ballet and I am sure there are others in other fields (the book dedication comes to mind, as well).

However, as arts leaders we may be called to express gratitude to those with whom we work, and in some cases to those who work FOR us. What are best practices in that arena?

Well, I’ve asked around – and would love to hear more from fellow emerging arts leaders – because the general info I’ve got seems that there’s not a lot of gratitude explicitly expressed. This may tie in a bit more to the too-much-work, not-enough-time mentality with which many nonprofits constantly struggle. A successful opening, fundraising campaign, office move, or even mass mailing: these are all instances with a definite end point, offering an opportunity to acknowledge everyone’s hard work. In the day-to-day, however, it’s likely more tricky. And as we are in the arts, I gather there’s a bit more pressure to arrange something ‘creative’ whether or not the brainspace or dexterity or budget exists!

In my own career, I’ve had experiences of fantastically good and fantastically bad expressions of gratitude from higher-ups: The ‘thank-you’ speech that starts out strong and meanders all over the map before petering off, finally, twenty minutes later, having not actually named all those who deserves to be named (bad); the 45-minute all-staff email acknowledging the departure of a colleague with high praise (good); the cheapo fake-crocodile shoulder bag – clearly a re-gift (bad – although I do actually still use the computer sleeve that was in side the bag – so maybe not all bad??); the night out where the drinks & nibbles flowed all night (good – nothing like free food & drink to endear one’s self to one’s staff!). This can be an interesting little mind-exercise to undertake as the holiday season approaches and the office party rears its beribonned, punchbowled head.

In my experience, however, nothing beats someone looking me in the eye and a simple ‘Well done. Thank you for all your hard work.’ (when it’s deserved, of course!) It’s a helpful place to start, anyhow!

What have been the best and worst expressions of gratitude you’ve received or made?

Established Leaders: the Arts Education Collaborative

The topic has come up numerous times at our PEAL steering committee meetings, our Happy Hours, and our larger events that we, as emerging leaders, have so much to learn from established leaders in our field. This interview is the first in a series where we do just that. Watch the blog for more interviews to come throughout the year, and if you have a recommendation for an established leader we should interview, let us know by dropping us an email at PghEALNetwork@gmail.com.

Our first interview in the series is with two women I have had the honor and privilege of getting to know over the past year, Dr. Sarah Tambucci, Director, and Jamie Kasper, Associate Director, of the Arts Education Collaborative (AEC). AEC states this as their mission: “We strengthen education by making the arts central to learning through collaboration, research, and advocacy,” but I can tell you from personal experience that they do so much more in practice beyond this very succinct description! I have had the wonderful experience of participating in their Leadership Academy (along with our fearless PEAL leader, Jen Macasek), and I encourage any arts educator from an arts and cultural organization to take advantage of this year-long, low-cost (only $100!!!) professional development opportunity with AEC. Learn more about everything they do by visiting their website.

So Sarah and Jamie, tell us about a formative, learning experience when you were an “emerging leader.”

Sarah: When I was President-Elect of the National Art Education Association, the Executive Director, Tom Hatfield, asked me what my platform would be for my presidency in two years.  I really hadn’t thought about it.  But now the expectation for me to actually be prepared to lead was laid out in front of me.  I spent the next two years listening, watching and learning so that I understood the environment for art education and could do not what I wanted to do, but serve the organization in developing a shared vision for my term.

Jamie: When I started at the PA Department of Education, I was fresh out of the classroom with little formal leadership experience. I clearly remember sitting in my first staff meeting at the Department and not understanding about 75% of what was being said. Instead of asking questions (and looking even more clueless than I felt), I noted all the things I didn’t understand and either followed up with my colleagues later or researched until I found the answers I needed. That helped me build relationships with my fellow curriculum specialists.

Describe a challenge in leadership that you have encountered and how you overcame that.

Sarah: I believe that mastering situational leadership has been a challenge.  Each situation calls for a different approach to leading.  I think that being a better listener has been key to developing some skill in applying situational leadership.  Asking good questions then follows.  What is he really saying?  What is she really asking?  Where is the opportunity in this initiative?

