Philadelphia-area blogger Above Average Jane joined Great Expectations on July 9 at the Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown for the first of five community forums on The Big Canvas. You can learn more about The Big Canvas at www.greatexpectationsnow.com, and read more of Above Average Jane's work at her blog, aboveavgjane.blogspot.com. She writes:

Last year The Inquirer and the University of Pennsylvania's Project for Civic Engagement sponsored a series of meetings called Great Expectations, to find out what the residents of Philadelphia wanted for their city.  The final document from those meetings, representing an agenda set by people and not policymakers, has been embraced by Mayor Nutter.  One of the frequently heard comments in those discussions was the availability and diversity of things to do in the area. 

Building on the success of last year's meetings, this year, with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation, another series of discussions are taking place.  The Big Canvas is a regional look at arts & culture in Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.

There are five forums planned; the first one was held on July 8 at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, and I was invited to be the community blogger on hand.  Over 50 people attended, which is a good draw on a July evening.  Most were residents of Bucks County but a few from Montco and the city were also there. 

Chris Satullo of the Inquirer and Harris Sokoloff from Penn gave brief introductions and set some ground rules (listen, don't dominate the conversation, encourage others to talk, and it's okay to disagree).  While there is a wealth of artistic and cultural resources in the area, those who work in the field are stressed by annual funding worries.  Bucks County helps with this somewhat by having a hotel tax that supports arts and culture.  A Rand study found that there was a high level of public support in the region but relatively low levels of government and private (philanthropic) support. 

The Big Canvas meetings are not designed to try to solve financial problems but to create a framework and strategies for dealing with challenges, and help set priorities.   After the five initial forums, there will be another series in September and October with a final distillation in November.           

After the initial overview we broke into four groups of ten or more, with a moderator and a recorder.  One of the more practical things I learned is that you can buy easel tablets that are giant Post-Its.  After a page is full the recorder simply pulled it off and stuck the top edge to the wall; no more rolls of masking tape, rumpled paper from the taping process, and tape residue on the walls.  Ingenious.  Each group had a different dynamic, and those who are interested in studying verbal and nonverbal communication would find these groups fascinating.  The group I was in had a number of people involved in artwork, primarily painting, and that showed in the ideas brought forth.  Some were artists themselves, some were involved in the business aspects of art, galleries or simply businesses that got a great deal of collateral business from arts tourism.  Some were quiet; some were not.  Some used expansive body languages and gestures, some did not.  Some had a specific point they wanted to make, some came without an agenda.

As a group we were asked to think about several topics relating to who uses the arts, how and why or why not, and what that says about us as a population.  We broke into smaller groups of 4 to 6 and did some brainstorming and then came back together to discuss priorities. 

We then had some time to do a "gallery walk" where you can go around the room and see other groups' pages on the wall.  Reading those sheets and talking with other people there it was obvious that while we often came to the same conclusions there were differences that stood out.  Libraries and museums were more visible in the work of some groups; others had more mention of music.  I did not see much about literature although Pearl Buck was spoken of and we were meeting in a museum devoted to a writer (James Michener).  Writers might want to go to some of the future meetings to make sure their voices are heard.  There was at least one local publisher in attendance and someone in public relations, but little discussion of the literary arts.  I didn't see much evidence of dance presented either.    

We were asked to fill out evaluation surveys and mingle or leave as we wished.

The crowd was diverse in many ways, though not racially.  There were only a few people that looked under 30 but above that age it was a mixed group, and I don't remember a gender imbalance.  The arts are often thought of as elitist but that wasn't evident.  A number of people had a vested interest but no one (that I observed or heard about) tried to put anyone else down, though some spoke more forcefully than others. 

There are four more forums in the series, and I would encourage those with any interest in the arts and culture to attend.  Even if you don't have a pre-set agenda or a specific tie to the industry, you still have opinions that are worth hearing.  The more voices that speak in this process, the better.  We are all stakeholders in the future of arts and culture in the region and the priorities and strategies that come out of these meetings should reflect that.  For added incentive, fruit and cookies are available during registration and were still out when we finished.