Most of my ballroom exposure has been at weddings. I’ve been to countless numbers of weddings. The weddings have been for first timers and first timers usually go big, so naturally I’ve wrestled many a hotel ballroom to their tiny dance-floor knees.
As a wedding guest, one is often left alone while the rest of your tablemates are dancing, getting drinks or stumbling to the bathroom. I remember many times staring at the ceiling, alone like a buoy floating in a silent sea of white tables and empty champagne glasses. With faded notes of “Only You” playing in the background, I’ve contemplated many a chandelier in my day.
The Big Canvas Confab was held Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Valley Forge Radisson Hotel. The ballroom was huge. It had no less than eight recessed chandeliers. Why anyone would push one chandelier, let alone eight, up into the ceiling is beyond me. Maybe they thought that if masses of baubles were dangling like diamond-encrusted icicles one may mistake the humble Radisson for Versailles; Traffic on the Schuylkill is already très horrible.
I signed in at the receiving tables, got my pre-printed ID sticker (with the esteemed term of “Blogger” under my name), and received my “wedding” favor, an awesome Big Canvas T-shirt. Easels holding some stunning student art framed all the doorways. I didn’t have a lot of time to gaze; Due to holiday traffic on I-76 (surprise), I was one of the last batch of people to file into the large ballroom before our two emcees introduced the event and the esteemed keynote speaker. I circled the room and situated myself to get good photos.
There was a lot of diversity in the guest list of this shindig. I definitely wasn’t the youngest person in attendance this time; there were lots of men and women of all ages. The Budesa Brothers, a two-man band that had been playing in the corner of the room, started packing up their gear. The event was starting. People settled into their seats.
The fathers of the Big Canvas, Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo stepped up onto the large dais. The dais had two podiums and seats for the wedding party (i.e., some of the directors of the project). The dais overlooked the entire ballroom, which was filled with about 20 large tables covered in those ubiquitous white tablecloths. Each table sat 10 guests. People filed in on their own, as this was a general admission gig without placecards. Instead, we all had nametags; I looked for my comrades also marked “Blogger” but alas, I ended up sitting alone at the last empty table up in the front. The rest of the tables were filled. There were more than a few stragglers standing in the back of the room, but I suppose they were too shy to walk up to the front of the ballroom to sit down with me. When one is armed with a fancy-looking digital SLR camera, one gets a bit more bold in their seating choices.
This was the last Big Canvas event. It a coming together, a blending, a wedding of sorts between ideas and action. Thought leaders, local government reps, and concerned citizens were the witnesses. The tables at this wedding didn’t surround a dance floor. Instead, they crowded in and covered every available space. Long, rectangular tables lined the outside of the ballroom where various local arts alliance staffers set up displays, collected email addresses, and handed out literature. On either side of the dais were two very large screens with projectors showing The Big Canvas logo. Later, the screens would show the various charts and bulleted points of the data collected over the last several months.
Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo, both in jacket and ties, walked up onto the dais. They introduced the event and gave some background information. They introduced Marjorie Rendell, the first lady of Pennsylvania and a federal judge. The Honorable Ms. Rendell, dressed sharply in a red jacket and gold accessories, had many inspirational words to say. She toasted the Big Canvas efforts with stories of building the Avenue of the Arts. A governor’s wife, she mentioned, spends a lot of time at sporting venues; whenever someone mentioned a break during an event she immediately thought “halftime!” She pepped the audience up by sending them her accolades for their efforts in the arts. She ended by saying that what we were all doing, in this ballroom, in Philadelphia, in the whole area, was leaving a legacy for future generations. What could be a more worthy pursuit?
After Rendell stepped down, Chris and Harris jumped into the toastmaster spots again. This time, they reported the results of all of The Big Canvas events held in the area. It really was a major qualitative data collection. Now it was the time to take that “soft” data and put it into hard numbers.
Slides helped convey the messages: 0.19 voting points for maintaining the status quo. Stats guys at Penn told us that the clear favorites were approaches II, III, and IV. The “creative economy” choice gained ground after the stock market troubles. Chris kept referring to the sudden economic downturn as “Lehman Brothers.” I wondered if that was some polite way of saying “stock market crash.”
Chris threw out the notion of “sticky” ideas. The term was inspired by the New York Times bestseller “The Tipping Point” by fuzzy-haired journalist Malcolm Gladwell (who, by the way, would be excellent to sit next to at a wedding reception). Which of the ideas that came out of all the mounds of self-adhesive post-it posters from every Big Canvas event in the area would stick? Which one would really sell the strategy, whichever one came out on top, to the public?