Jamie: When I was tasked with getting together the team to write the curriculum frameworks for the Standards Aligned System, I purposely chose people who didn’t agree with me because they brought different ideas to the work. However, that meant that I had to make sure there were ample opportunities for team members’ voices to be heard while still keeping the goals in sight. In the end, I think it was important to carefully plan and anticipate places where there could be difficulty. As Sarah said, this was about applying situational leadership and knowing when to use different strategies; at any particular moment, did I need to deal with a difficult person, provide leadership in the content, or just provide logistical support so the team could work?

How did you know that you had become an established leader in your field?

Sarah: One definition of leadership is service.  When I have opportunities to serve, I am most satisfied.

Jamie: I’m not sure that I would call myself an established leader in our field, but it’s nice when you’re asked for an opinion or contacted because an established leader suggested you.

What personal qualities would you suggest to our emerging arts leaders that they should cultivate?

Sarah: Listening is an important skill.  We learn much by listening and ‘reading’ non-verbal cues.  Reflecting is an imperative.  Taking the time to think about what just happened in a meeting, lesson, or interaction can help one to dissect and analyze.

Jamie: Believe it or not, Sarah and I answered this question separately yet both identified listening as an important skill. In fact, listening is the most important skill to me: not listening while formulating what will come out of my mouth next, but listening carefully and trying to connect what I’m hearing to things I already know.

Another important quality is integrity. I think it’s so important, in a time when we have access to so much personal information, that everything I share publicly represents the way I want to be viewed, even if I’m sharing only with friends. In an article I was reading last week, an educational technologist talked about teaching children that they don’t leave digital footprints; they leave digital tattoos. Our digital tattoos should reflect our professionalism as well as our personality.

How have you continued to grow as a leader?

Sarah: When I admire and respect someone else’s approach or way of thinking or working, I try to take the best from the model.  Right now, I am working on being less judgmental and constantly trying to see things from multiple perspectives.  This is getting harder for me, not easier.  I think that the older or more experienced one becomes, we have a tendency to be more confident about our own judgments.  It is important to never be too confident.  In my world, any asset taken to extremes becomes a liability.  Too much confidence is a dangerous thing.

Jamie: I read, probably too much: blogs, articles, books, Facebook wall posts, tweets, ingredients on the shampoo bottle, pretty much anything. For me, it’s not so much about being a leader, but being informed and having an opinion on the important issues in our field…and apparently on issues not at all related to arts education.

Any last advice to emerging leaders?

Jamie: I think I have a wish for emerging leaders more than advice. I hope that you find an established leader who is willing to share what they know with you as readily as Sarah has shared with me. And maybe the advice is this: if you don’t have that person in your life right now, go out and find him or her, even if you have to look outside of our field.

Here’s a bit more about each of our interviewees:

Dr. Sarah Tambucci

Dr. Sarah Tambucci is Director of the Arts Education Collaborative. Her experience as a visual arts teacher, department chair, and principal provides her with extensive experience in education and the arts. In addition, Dr. Tambucci has been an adjunct faculty member at Carlow University, University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University. Among her most noteworthy leadership positions is Past President of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and Past President of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association (PAEA). She is the author of numerous articles on issues related to leadership and policy influencing. Dr. Tambucci serves on advisory boards and committees that support arts and education throughout the region, state, and nation. Among many tributes, she is the 2006 recipient of the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Leadership in Arts Education. She is a passionate advocate for the role of the arts as part of a comprehensive education.

Jamie KasperJamie Kasper is Associate Director of the Arts Education Collaborative.  She began her career as a music educator in the Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland and the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.  She returned to her home state in 2002 to work as a music educator in the Bermudian Springs School District in Adams County, Pennsylvania.  Ms. Kasper took the position of Fine Arts and Humanities Advisor at the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2007.  She came to the Arts Education Collaborative in 2010.

