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The Big Canvas: Bringing together hopes and dreams

Corey Abramson, a citizen blogger for Great Expectations, gives us his take on The Big Canvas Confab, which was held Dec.6, 2008, in King of Prussia.

Well Hello there Philadelphia,

Its been a while, what with school, a national election, a world series and Thanksgiving but I'm glad to say that I'm back for your blogging pleasure.

Last Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, I took part in the next step of

» READ MORE: The Big Canvas

project, a citizen-driven initiative to revitalize the arts and culture in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties. The Big Canvas is part of the

» READ MORE: Great Expectations

project. I received a welcoming email from Jodie Chester Lowe, my main contact with Great Expectations a few weeks ago asking if I'd like to come back for "The Confab," which is the next step for the project.

The goal of the Confab was to bring together the results of the past eight months' worth of citizen input, hopes and dreams. This includes the 13 rounds of discussion that brought together about 500 citizens from throughout the region. This breaks down into about 40 separate break out groups, which each provided their own perspective to the Big Canvas' approaches.

The goal of these discussions were to lay out the


that would "enhance the region's cultural legacy."

The Big Confab was located at the geographic and economic epicenter of the region, Valley Forge's Radisson hotel. This location served as a meaningful symbol of the gravitational power of an initiative like the Big Canvas project, bringing together citizens, arts and cultural leaders, and elected officials from all over. While there were certainly those who drove from all corners of the region to participate, I was one of the lucky few to ride one of two "Philly Van-Go" shuttles (more on this pun-tastic gem later) from Center City to the summit for free.

I caught the shuttle at 18th and the Parkway in Center City, with about twenty other excited travelers. I was joined by teachers, parents, journalists, and artists from across the area up Route 76. I sat next to a wonderful woman who happened to be a recently retired librarian who served at quite a few schools. We talked arts politics and the follies of being a college student for the ride, which actually passed rather quickly.

We pulled up to the Radisson at about quarter of one, and made our way in to the sign-in tables. I was greeted warmly, as always, by project managers Linda Breitstein and Holly Kirksey, who presented me with a specialized "Blogger" name tag and a Great Expectations T-shirt (which I'd like to point out fits perfectly, thank you guys). After a quick cup of coffee, I made my way into the banquet hall to the unofficial bloggers table. Each table was set up with material on the day's proceedings, tablets for note taking, Sharpies for name tags, and so on. The room started to quickly fill up, and just about all of the 200 expected guests got situated.

At this point, project leaders Chris Satullo and Harris Sokoloff gave a welcoming address, which outlined the way the day would work out. They recognized many of the elected officials and arts and cultural leaders in the room, of which there were many prominent figures.

It was then that Chris and Harris made way for the keynote speaker - "the first lady of Pennsylvania," Judge Marjorie Rendell. Her address was just as wonderfully charming as it was motivational and set a perfect tone for the rest of the day's event. She made sure to commend the efforts of the Big Canvas symposiums, crediting the dialogues as the true "keynote" to the day's proceedings.

Rendell brought the whole room together and highlighted the legacy and motivation of the revitalizing of the "Avenue of the Arts" back in 1993. "South Broad was essentially emptying out," reminisced the governor's wife, "the businesses were moving down to Market Street." It took a lot of blind faith and motivation to move the theaters and museums down to the Avenue, not an easy battle to fight. It was well worth it, however, as it brought an energy to the area that Philadelphia had not seen. The area must have felt like Times Square during its revitalization at the end of the 1970s.

She went on to stress that the 13-part project was not completely planned out step by step; the community and economic development drove the growth of the area. While the projects may have cost a substantial amount, their eventual return was tenfold - and not only in monetary terms. "When we were done, its not just arts and culture - it's so much else that comes with that," said Rendell. "People will seek out a rich, cultured environment." The big companies on the Ave of the Arts had input, had some control and a literal and figurative investment - this directly parallels the concerns of the Big Canvas.


» READ MORE: keynote

went on to stress a few more motivational points that would move the group along. "Excitement nurtures and breeds support," she said, "It’s a legacy, its not about what we do here today for us, its all about the legacy and that’s what excited me, and should excite you all as well."