“Philadelphia’s regional motto and global brand should center around nurturing and celebrating creativity,” Chris said. He talked about how America was created here, how we just need to believe in Philadelphia. We didn’t ever think we’d be a baseball championship town, but we are. Believing in arts as an activity is key. Art isn’t just about attending shows. Art is the stuff we do, how we participate in our community. “It’s active, not passive.”
Harris and Chris went into some details about the messages that came out of the data.
At every individual session, therefore the group as a whole, participants seemed to want to raise issues like parking, late-night trains, and ease of use to the Septa people. Septa board members were invited to the Confab, but none came. I’m sure Harris and Chris will get them the feedback.
Besides parking challenges, Chris also talked about the perceptions of The Big Canvas participants that Philadelphia is not welcoming enough. Parking in Center City is a problem, but the perception of intimidating streets and snobbish people are also strong factors that keep suburban residents out of the city.
If I could interject here, as one does during dinner conversation, I’d have to say those attitudes are understandable. I lived in Rittenhouse Square for seven years in what used to be servants’ quarters for the grand houses on Delancey Street. I know from snobbery. Even with my humble means and shelter, I never felt like I couldn’t go to a play or attend a museum soiree. Of course, I walked or took Septa, thus avoiding the parking issues. I didn’t have the financial means to attend enough events, but when I could scrape together some coins, I didn’t feel excluded from buying a ticket and attending a show just like anyone else.
Some people just think of cities as catering to a higher sophisticate, which may be true. But having lived there, I find Philadelphia to be a welcoming place. Parking is a problem, and sometimes the one-way street philosophy doesn’t follow its own rules, but for the most part a drive down into the city is worth it. I think most participants agreed with this, but they would like to see the parking and inclusion issues addressed.
Chris and Harris lent some attention to the concept of an arts sector. Not borne from snobbery but just how arts and culture as a cause can sometimes separate from other causes. Chris told us of how a melding of the arts people and the green (environment people) in Minnesota got together to influence their government for a common cause. His point was that arts and culture groups don’t have to compete with other people. They can become a “thread in the fabric” of the whole instead of a small arts sector or silo. Everyone needs to participate.
Chris laid down some principles of widespread participation in arts and culture:
*Ownership is 9/10ths of success. Some group must take leadership.
*Regional has to really mean regional.
*Don’t try to sell green bananas to anxious people. (We need to just prepare now for when this thing [“Lehman Brothers”] turns around.)
*Focus on the three C’s: Communicate. Coordinate. Collaborate. (Take advantage of what we already have.)
*Don’t just feed the big dogs (or the usual suspects). Organizations all over the region. Little organizations that all need support).
*Pay it measure for measure (feedback loops). Quantitative and qualitative measures of success.
*Getting there is half the battle.
*Education doesn’t just happen in schools (adult ed, not just k-12).
This is where I had a personal revelation. The Big Canvas is a start-up. In my geeky world, tech start-ups begin the same way The Big Canvas project did. Start-ups begin with an idea, move on to some brainstorming around the idea, then collaboration, then more brainstorming, then they construct a plan of attack, then get some funding, then implement and launch.
The tech community in Philly, of which I consider myself a lowly fan, is on fire. They are creating things left and right. They are exchanging ideas, supporting one another, starting businesses, creating jobs, carving out office space, raising money for the libraries, filling Philabundance’s shelves, and contributing to the economy of the city. Recently, an event for the tech community called IdeaBlob was sponsored by Advanta.com. At IdeaBlob, anyone can get up on stage, grab the mic and tell people their idea. The audience then gives all sorts of free advice on how the person can improve upon that idea and perhaps start making their idea into a reality. It’s supertalented crowdsourcing and extreme focus-grouping all at once.
It occurred to me that Harris and Chris were standing up on their own stage armed with little more than a truckload of information about an idea. Why not put them up in front of the tech community? Let the tech community think up, in start-up creative style, steps toward implementing a plan to make The Big Canvas arts and culture strategy a reality. I let this idea sink in as I continued taking what would turn out to be nine pages of notes. Chris and Harris went on to outline some of the “Sticky Actions” they felt were imperative to moving forward:
*Create a central, regional Web 2.0 site (and regional does have to mean regional, all of the ‘burbs, not just Philly).
*Use Netflix as a model for peer filtering. The recommendations infrastructure works well for movies on Netflix, it may work well for arts and cultural events.
*Use social networking. The new “Great Expectations Now” Facebook page was given a shout-out.
As I said, I ended up taking massive amounts of notes. Check out the other bloggers’ posts. They did a good job of quoting the panelists and adding more information from the general and smaller sessions. I won’t reiterate. I’ll sum up what happened in my session.