I want to thank Sarah and Jamie so much for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk with me. As with every encounter with them, I learn something new. Here are a few of my take aways:

  • Listen openly, then ask questions (and don’t be afraid to ask questions.)
  • More of a question for further exploration, but how we can best maintain our professional integrity amidst the world of “digital tattoos” (love that term!). P.S. I applaud Jamie for her picture. While it might forever be a digital tattoo of hers, we have to remember to still have fun. 🙂
  • Never be too confident–always be ready to learn from your experiences and from others
  • Leadership is service (such an important thing to remember!)
  • Find a mentor…or two…or maybe even three. Speaking of bullet #4, perhaps this is a way PEAL could be of service to other emerging arts leaders in Pittsburgh, by establishing a mentor program for emerging arts leaders??? Thoughts??

art. politics. remember to vote tomorrow.

Tonight at Bricolage, we are hosting a reading of ’44 Plays for 44 Presidents’ as part of a nation-wide festival bringing a humorous and historical perspective of the executive office to Election Eve. Meanwhile across town at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, ‘American Idols’ by John Moran presents tongue-in-cheek busts (with glass heads) of all the presidents, and has been extended through Inauguration Day. These two artworks – one verbal, one visual – form an opportunity for a birds-eye, long-range view of the office of President of the United States. I must admit, for me, they are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Over the weekend I heard a radio interview with Oskar Eustis, the executive director of the Public Theatre in Manhattan, about how some Uptown theatres had, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, offered to share or donate rehearsal space and hours to the Public. That moved me. We can all relate, I’m sure, to needing rehearsal or studio space, and while I know there were, and still are, much more immediate needs (shelter, food, water, and so on), I was struck by the generosity of that act, and by the clarity of purpose. The show must go on. The art must continue. E pluribus unum.

At times I wish I lived in Europe, where the responsibility that the government has to art & culture (and vice versa) is more intimate and direct – but hearing that about the Public, and my own experiences of sharing time, space, resources of all kinds across different art forms reminds me that there is also value in us taking care of ourselves. There is, absolutely, a huge value to art and arts organizations receiving support of all kinds, public and private, and a huge value to artists and arts organizations being free to make the art they need to make. Depending on your politics, you could argue that more or less government spending on the arts makes sense – and that is one of the elements to keep in mind when we vote tomorrow.

The fact that we can vote – the fact that the vote is available to us, no matter what kind of art we make, who it provokes or scares, who it lampoons or profanes – is nothing to take for granted or wear lightly. We can all think of artists past and present who did not and do not possess that privilege. It is tempting to think of voting as only a political act, but I would argue that in this moment in our history – the history we can witness tonight through words or til January through – it is also an artistic act. We are citizens in a democracy. E pluribus unum.

Social Media for Non-Profits is Just Social Media

ImagePhoto courtesy of Flickr user Alnarcisi33

Podcamp Pittsburgh is a free social, new media un-conference that just completed its seventh year this past weekend.  With local social media experts and celebs creating the content, no two years are ever the same.

This was my second year attending Podcamp Pittsburgh.  Despite the fact that waking up early on rainy Saturday AND Sunday is not my ideal fall weekend, I found it to be an incredibly valuable use of my time last year, and with the speed at which things change in the social space, I knew there was new information to be learned this year.  In addition to learning a great deal about strategies and new tools in social media, it’s an incredible opportunity to meet the social media gurus of Pittsburgh, often people I’ve followed and “known” virtually for some time.  Putting faces to Twitter handles is always fun!

Because this conference isn’t arts specific or non-profit specific, I always find it interesting to take in the information wearing my different hats: as a social media manager for a non-profit arts organization, as a partner in a small for-profit business, and as an individual who is active online.  Some might argue that these hats are very different and thus require very different information.  For example, I attended a session entitled “Social Media for Nonprofits” and there were other sessions on the schedule called “How Crowdsourcing Can Drive Nonprofit Engagement” and “Using Social Media to Meet Immediate Nonprofit Needs.”  After much thought, I am going against that grain and saying that I truly believe that social media for non-profits is just social media.  Sure, programs, goals, and audiences are different, but that’s true from one non-profit to another and one for-profit to another.  This doesn’t change the approach to social media strategy and usage.  I believe this so much that I’m even considering proposing a session to that effect next year—stay tuned.