After Judge Rendell stepped down from the podium, Harris and Chris came back to go over the results of the two rounds of forums. The quantitative

» READ MORE: data collected

at the end of each session wound up as such:

Extend the Arts Experience     4.00

Nurture the Arts Experience     5.04

Build the Creative Economy     5.41

Foster Quality of Community     5.28

Maintain the Status Quo     .19

University of Pennsylvania statisticians crunched the raw number returns and came up with a few conclusions. Of those that returned the survey, more gave

their points to Approaches 4 and 5 than any of the others, and at the same time, more gave

of their points to those same approaches.

Additionally, the third choice (which focused on building up the creative economy) gained much more traction after the market crash. People began to feel that this economics-oriented approach would "be most attractive to their colleagues."

The qualitative data collected showed researchers a few other things, and lead to the development of the Themes, Principles and Actions. For a quick overview of what Chris and Harris went over, you can head on over to the

» READ MORE: Summary of Findings

page at the Great Expectations web site.

A few key concepts underlined the Themes, Principles and Actions that the Big Canvas team developed into "Sticky Ideas." These projects are to serve as cornerstone jump-starters for the project; they are designed to yield actual results that people would immediately see the effects of.

The first Sticky Idea was the notion of having a centralized, region wide Web 2.0 site. Think Facebook, Craig's List, Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes (with both professional and citizen input) all at once. "A good half of the people in the forums had no idea about currently existing Web guides," said Harris. " Web guides like

» READ MORE: PhillyFunGuide

." People want more than just a static list of activities that gets updated once in a while, they want social interaction from artist to artist and patron to patron. This would allow for collaborative carpooling, and could cut down significant redundant spending by independent groups trying to compete with larger venues and such.

Secondly, there was the Sticky Idea of the Culture Passport. The idea here is to have some form of a "passport," be it literal or in the form of a swipe card that collects information about the Arts and Culture events you attend around the city and in the Regional Arts and Culture system. With the possibility of discounts and special events (think frequent-flier miles almost), there is total incentive for return visits and variety on your passport. It's not just a card that gives you discounts, but a personal record of your input into the arts with "relevant rewards with recognition for what you've gone to."

The Van-Go Tour Bus system was the third Sticky Idea. Think of a Philly Plash bus, but oriented to the arts and culture venues - museums, clubs, venues, galleries, landmarks, etc. The beauty (and major difference from other "arts tours") is the inclusion of arts and culture on the trips themselves. Local musicians, poets, storytellers, singers and so on could be commissioned by the city (or the regional board) to perform and exhibit their work on board the tours.

Another Sticky Idea discussed as the organization of a Regional Space Bank to connect open venues to local artists, and in particular community-run theater groups. This would allow for a universal sharing of events venues and recourses.

At this point in the event, a panel of arts and culture organization leaders came to the front of the room to provide some of their input on The Big Canvas project and the direction it should go in.

First to speak was David Thornburgh (executive director of the Fels Institute of Government). He stressed the importance of having actual legislation and a game plan. "Organization and discipline is needed," said Thornburgh. "There has to be a white hot core of an actual organization running the campaign, and micro[management] to the whole enterprise." He went on to discuss the need for leadership. "More than just one person, but from a broader citizen community, not just self-interested companies and artists."

Douglas Dolan, the executive director of the Mercer Museum took the microphone next. "… It's really exciting that we've marketed the avenue of the arts as a center for experiences. I think part of this conversation has to move form talking about the avenue of arts as a place to talking about it as an avenue … it covers the entire region.


Germaine Ingram, the interim associate director of the Philadelphia Folklore Project was also in attendance. She talked mostly about the term "Creative Economy," a hot topic issue from the earlier rounds of the forum. She felt that the money distributed through an eventual outcome of the Big Canvas "should go to artists themselves, as opposed to always going to the art organizations" in order to avoid the politics facing the region's arts and culture sector. "We have to trust that our time will come and that not all will benefit at once," said Ingram. "Not being treated equally, but being treated as equals."