In the breakout session I participated in, Philadelphia City Council Representative Blondell Reynolds Brown was our designated government liaison. This woman commands respect. She is warm and friendly, but she is also all business. If this were a wedding, she’d be the beloved auntie that would be telling everybody where to stand and cuing the music. She gave us a quick history of her time serving as a City Council rep, and how she was assigned, so many years ago, to examine ways to promote arts and culture for the city’s youth. She gave a lot of helpful information, as well as resources that track research about how the arts enhance learning for elementary and secondary students. She said she would hit those resources up for hard facts repeatedly for support of her case when she was presenting to the mayor. She struck me as quite a learned and competent individual.
After she gave us her very relevant background, Ms. Reynolds Brown sat back and took notes while our moderators engaged us in the conversation.What took place next would have been great fare for some of my sociologist friends. The group was tasked with coming up with more solid steps (e.g. “Build a Web 2.0 site ASAP”) to implement the most popular approaches that came out of The Big Canvas meetings. To me, the instructions were clear. Brainstorm. Come up with actions that can be implemented now and some steps to work toward.
Participants in our session seemed to still be in the stage of defending the arts. Although some of the stories that came out of the room were interesting, they were just that. Stories. The art lovers in the room were still talking about their motivations for coming to The Big Canvas, why art is indispensable, why we must fight to keep arts and culture at the forefront of people’s minds when they think of Philadelphia. This was the church choir in the balcony gossiping about the couple getting married. They were preaching to each other.
The energy in the room was definitely electric, but I wondered what was happening in the group dynamic. How were we to get back on task? Some more stories were told, I added mine about IdeaBlob, some other fascinating histories from Germaine Ingram about her time working under David Hornbeck in the Philly school district.
After a bit of time, we did come up with some points for Ms. Reynolds-Brown to report back to the re-convened group.
*Get a database together of all the arts and culture organizations in the area. Use Guidestar.org to search for them.
*Make a catalogue-type search feature for all of these organizations.
*Use Artsusa.org and pnd.org (Philanthropy New Digest) to gather research and knowledge that support arts education.
*Keep up the intensity. You have to keep up a certain level at all times or else the project fails.
*Keep educating and keep being visible to our civic leaders. Don’t rely on web for this. You need face time with every state and local rep.
*Keep conceiving new ideas. Constantly stream creative energy into the cause.
*Don’t wait for money. Continue on with ideas and try to find ways to make them work.
We saved the day. Somehow, under Germaine Ingram’s guidance we got to more concrete steps to offer the general assembly. We ended our session and went back into the big room while Ms. Reynolds-Brown reviewed her notes.
The state and local reps took the stage. One by one, they reported on their break-out sessions. A lot of the suggestions ran along similar lines as I’ve outlined above and were pointed out by Harris and Chris earlier. There was a running joke about the acronym CAMELOT and it was quite amusing at the time, but I’m pretty sure this is one of those wedding moments you “just had to be there” for.
Action marrying ideas, ideas marrying action. It was a successful wedding. I personally can’t wait for the Web 2.0 approach. I will try to contact Chris and Harris for the next IdeaBlob. By reaching out to all different groups, Chris and Harris have learned by now that you just never know what you might come up with. Great job, guys. On behalf of my children and their children, I thank you! Philadelphia is going to be an enriched place because of your efforts.
This post-script isn’t about how you lost your chance to contribute to The Big Canvas. The project is moving forward and has plenty of ears to listen to your ideas. Get involved!
This footnote is a small op-ed. I’ve made it a point to avoid mentioning the Keep-the-Barnes protesters that came out en force. When I first saw them, I thought that they were the best-dressed, most upper-crust suburban set of protesters I’ve ever seen. They were peaceful but invasive. They stood blocking the screens with the data for a good portion of the Confab. They individually attended the breakout sessions determined to steer the conversation to their cause. Our session successfully ignored the Barnes protester in the room. He was allowed to make one brief statement, and then the moderators continued on with the task at hand. Mr. Protest got up and left. I’m not going to pretend I know all the politics involved in this issue, but seeing the protesters stand up in the front of the room with their ambiguous posters didn’t enlighten me any more. I am a good photographer. I know how to frame a shot. You won’t see their posters in any of my shots. I felt a bit perturbed that they campaigned at The Big Canvas event. It was invasive and lazy. We had a task in front of us that will benefit the entire Philadelphia area, and they were using our time to get exposure with local reps. They can invite the reps to their own meeting. Let the citizens do their work. Arts and culture don’t “belong” anywhere, they belong everywhere. This is not a suburban/urban war. There is enough creativity and support to go around. Work together.