To that end, I’ve chosen a couple of gems to share that I learned in non non-profit specific sessions that I believe to be applicable to all social media users, no matter what hat they wear:

Communicate value to your audience.  Share information that is important to your audience.  If you share valuable content, you establish yourself as an expert and the go to resource for information in your field.  If you struggle with generating valuable content to share, you should not be jumping on every new media platform that arises.

Show up.  Having a profile on a social media platform that never gets updated is almost worse than not having a profile at all.  Keep your information up to date and stay consistent.  If you don’t have time to update 10 different platforms, pick the ones that suit your goals and your audience best and forget the rest.

Engage.  Be responsive to people that engage with you through comments on your posts.  Like and comment on neighboring businesses and organizations.  Don’t dump and run. (This was one of my favorite sound bites of the weekend from health coach and rainbow maker Emily Levenson.)

In true new media un-conference fashion, the sessions were streamed live throughout the weekend for folks to watch from home and they will all be available online within the next few weeks for anyone to check out.

How do you use social media?  Do you think it’s different for non-profits than everyone else?

Sam Laffey is the Marketing Associate at Pittsburgh Glass Center and a partner at Porter Loves Photography.  She is always looking for groovy patterns, cute puppy dogs and all things green.  She can be found on a myriad of social media platforms, including Twitter @samlaffey.

 

Diversity in the arts is ____________

Thank you to everyone who attended and supported last night’s Creative Conversation on “Cultivating Diversity” at the Union Project! We know there was a lot going on last night, but it was clear by our large crowd of 46 participants that this was a topic of great importance to our local arts community. I was honored to be on the panel with such smart, impressive people–Joseph Hall, Bee Schindler, and Alecia Shipman–and facilitated by our own local expert on the issue, Chase Patterson.

As an educator, I’m big on takeaways, or what people are taking away from the event. I totally want to hear what your takeaways from the night are, and to get the conversation started, here are some “big ideas” that I left with:

Diversity in the arts is _________

  • Inclusion
  • Relevant (and relevancy)
  • Intentional
  • not a “one night stand” marketing push
  • finding bridges and advocates
  • from the top-down in leadership
  • all about the programming, both of the art and the value-added pieces
  • recognition and acknowledgement of your gaps
  • action
  • practicing what  you preach

What is your answer to the statement, “Diversity in the arts is ________”?

What ideas or questions are still percolating?

What topics or issues weren’t addressed last night that you wish we would have touched upon?

Creative Conversation: Cultivating Diversity

Does anyone else think we’re a little crazy for broaching this topic?

Cause it’s tough–real tough. One, you have to define what diversity means. Two, you have to have an honest conversation about it in order to reach any conclusions, but do so without being insensitive. Three, you have to create a safe space to allow this conversation to happen. Four, you have to be willing to look at what you and your organization are (and are not) doing to cultivate diversity. And five, it’s a real hot button issue, especially in Pittsburgh.

Tall order, isn’t it? But with our lineup of panelists and facilitator, we know we’re gonna make this creative conversation successfully happen. And we hope that you’re going to be there to share in the experience with us!

So join us on Monday, October 22 from 7-9 pm at the Union Project (801 N. Negley Avenue) for drinks, light food, and stimulating conversation.

Facilitating the evening will be K. Chase Patterson, President and CEO of Corporate Diversity Associates LLC a consulting firm that specializes in corporate training and talent acquisition services.

He’ll be leading the audience and our panelists–Joseph Hall, Alyssa Herzog Melby, Alecia Shipman, and Bee Schindler (read the full bios here)–through the following questions and more:

  • How do we define diversity as arts professionals?
  • How can arts organizations cultivate diverse audiences?
  • How do we break down traditional barriers and stereotypes found in the arts?
  • How do the challenges of fostering diversity change based on the art form, the size, and the history of organizations?
  • What role can arts education and audience engagement play in fostering diversity in the arts?

