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The Big Canvas: Who will lead the arts and culture community?

The Big Canvas: Who will lead the Phila. arts and culture community into battle? Can the organizations put aside self-interest in favor of the common good? What will an equitable, sustainable funding model look like? And how many arts and culture organizations will go under while all of this gets decided?

With more than 500 participants at 13 meetings held over six months in five counties resulting in hundreds of pages of notes that led to four possible strategic approaches outlined in a Citizen Issue Guide to Arts and Culture, the Big Canvas has accomplished so much. And, yet, so much seemed left undone at the conclusion of the initiative's three-hour "Confab" in Valley Forge on December 6th.

Who will lead the arts and culture community into battle? Can the organizations put aside self-interest in favor of the common good? What will an equitable, sustainable funding model look like? And how many arts and culture organizations will go under while all of this gets decided?

Unfortunately, the three-hour meeting of more than 200 attendees didn't bring clarity to any of these issues. Instead, the event fell victim to an overly ambitious schedule that left little time for strategizing.

Keynote speaker Judge Marjorie Rendell drew parallels between the philosophical missions of Avenue of the Arts project and The Big Canvas. She described a meeting at the start of the project between her husband, Governor Ed Rendell - then Philadelphia mayor - and community leaders. She said her husband vividly painted a picture of the Avenue with words. In the end, she said, this vision built the support and created a sense of place that made patrons and entrepreneurs, feel like they had to be there. Her comments were insightful and inspiring.

After a summary of the Big Canvas findings, a panel of arts and culture leaders gave their thoughts about the ideas the initiative had produced and what needed to be done to complete the mission. Panelists were Gary Steuer of Philadelphia's Office of Arts Culture and Creative Economy, Julie Goodman Hawkins of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Germaine Ingram of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Douglas Dolan of the Mercer Museum and David Thornburgh or Penn's Fels Institute of Government.

Thornburgh shared a very tortured acronym to summarize what needed to happen to put the public input into action: CAMOL. "C" stands for customer, as in knowing the customer, which in this case is the legislature. "A" is for a proposal, as in a piece of legislation. "M" stands for marketing the ideas to gain public support. "O" is for organization, a steady group of individuals that will work to get the mission accomplished. And, finally, "L" is for leadership, without which there will be no agenda.

Unlike previous forums, the Confab was attended by several area politicians. At the very least awareness was increased among those assembled, but it became clear as each politician spoke that the arts and culture community shouldn't look to them for any solutions. Instead, several politicians encouraged the group to develop a plan that could be crafted into legislation. Naturally, none of them wanted to talk about ponying up additional dollars during this economic downturn. State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, representing parts of Chester and Montgomery Counties, went as far as suggesting that the arts and culture community convince the "big dogs," such as the Philadelphia Art Museum, to use their annual state financial support to fund a regional compact. More than a few snickers could be heard in the audience.

State Representative Josh Shapiro, representing part of Montgomery County, said once the arts and culture community developed a plan he would be happy to move it forward in the legislature. He said these "lean economic times" were an opportunity to set the priorities and "not just fight over money that isn't there." This is the time for the arts and culture community to organize so it can be in a strong position when the state emerges from the economic downturn, he said.

However, I think the lean economic times are the least of this movement's problems. This effort will go nowhere without a focus on the common good – not the good of each individual organization. Dinniman was right when he said nothing will come of these efforts until everyone's "self interest" evolves into an "enlightened self interest" in which the region senses that everyone's boat will rise if they work together.Based on some of behavior during the Confab, I'm not sure organizations are ready to throw aside their own self interest.

Case in point is an organization that opposes the Barnes Museum move from Lower Merion into Philadelphia. Members of the organization cared more about their cause than the good of the entire arts and culture community. So, they attempted to disrupt the event in several ways, such holding protest signs, heckling Rendell and attempting to hijack the conversations in the breakout sessions. As one moderator succinctly told one disruptive member "You want this to be about the Barnes, but it's not."

Another less malicious example of "self interest" run amok was evident during the breakout sessions. Already pressed for time, politician(s) assigned to each group were to speak for 10 minutes followed by 15 minutes for arts and culture leaders in the group. Each leader wanted to spend much of the group's precious time detailing the work of the organization he or she represented. This continued when the discussion was opened to the rest of the group. Time and again the moderator had to refocus the group. So, instead of developing strategies with input from the politicians, the majority of time was spent touting individual organizations that are probably starved for recognition.

In this light, it's not really shocking to learn that a previous attempt at a regional compact broke down because arts and culture leaders came to the table wanting extra funding for themselves without a willingness to think regionally. The effort never even got to Harrisburg.

Ingram, of the Philadelphia Folklore project, was right when she said the region's organizations need to build trust among one another. One way to do this is to prove the concept so each of the players will truly believe. Going after the "doable" items that have widespread support and don't cost a fortune, such as a regional space bank or the Philly "van go" bus, lay the foundation for a bigger regional compact. It's about using quick successes to build an army of believers.

The addition of the "T" for trust and "E" for execution, suggested by Sokoloff, turned the acronym CAMOL into CAMELOT. Of course, the question is will these efforts result in an idyllic arts and culture region or just fantasy.