As a public health researcher and teacher you might ask why I decided to register as a virtual participant in ArtsFwd the first National Innovation Summit for Arts and Culture - an invitation only meeting of innovators from US arts and cultural institutions? What could this have to do with public health and wouldn't the discussion be too specialised to learn any lessons?
As I have written recently (on this blog) I have been pursuing a hunch that public health innovators might learn a great deal from artists since arts practice is inherently creative and frequently innovative. It was via this interest that I happened upon ArtsFwd and discovered I could register as a virtual participant at a meeting that at the very least sounded like it might be interesting if not immediately useful. What a wonderful and serendipitous discovery! The Virtual Summit was both immensely useful and unexpectedly inspiring.
While I'm giving out the bouquets, I must also congratulate the producers of the virtual summit who made the experience of participating virtually so rewarding. Just when I wanted to see what the speaker was talking about the camera would pan so the slides were visible or zoom in so that the whole slide could be seen clearly. I suppose I should have expected creative and presenting organisations to be able to do this really well, but this has really raised my expectations of what a conference could be. Perhaps it about paying attention to what things look like because it does matter and it does make a difference to the experience (I will try to remember this when teaching my first year undergraduates in public health!)
Each of the virtual conference sessions was followed by a "fishbowl" discussion (which I have not seen before) where the audience including the speakers were invited to take one of 5 seats on the stage and, after some little prompting and a bit of patience from conference host Richard Demato (didn't he do a great job?) a reliably interesting and often wide ranging discussion would occur. In a fishbowl no one voice is privileged and the audience and speakers have equal standing. One seat must always remain vacant so that anyone who wants to join the conversation can find a place at the table (so in practice if someone is waiting to join, someone on the stage yields their place). Richard's role was to relay the virtual conversation happening simultaneously via twitter. Again, sitting on the bus (or sneaking peaks from my office) it was even more mind blowing to see my own tweets being relayed to the fishbowl, so as well as being part of a twitter conversation with people across the world (twitter is so amazing!) I was actually taking part in the conference itself.
So what did I learn? For me the motivation to attend was to try to begin to develop an understanding of where the cutting edge of arts and culture practice (seen through the lens of arts organisations) might be at. As an outsider I wanted to get a feel for what issues are important to this sector, what are the hot button topics, and where might collaboration with others from outside the sector fit? I also hoped to absorb some of the language and ways of being so that I can start to build some networks for a program of research which broadly speaking will investigate the idea of health promotion using cultural institutions as a setting. So I was looking for ideas that could be adapted, or examples of this already happening, or at least a feeling that the possibility was worth pursuing.
So the first thing I learned is that it would absolutely be possible to use cultural institutions as a setting for promoting health and wellbeing and indeed it is already happening, no doubt all over the place, although the people doing this might not call what they are doing health promotion. One thing that really struck me was the obvious tension for arts organisation between their core business or mission and the idea that the work is providing a social good. There was understandable resistance to the idea that arts organisations should be charged with trying to help solve society's problems rather than get on with the business of making art. As health can often be guilty of co-opting other's agendas to help deliver its aims this was an important lesson for me. But as I tweeted at the time "artists shouldn't be charged with changing the world - OK, but recognise the power to do so - maybe work with others to activate that power?" It seems to me there might be real possibilities for mobilising the power of art to connect with the humanity of people to improve their health - something that is actively pursued already by the arts in health movement (though my interest is in health promotion and wellbeing rather than treatment per se).
Creativity is like the wind or sun - it is a natural resource that every neighbourhood has access to
And finally (before this blog post turns into a thesis), I was impressed by the level of self-critical reflection and discussion that occurred at ArtsFwd. Presenters were often refreshingly honest about their mistakes and failures - willingness to risk failure seemingly being a necessary part of successful arts practice and broadly of innovators - even when these stories involved whole institutions and very large amounts of money. The fishbowl discussions were often robust and very willing to explore what could be done better. However, looking in from the outside, as I was, I saw a great deal that seemed to be going right and a willingness to embrace change and respond creatively to challenges. Lack of funding is a problem that public health shares with the arts (health promotion and prevention often being the first place where funds are cut if health budgets are tight). So it was inspiring to hear that many of the innovative things that had occurred in the organisations present at ArtsFwd had been in response to the challenges caused by the global financial crisis and recession that followed.
Perhaps this is a climate that is ripe for some creative collaborations and partnerships? As Susie Medak put it in her talk: the person who is willing to put themselves out there with a new idea has gained heightened value. I am going to take this to heart!