Intrigued yet? But maybe you’re worried about how the event will be handled and whether or not you’ll feel comfortable asking questions? Don’t worry. Here’s the agenda for the night–and there’s plenty of opportunities to let down your guard and help us ask and talk about these tough questions:

7:00-7:30 Drinks, light refreshments, networking
*Everything always gets easier to talk about after a drink*
7:30-8:15 Panel discussion
8:15-8:30 Break for reflection (audience members will be invited to submit questions via note cards)
8:30-9:00 Audience and panel conversation
So what are you waiting for? This whole event is FREE, but we do ask that you take one minute to register today. Because we need to know how many drinks to buy, and you surely wouldn’t want us running out, would you? Thought not.
In all seriousness, though, this is one conversation that you’re not going to want to miss!  And to get us started, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or facebook about how you define and/or cultivate diversity.

Accessibility is an asset

Last Tuesday at this time, I was frantically packing way too many clothes in my suitcase for a 2-night, 3-day work trip to Boston and nervously chewing my fingernails to little nubs, wondering how I would ever survive said 2-night, 3-day work trip away from my one-year old (I did survive and so did she!). I had little idea what would be in store for me at the LEAD (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability) conference in Boston besides the fact that LEAD is a network based at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. But you know it was worthwhile stuff when you’re still mulling it over, citing lessons you learned in conversations, and wondering how you can do justice to this work that so desperately needs to be done: ensuring access to the arts both at your organization and in the greater Pittsburgh community.

So what are these lessons? Here’s a few biggies:

1. Great accessibility is great for everyone. When I told some people that I was going to begin offering large-print and Braille programs for PBT performances, I would often get the response, “Why would a person who is blind want to see the ballet?” It frankly doesn’t matter to me why someone who is blind wants to see the ballet. My concern is that if the desire is there, how can I ensure that what we offer–ballet–is accessible to them, whatever their individual needs might be. Sure, a Braille program is a very specific accessibility service, but what about patrons whose vision is degrading? I’ve often heard the stat that the average age of entry into regular ticket buying for ballet is in the mid-40s. Put two and two together, and it is quite possible that many of our patrons could benefit from large print programs. I experienced this firsthand at the conference when I was simultaneously listening to the keynote speaker and reading the real-time captioning on the CART system. I understood more of what was being said, even though most often the CART technology is used as a service for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.And there are so many more features in our daily lives that were created for people with disabilities that make everyone’s lives easier. Automatic doors, anyone??

2. Train your staff, train your staff, train your staff. A common thread that ran through many of the sessions was that it doesn’t matter how good your access services are. If the first encounter a person with disabilities has is with an uninformed, disrespectful representative of your organization, how do you think they’re going to rate their experience at your production or museum? Probably not well because (in a variation of lesson #1 above) great customer service for people with disabilities is great customer service for everyone. So I have this big accessibility initiative at PBT that I’m spearheading. Guess what it’s missing? Say it with me: “train your staff, train your staff, train your staff.”

3. Know your responsibilities and legal obligations for providing access services. The United States can be commended for having various laws in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans for Disabilities Act, or the ADA (1992, amended 2010). That being said, these laws are also complex and dense and, depending upon how your organization or business is operated, can vary about what you are legally obligated to provide. For non-profits, Title III of the ADA is your best friend. In a nutshell, it says that your must provide “reasonable accommodations” unless providing these accommodations would provide an “undue burden” to the organization. Well, if that isn’t vague, I don’t know what is. But sometimes vagueness has a way of getting us to talk about what it means. In the case of figuring out what your legal obligations and responsibilities are–that discussion is the first place to start. This is also a huge part of my accessibility initiative that I realize is missing. Because PBT performs in a space which it does not own, a discussion needs to occur with the owners about who is responsible for providing which access services. Not only will it be important for everyone to know their own legal obligations, but we now have the added task of communicating those legal obligations to another entity and working closely together to ensure that the services are provided in the most effective way possible.

4. Last but not least, Betty Siegel, the Executive Director at LEAD, said in her opening remarks that like any other asset to a business, accessibility is an asset your organization. She charged all of the participants to remember this as they returned to their work. Duly noted, Betty. I will do my best to advocate for accessibility at every level, and I start by passing on that charge to all of you! Say it with me: Accessibility is an asset! Accessibility is an asset!

Many thanks to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the FISA Foundation for sponsoring my attendance at the LEAD Conference.

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