Magazine article American Theatre

A Dream Team of Disciplines Can NPAC's Ambitious Agenda for Action Make a Difference? That All Depends on a Less-Than-Perfect Union of Performing Arts Constituencies

Magazine article American Theatre

A Dream Team of Disciplines Can NPAC's Ambitious Agenda for Action Make a Difference? That All Depends on a Less-Than-Perfect Union of Performing Arts Constituencies

Article excerpt

Politics is about concentrating power ... and art is about dispersing it.

--multidisciplinary artist Paul Chan, quoted by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker

ART WAS ITS OSTENSIBLE SUBJECT, but this summer's giant National Performing Arts Convention in Denver wasn't really an arts meeting. Some actual art stopped by to visit, but it was subsumed, inevitably and immediately, into a web of conversations and agendas constructed for action, not contemplation. For all the talk among NPAC's more than 3,500 diverse delegates about artistry and creativity, what these conventioneers mainly had on their minds was politics.


In that sense, the landmark June 10-14 amalgam of performance disciplines--theatre, dance, music, opera--was a fitting precursor to the Democratic National Convention, which was due to invade the Mile High City's downtown grid of skyscrapers and cultural palaces some two months after the teeming NPAC arts contingent took its leave.

It could even be argued that the arts folks had a broader and deeper view of what "politics" means than would delegates to the DNC, whose mission in Denver would be little more than giving the final stage of Barack Obama's presidential campaign a slam-bang media kickoff. In arts circles, the word has all sorts of human and social dimensions ("politics: the total complex of relations ... between people living in a society," posits the fifth definition in Webster's).

To be sure, the kaleidoscopic array of speakers and presenters appearing under NPAC's umbrella, and the themes they dealt with--the support and nurturing of artists, the crisis in arts education, the vagaries of public arts policy, broadening community participation, environmental and organizational sustainability, the mechanics of diversity--touched upon so many crucial aspects of American life that the political implications of the gathering seemed to proliferate far beyond the constraints of electoral decision-making.

Democracy, appropriately, was NPAC's modus operandi. A series of daily caucuses, in which the citizen-engagement group America-Speaks blended participants of different stripes into 10-at-a-table discussion groups, climaxed in a concluding all-conference "town meeting" at which delegates voted electronically to set priorities for a forward-looking agenda (visit and select "Rock the Vote") designed, in the words of NPAC co-chair Ann Meier Baker of the service organization Chorus America, to "activate the performing arts community in America."


Does a performing arts community as such actually exist? Baker and the leaders of the other four national service organizations that served as primary planners and hosts for NPAC--Theatre Communications Group, OPERA America, the League of American Orchestras and Dance/USA, each of which staged simultaneous sub-conferences of their own--were working in Denver to coalesce the varied live-performance disciplines they represent into an arts super-group. As an advocacy apparatus, it could wield increased power and influence as well as encourage such developments as cross-discipline collaborations, new strategies for audience development and diversification, innovations in training and technology, and so on. To that end, "Taking Action Together" was NPAC's overarching title, and some 26 additional arts outfits (see "Calling the Roll," page 44) were signed on as convention partners.

How effective this nascent super-group will be remains to be seen. But both NPAC--building on a rudimentary agenda set at a smaller, less integrated 2004 meeting in Pittsburgh, where the arts disciplines convened separately then joined forces on the final day--and TCG, in its separate conference programming, showed indisputable savvy in their choice of big thinkers to grease the wheels of collective action.

Leading the pack was business-management guru Jim Collins, the Boulder-based author of the best-seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . …

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