Musings on 2016 “Creative Conversations”

Click here for photos from the road

I spent a lot of time on the road in April and May hosting a series of Creative Conversations, a wonderful chance to get out on the road and experience the real Wisconsin.

Arts Wisconsin has been bringing people together through meetings on across Wisconsin for over twenty years.  Sometimes we’ve called these kind of meeting regional meetings, or creative summits, or town meetings.  We have presented them in partnership with state partners such as the Wisconsin Arts Board and Wisconsin Humanities Council, and with countless partners on the local level.

These gatherings are an important way for Arts Wisconsin to provide information about issues and ideas on the state and global levels that affect people and communities on the local level, and more importantly, to learn about issues, concerns and activities so we can better serve, advocate and develop the arts statewide.  These interactions help us in our mission to draw attention to the creative economy movement, a development that’s gaining traction throughout the state, especially in our small towns and rural areas.

Traveling throughout the state this spring – as has been the case each year – was uplifting, enlightening, inspiring and educational.  It’s the best part of my job to see what’s happening in a community, up close, to hear the stories of transformation, struggle, triumph, partnership and perseverance, and to share info, resources, ideas and inspiration.

The Creative Conversations were meant to be informal and, well, you know, conversational (insert smiley face here!).  In most places, we sat at one big table or broke up into small round tables where people could talk to each other.  The people who attended the meetings were all involved in the arts in some way, including artists, performers, administrators and educators…and, business people, tourism leaders, elected officials, economic development professionals…all people who cared about their communities’ future.

I brought along paper, colored pencils, and markers for attendees to “express themselves creatively” before, during and after their meeting.  Sometimes I asked people to create an artistic nameplate for their place at the table (a cover-up for the fact that I forgot to bring nametags with me.  It was quite a treat to see the doodles and drawings that people came up with.

I’m always learning in this job, and these are some musings from this road trip:

  • When you get people sitting around a table together, they come up with interesting ideas.
  • We are living in “interesting” times, for sure, and times that are ripe with opportunity.  Arts Wisconsin is working hard to get the attention of decision-makers on the state level – especially important during this critical election year.
  • On the local level, Wisconsin communities of all sizes are reinventing themselves through the arts. We’re now in a new economy, one based on asset based community development, creativity and entrepreneurship.  This kind of development is all about focusing on a community’s assets – human, financial, social, economic, educational – while addressing issues and challenges. It’s not a linear or quick process – there was a lot of conversation about how to get systems to change.
  • Communities that are serious about growing their creative economy support a mindset and programs that welcome a multi-cultural, diverse mix of creative people, knowing that a rich and ever-evolving mix of income levels, backgrounds, and perspectives enlivens a community
  • Access to the arts for all is a fundamental truth, since any place can really be recognized for its creativity if that creativity is available for everyone in the community. Meeting participants agreed that there must be a diversity of arts opportunities in the community so that everyone can participate in some way, not just those who can afford the price of a ticket.
  • Arts integrated into education for all students in the public schools is an important topic. Wisconsin’s  21st century education must be all about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).
  • The arts are not separate from everything else going on in a community. It’s not like only some people are artists and others are not. There’s creativity everywhere and in every person, whether they call themselves (or are called) an artist or not. Creative collaborations, imaginative processes, innovative, thinking and entrepreneurship, connecting arts/business, arts/education, arts/environment, arts/recreation, arts/food, arts/civic issues…the arts and creativity can and should be part of every project, program, organization and effort happening locally and beyond. Partnerships do take work – but community involvement and engagement is the only sustainable way to move forward.
  • Local elected officials, economic development professionals, and civic leaders are engaged partners who encourage big picture thinking and are open to new ideas and ways of doing. The involvement of those decision-makers are critical to the growth of the creative economy on the ground throughout Wisconsin.
  • There’s a need for investment in arts infrastructure in all ways. Not just in buildings, but in organizational and leadership infrastructure. Creative people are doing a lot with a little, but sufficient and ongoing human, organizational and financial resources must be available to make things happen.
  • Communities are nurturing creative places through great quality of lifethat includes a vibrant street life, arts, food, libraries, parks and other public spaces, local radio stations, museums, bikeways that everyone can enjoy.

Along the way I ate some great pie, biked across the Mississippi River, stared out at the waters of Lake Michigan, toured arts centers, galleries and theater spaces, listened to hours of interesting conversation on Wisconsin Public Radio, and stayed up too late solving the world’s problems with wonderful colleagues and friends.

Thanks to these partner organizations in this year’s conversations:

  • Big River Theatre, Alma
  • Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, Amery
  • Al. Ringling Theatre, Baraboo
  • Cedarburg Art Museum, Cedarburg
  • Cedarburg Cultural Center, Cedarburg
  • Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance,, Door County
  • Birch Creek Music Performance Center, Egg Harbor
  • Mosaic Arts and Neville Public Museum, Green Bay
  • City of La Crosse Arts Board, La Crosse
  • Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, Mineral Point
  • Racine Arts Council, Racine
  • Festival Theatre, St. Croix Falls
  • Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra and Scarabocchio Museum, Stevens Point
  • Abode Gallery and Widespot Performing Arts Center, Stockholm
  • Third Avenue Playhouse, Sturgeon Bay.

There are so many places I didn’t get to, so many photos I didn’t take.  That just means I will get back on the road soon to explore!

There’s one more “Creative Conversation” left to do, in Amery.  Looking forward to more travel and more good work around the state.

PS – Google “creative economy,” “creative industries” and “creative placemaking,” and thousands of interesting links from around the world will come up. Here are a few to check out: