From our Executive Director: Please hold your conference in person

From our Executive Director: Please hold your conference in person

Embodied connections are worth the added logistical challenges

Carla Stephenson of RAIL (Rural Arts Inclusion Lab) leads Arts BC attendees in an opening exercise.

I’ve planned my fair share of conferences; I know how stressful it can be to plan for unknowns at the best of times, let alone in this very messy phase of the pandemic. I’ve also had the pleasure of attending some very well-organized and rewarding fully digital conferences (shout-out to Magazines Canada for their last MagNet event), but I’ve just returned from the Arts BC conference in Richmond, BC, with a renewed sense of the value of in-person events.

I believe it was Elliot Hearte, Arts BC’s Director of Programs and Services, who called hosting an in-person event right now “courageous.” The requisite level of flexibility and adaption is higher than ever, yet so are the rewards. Here are three things I took away from this past weekend that could only have come from convening together in shared space.

Chance Encounters Allow You to Discover Unexpected Affinities and Shared Goals

I went into this conference wearing the hat of a regional arts funder in the Interior of BC, yet I came out having unearthed so many other layers of my connection to the arts in this province. As a dancer and former dance scholar, I was thrilled to speak with at least four individuals who are passionate about building audiences and programming for dance in diverse and rural regions. A professional dancer / choreographer and I connected about our shared love of dance research and the way that embodied practices help us to understand the world.

These ad-hoc conversations — squeezed into the gaps between formal sessions or in the lineup to grab lunch — even with colleagues who I speak with frequently by email or Zoom, have helped me to perceive my network differently. These individuals no longer exist in an abstract mental map of the sector and industry I work in; they are creative, unique and trusted colleagues that now form an embodied web of relation to one another.

Bearing Witness to Injustice is Harder and More Vital in a Live Forum

The entire nonprofit sector, including those of us in the arts, are reckoning with the roles that our organizations have in furthering racial equity, Indigenous reconciliation, and increased accessibility for a number of equity-deserving communities. Simultaneously, vital conversations about rebalancing funding to equity-led organizations, responsible community engagement and consultation, and doing the hard work of embedding principles of equity in every level of operational processes, have been mediated by a screen. It’s been all too easy to quickly check our inbox while completing digital EDI coursework or review organizational policies off the side of our desks amidst more “urgent” tasks.

Holding space in a literal way, by devoting plenary time and attention to these conversations, forces conference-goers out of the emotional stasis that can come with confronting difficult truths in social media snippets or a fleeting board meeting agenda item. During Future Visions: Considering a “Decolonized” Sector, panelists Cathi Charles Wherry, Senaqwila Wyss, Chase Gray, and Eli Hirtle (moderator), spoke generously about their experiences as Indigenous artists and cultural producers encountering friction with Euro-centric art institutions and envisioning new models for the sector. Unusually, the panel was structured with no option for questions from the audience. By removing the opportunity for audience members to center the conversation around their own experience or organizations, forcing us to simply listen and observe in a distraction-free space, remarkable potential for learning and reflection was opened up. This simple format change allowed for focused, contextual and solutions-driven conversation.

We Desperately Need to Connect and Process the Past Two (Plus) Years

There’s the painfully obvious shared experience of the past few years, but alongside the global pandemic were more localized challenges. In BC, specifically, arts organizations who had barely begun to find their footing after forced closures and delays found themselves altering operations yet again due to forest fires or flooding (or both). I appreciated the facilitation style of Nate Gerber from Voice of Purpose. Leading the session Becoming the New Imprint: Community Arts as an Incubator for the Future, he gently nudged us to acknowledge the weight of our organizational challenges over the past two years, while celebrating our resilience and adaptations to continue serving our communities.

Can you imagine casually ending an email to a colleague with: “Hey, how are you feeling after losing all sense of stability and having every assumption about your work, organization, and community needs turned on its head”? Probably not. Gathered together in one room, seated in a circle, felt like a safe and productive space to unearth not only the challenges we’ve faced recently, but also the areas of growth and learning that came out of them. Sidenote: I loved the prompt to consider what kind of “relationship event” may have emerged within the past two years. How did our organizations find themselves relating differently to our audiences or communities in the midst of major constraints? I’ll be mulling over that question as my organization enters a strategic planning process next weekend.

A necessary caveat to everything above is that ensuring alternate modes of participation where possible is also of utmost importance at this moment. If you have the capacity to successfully pull off a hybrid event, or to offer conference presentations online asynchronously after the event, please do! Due to the cost of travel, caretaking requirements at home, and ongoing health concerns (both pandemic-related and otherwise), there will always be barriers to people within your network and within your organization’s mandate to serve.

That said, every added mode of participation requires additional costs and systems of support; I applaud Arts BC for their acknowledgement that they didn’t have the resources to do hybrid well, so they are looking instead at ways to provide select conference materials digitally in the weeks to come. I may just revisit some of that material again once it’s released online, but I am so grateful that I took the time to travel and convene in-person too.

Kallee Lins is the Executive Director of the West Kootenay Regional Arts Council.