By Janet Salmons, PhD
Representing performing arts from opera to jazz, ballet to hip hop, over 3,500 people from 30 agencies and organization converged on Denver this June to develop an action agenda under the slogan "taking action together." National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) organizers hoped attendees would "lay the foundation for future cross-disciplinary collaborations, cooperative programs and effective advocacy." They believed that meeting across disciplines is essential in order to consider broad issues such as education, creativity, sustainability, artist training, audience development and diversification, the impact of new technologies and leadership development.
In the opening session, The Power of Community Building, Anna Deveare Smith fired up the audience. In the plenary Good to Great in the Social Sector Jim Collins got everyone thinking about what factors make the difference between good and great: discipline. The National Endowment for the Arts used the occasion of the convention to announce a new report Artists in the Workforce 1990-2005, giving facts and figures to demonstrate the economic value of arts and artists in America.
Attendees found a plethora of concurrent small group sessions, as one would expect at a major conference. But they were engaged in a way not typical of such meetings; in a "21st Century Town Meeting" process facilitated by AmericaSpeaks, participants worked in small groups with a facilitator—each day with a different mix of people. The process aimed to generate ideas at the global/national, local and organizational/individual levels to find best practices and make recommendations about several guiding questions:
Input from the small groups was distilled into key statements. These statements and discussion summaries were distributed back to participants through a "Daily Caucus" newsletter and through blogs. On the final day of the conference all the participants voted on the priorities. A detailed discussion of the results is online (http://www.artsjournal.com/npac/), but, in brief, the three top challenges/opportunities those present committed to addressing are:
NPAC was advertised as "fully accessible." And, while it appeared that assistance was available for attendees in wheelchairs, Judith Smith from Axis Dance suggested that future conventions "consider putting information about accessible routes and where elevators, etc are located. I had a difficult time, as always, finding my way around." General and small group sessions I attended were not sign interpreted and no audio description, captioning, or Braille options were apparent.
In terms of programming, one session focused on disability issues. Absolutely Accessible Arts—Embracing Diverse Audiences and Artists was moderated by VSA Colorado Executive Director Damon McLeese. It consisted of a panel from local agencies and demonstrations that included artists with physical disabilities from PHAMALy and a signed shadow performance from the Arvada Center. This excellent session attracted very few participants.
As noted, the AmericaSpeaks caucuses generated a set of priority issues, the first one being: "The increasing diversity of our communities creates an opportunity to engage a variety of ages, races, identities, and cultures in our audiences and organizations." Differing ability was not mentioned—my discussion group recorded it as a priority but did not carry it into the final statement language. For the purpose of this article I asked an unscientific small sample of attendees: "do you believe the intention is to be more inclusive of artists as well as audience members who have disabilities?" The responses were varied. Several able-bodied people noted that in their caucus discussions accessibility for audiences and inclusion in arts organizations were mentioned, and their assumption was, yes, differing ability is part of "diversity." Judith Smith disagreed: "No, I don't believe that's the intention. I think people with disabilities are still the unseen, unheard, never mentioned part of 'diversity.' I feel that many organizations still just don't want to deal with access issues."
One point all the attendees I spoke to agreed on is this: artists with disabilities need to join and be active in their respective organizations. Attend, present, participate and speak out! If the arts community is going to be able to truly "take action together" as the NPAC intended, then all artists need to be included.top
The New Generations Program was designed by the Theatre Communications Group, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through the Future Collaborations component of the program, U.S. theatre professionals receive grants of up to $3,000 to travel internationally, enabling them to share ideas and techniques and/or collaborate with their colleagues around the world. Eligible applicants should have a minimum of five years experience working in the professional nonprofit theatre field. The application deadline is October 3, 2008. Visit the Theatre Communications Group website for program details: http://www.tcg.org/grants/newgen/international_index.cfmtop
Developmentally disabled actors affiliated with Performing Arts Studio West (PASW) have been moving in increasing numbers into mainstream television. Among their recent successes, they have landed roles in "ER," "Saving Grace" and an as-yet-untitled ABC Family network project created by Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer of "7th Heaven."
PASW provides professional hands-on individualized training, career management and on location support for performers with developmental disabilities working in film, television and commercials. In addition, PASW works to educate the film and television industry about the importance of hiring performers with disabilities.top
For the seventh year, VSA arts and Volkswagen of America, Inc. partnered to recognize emerging visual artists with disabilities, ages 16-25. Fifteen young artists were honored out of 164 applicants who responded to this year's theme "Green Light" that invited them to consider the motivations behind their work and the infinite possibilities that creativity provides. The awardees will be receiving a total of $60,000 during a reception on Capitol Hill. Their artwork will be showcased at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, Smithsonian Institution, from September 17–January 4. VSA arts and the Kennedy Center will also pay tribute to the artists with a presentation of their work in the Hall of States from September 1–November 7.
Sara Muehlbauer, 24, of Madison, Wisconsin, received the grand prize of $20,000. She commented, "With repetition and craftsmanship I give meaning, value, and emotion to materials often overlooked, discarded, and pigeonholed by traditional use. I create beauty out of the commonplace." To learn more about the winning artists and their work visit the online exhibit at: www.vsarts.org/PreBuilt/showcase/gallery/exhibits/greenlight/top
In July, Ability Unlimited, India's first professional dance theatre made up of people with disabilities, gave a performance in New Delhi of the Bharatanatyam that has generated international recognition and awards. The Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance. It is based on the Ramayana, one of the great epics of India that tells a story of love, loyalty, heroic renunciation, fierce battles and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Members of Ability Unlimited use crutches and wheelchairs.
For more information about Ability Unlimited
VSA arts has announced that the recipient of the 2008 Playwright Discovery Award is "The Other Room" by Ariadne Baker-Dunn of Interlochen, Michigan. The play centers on a teenage character who has autism and struggles to communicate his inner thoughts and emotions. Ariadne Baker-Dunn graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and will be a freshman at Fordham University this fall, where she plans to study acting and playwriting. Ariadne hopes "The Other Room" will encourage others to reexamine their preconceptions of people with disabilities.
"The Other Room" will be produced at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, September 25, 2008. For more information go to: www.vsarts.org/x244.xmltop