The vice president of public policy for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Julie Goodman Hawkins, discussed "making Philadelphia one of the foremost creative regions in the world." She described recent changes in the Web 2.0 version of, promising a much more streamlined Web experience that resonated well with the wishes of the Big Canvas' Sticky Ideas. Hawkins was excited about the Big Canvas' initiatives, and felt that it was going in the right direction; it paralleled what many have been thinking and discussing outside of the program. "The really heartening thing about this is that what we've been thinking about a lot of people have been thinking about."

Also joining the panel was Gary Steuer.What excited the chief cultural officer of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy the most was the dialog between the three parties - the citizens, cultural leaders and elected officials. "[It is] not just the arts community talking to itself." Steuer, a strong advocate for the historical aspects of the arts, namely in regards to the heritage of the city felt that heritage studies of the entire region should also be brought to the table. "Each section of the city has its own flavor, its own style."

After a small snack break, the large conference room was split up into four smaller groups each with its own project leader and elected official. I joined up with Harris Sokoloff and Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green in another section of the room with about 20 members of the region. The discussion started off with a bit of input form the councilman, who felt that "all of the approaches were sound" and that "parts of [all the approaches] would achieve an appreciation and use by the people." He went on to say that the focus should not be so much on funding, but more so about the application of and participation in the arts.

When the discussion did get down to funding, Green did say that investment does in fact have return, and cited a recent study that showed a 1:5 dollar return in city tax investment. He also noted that "programs with short-term goals and fast returns are going to get funding."

In our group were also a few of the region's arts and culture directors. Natalie K. of Bucks County Community College touched on her experience with coordinating between college campuses. She felt that we could easily take these networking skills that exist outside of the realm of education and apply them to the Big Canvas' goals (such as the Regional Space Bank).

Alfred Heard, the president of performing arts complex in Delaware County, talked about the volunteer aspects of his theater company. The group he is involved in is entirely volunteer based, and runs essentially on the community's efforts. What happens, he explained, is that members of the community come to see the shows, want to get involved, and wind up becoming part of the productions themselves. Projects like these would greatly benefit from the Space Bank as well.

The discussion continued along, and citizens began to voice their opinions. Members of our group felt that an eventual committee or planning group should be closely aligned with the humanities. This includes "Broadening the Canvas" by expanding to include untapped resources "such as public schools in the afternoon and evening, and over the summer."

There was also a push to give big companies in the city incentive to promote arts and culture to their employees who work in the city and live out in the suburbs. One member of the group thought it would be a nice thing to see corporations encourage their staff to visit the arts venues around the city.

The Culture Loop Bus (similar in ways to the Van-Go trolleys) was also a big topic of discussion. A few key points that the group felt needed to be addressed included connection the system to public transit, marketing, and extending the hours of museums to accommodate for a "suburban flux of visitors." These are all shortcomings the group saw existing already. The PhillyPhlash system is relatively unknown. It runs infrequently enough as it is and is very disconnected to Septa making it extremely difficult for out-of-towners to get around.

After the small group meetings ended, we all gathered back in the large room again to get a consensus from the elected officials who attended. Across the board, all of the elected officials seemed to feel the same way about the Big Canvas and its initiative. They felt that there needs to be a strong focus on the youth to build a strong foundation for the years ahead, "to develop into art patrons later on in life."

This would require a focus on arts in the schools. Data shows that young people actively involved in the arts are more likely to go on to college. "When art is sustained, young people do better on their mathematics sections on the SAT."

Another feeling was a need for regionalism in the arts. Given the controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation, "we should learn from this and avoid issues like these in the future." To be perfectly honest, this blogger knew very little of the Barnes issue before attending the Confab but now has a full understanding of the situation.

"Fight over money can be a good thing, the competition can drive higher quality in the arts," said one official. "Money cannot be the end all be all." This was a heavy theme among those on the panel.

All of the elected officials pledged to support The Big Canvas through all of its endeavors in the months ahead, and urged those in attendance along with their friends, families and communities to challenge their public officials to set forth goals and legislation.

All in all, the Confab was a huge success and really got the ball rolling. We've got an uphill battle ahead of us, this is true, but at least we've got a game plan, and a heck of a lot of support from those involved. Discussion is on the table, and everyone involved feels good about it. Keep an eye out for big moves and changes in the arts and culture sector. I know I will.

Lets do it guys.