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The arts sector here needs fresh ideas to thrive

Rochester has extensive cultural assets that enhance the quality of life for residents, attract tourists and transplants, and have a significant economic impact on the region.

Although there is some agreement on the importance of the arts and cultural sector and excitement about the work it produces, little is being done as a community to promote innovation and address its systemic issues. Nor have we adequately leveraged the cultural sector’s capacity to work strategically and collaboratively with other sectors to develop a more vibrant community.

The arts and cultural sector requires R&D and then must retool to meet the structural, operational and market challenges it faces in the 21st century.

More must be done to invest in the success of the non-profit cultural community, but the field can’t ignore the earnest frustration expressed by many donors, funders and board members who say that they give and give and nothing changes. A complementary frustration is experienced by many artists and administrators who, though they work long hours and are committed to quality and success, continue to tread water or lose ground. These are sector-wide issues, which require sector-wide solutions with input from the broadest possible representation of community stakeholders.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As we seek to strengthen the arts and cultural sector, we must change the context of the conversations we have in and about the field.

To explore some of these concerns, I started working to promote dialogue, which included the launch of a series of symposiums that confront several topics critical to growing the relevance and sustainability of the arts and cultural sector in Greater Rochester. By design, these inclusive and interactive forums instigate discussion and may stimulate other actions that I believe will begin to shift the kinds of conversations we have across the community.

The first symposium, Diversity in the Arts: A Call to Action in ROC, was held July 24, 2014, at Rochester Institute of Technology. More than 100 people attended, representing the spectrum of Rochester’s arts community. The leading organizations all were represented, many by their senior leaders and board members. The next five symposiums will focus on entrepreneurship, financing, education, building meaningful community relationships and tourism. The year of strategically curated conversations will conclude with the two-day Culminating Symposium: A Year of Exploration.

Although the focus of each symposium is discrete, all six topics have play in the state of the field and are inherently related. At the Diversity in the Arts symposium, for instance, speakers and attendees explored how disparities in the availability of funding, professional training and arts education affect the poor and communities of color and thus their participation in the arts.

The upcoming Entrepreneurship in the Arts: A Call to Action in ROC symposium will be held Jan. 14 at the Sibley Building. It will speak to the imperative for the arts and cultural sector to become more entrepreneurial and explore how arts organizations can work more effectively and intentionally with other business sectors, most notably real estate developers, to build a more vital community.

As I shared my vision for the symposiums, I was asked by one potential collaborator to explicitly state how this initiative—produced by my business, 21st Century Arts—will lead to transformation. I replied that before we can identify how to transform, we need a common understanding of the questions that must be addressed, the challenges we face and our opportunities for success. These symposiums are a beginning, and they provide a valuable foundation and relevant data to inform a longer-term and more structured process.

In our community, there is a strong desire to do something to strengthen Rochester’s arts sector. Less clear is what that something is. Let’s get together, talk and identify a common vision and objectives. Then we can begin transforming the arts and cultural sector so it is better equipped to help give rise to a more vital future for our community.

Rachel DeGuzman is president and CEO of 21st Century Arts, an arts consulting business. Attendance at the next symposium, Entrepreneurship in the Arts: A Call to Action in ROC, on Jan. 14 is free. Register at 21stcenturyarts.net.

1/9/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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