Category Archives: conference

Taking steps to understand digital potential in the performing arts

CaptureAt the CAPACOA conference in Halifax this past January, attendee feedback suggested that I made a compelling case for Breaking the Fifth Wall: Digitizing the Performing Arts. Indeed, attendees were buzzing with the challenges and opportunities presented. Others who have watched the presentation online have asked me how they can get involved. You can watch my talk here on video. In it, I weave together a case for sector-leadership and sector-ownership in developing a future digital platform. I am most excited about digitization beyond the 2-D screens we have today. In particular, I believe a future-oriented perspective requires us to contemplate live-streaming/streaming 3-D renderings; holographic and or virtual reality convergence in technologies. Things most of us have never seen but enabling technology solutions are advancing rapidly.digitalPost

In this talk I offered a brief context of digital transformation in the last 20 years, an overview of experiments in digital performing arts presentation from around the world, a perspective on what it take to transform the challenging economic model that persists in live performing arts for the presenting field in particular, and a call to action.

At the upcoming CAPACOA national conference in Ottawa from November 25 to 28 I hope to turn that buzz into tangible action: Together with CAPACOA, we invite you talk about the next steps we as a sector want to take to drive this discussion forward and explore opportunities of digital distribution at scale in Canada and beyond. Can we establish a working group to spearhead conversations and build sector leadership on this central issue? Who wants to be and needs to get involved?

I am looking forward to facilitating this conversation on November 26  at 8 am.

Building community together: Northern Exposure arts conference

The Wells Hotel

The Wells Hotel

I spent Thanksgiving in the Cariboo town of Wells, BC (population 259) at the Northern Exposure conference.

Here are my reflections on what we did, how we did it and what it enabled; in so doing I hope to draw the curtain back a little on effective design thinking-inspired meetings that help people move to the next level – whatever that is for them.

Putting the team together

Island Mountain Arts‘ ambitious conference attracted about 75 festival organizers, arts organization staff and volunteers and musicians from BC’s northern and southern interior, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and the Yukon.

Island Mountain Arts (IMA – named after a local mountain, called Island) has been operating its renowned Summer School of Art since 1977 and over the years has expanded with a Public Art Gallery and Gift Shop, an International Harp School, the Toni Onley Artists’ Project and the award winning ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art.

Julie Fowler, Executive Director of IMA, invited me to facilitate this conference, based on my previous work with SPARC – Supporting Performing Arts in Rural Communities and the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. And she recruited co-presenters and panelists from across B.C. to ensure a wide range of perspectives.

A common purpose: creating community

Speaking with Julie, we quickly established a common purpose: to build up a better networked rural festival and arts community.

My approach as facilitator and presenter was focused on creating spaces for participants to get to know each other, share knowledge and know-how, and encourage collaborative learning and action planning. Julie and her wonderful team took care of conference logistics, meals and showcases  – 16 in total – at the local Sunset Theatre and the Wells Hotel. She arranged two sessions tailored for musicians.

The conference also had its share of great food by chef Sharon and the kitchen crew and a fine assortment of beverages at showcase and reception venues. Being in a small place, the conference moved as a whole from breakfast at the Wells Hotel to the Wells Community Hall for conference sessions, back up the street for lunch and showcases and then back for more learning. We shared dinner and conversations and then went off to the Sunset Theatre for showcases. A late evening snack invariably appeared at the Pub to maintain the stamina of musicians and participants alike.

I feel that having participants move together in this way, sharing meals and conversations in ever changing configurations, made for closer connections and more meaningful, relevant learning.

Pre-conference professional development

Participants discuss marketing

Participants during the audience development session.

The pre-conference professional development day on audience development was attended by most of the conference participants. I delivered a well-honed workshop; modified as usual to suit the rural context. This session was highly interactive, with lots of conversation by all participants and practical learning. This was followed by a full slate of 15-minute 1-on-1 sessions with me. The nine participants brought a wide range of marketing and organizational questions to these intensive conversations.

At the same time, Emma Jarrett, a performance coach, conducted a fantastic hands-on workshop for musicians and anyone else interested in honing their presentation skills.

Creating an open learning environment

I borrowed a networking exercise from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit (Let’s Get Connected) which in turn the Yukon organizers had modified from SPARC. The four topics were:
•    who you are and what you do
•    your hopes and dreams
•    what you’re seeking
•    what you have to offer


During the Let’s Get Connected process, participants had four 10-minute segments for reflection and conversation at tables of 6 each. A quick way to meet 20+ participants in an hour.

All participants had their picture taken at registration. They recorded the information on their print outs and then discussed it with their group. Every 10 minutes a room full of participants stood up and found a new table of six to move to the next topic. It’s an amazing free-flowing choreography.

With the sheets we created a Living Wall that served as a reminder of the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience each and every participant brought to this conference.

It was a powerful beginning that I feel set the tone for a true working conference: Participants heard their own voices from the start; felt valued as experienced organizers; and they became collaborators in co-creating our conference.

After a short coffee jaunt up to the hotel, I gave a well-received keynote on Co-creating a Culture of Place, in which I made the case, as I have at other conferences, for Vibrant communities fueled by the arts and its community-engaged partnerships. Much of the data in that keynote comes from The Value of Presenting study. This study continues to deepen the conversations about arts presenters and their role and impact in their communities.

After lunch, I had the pleasure of working with Janet Rogers – a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer and broadcaster from the Six Nations in southern Ontario, who was born in Vancouver and has been living on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people (Victoria, BC) since 1994 –  to share information and lead a conversation on Cultural Tourism.  I provided context and laid out a cultural tourism landscape. Janet led a conversation on how to access indigenous artists for festivals and events, and encouraged making the necessary contacts early in the event planning process. She proposed that in so doing we could move from the acknowledgement of traditional lands into meaningful inclusion and full participation by indigenous and non-indigenous artists. After all, Aboriginal tourism is seen as a key aspect of expanding Canada’s and BC’s cultural tourism potential.

I felt this was an important and open conversation about an area many of us want to get right but also feel some insecurity about. These protocols are new to most event organizers. What excites me is that meaningful change can happen through our individual decisions and actions, by getting to know each other and speaking openly and respectfully to each other. We don’t have to wait until everything is figured out in the big picture.

Living Wall

A small selection of our Living Wall.

Concurrently, Music BC presented a session for musicians on all of the sources of revenue available to them for their work.

I moved the programmed afternoon networking round tables outside to a walking conversation – thankfully the rain held off and the winds had died down.

Sharing stories and action planning

On the last day of the conference we were in Barkerville.

The morning featured five inspiring stories presented by Julie Fowler, ArtsWells Festival/Island Mountain Arts; Carla Stephenson, Tiny Lights Festival; Karen Jeffery, Sunset Theatre; Deb Beaton Smith, Rifflandia; and Miriam Schilling, Xatśūll Heritage Village, Soda Creek.

The panelists – participants conversation drew the curtain back a little on how to build success, how to sustain arts in small communities and the kind of perseverance, experimentation and serendipity it takes. Everyone was eager to share their experiences and it felt like the perfect transition to move toward action planning.

But first I led a practical workshop on integrated online marketing with Fraser Hayes‘ able assistance. Fraser is the station manager of CFUR Radio in Prince George; a community radio station that has built a substantial integrated online footprint to complement its broadcasts. More insights and specific action items tumbled forth and then we were ready for lunch, a walk about this amazing restored gold rush town and the final two showcases.

The conference concluded with action planning.  First I asked everyone to write down key take-aways from the conference, their next action steps and desired short and long-term results. The process requires participants to write the information out twice: one copy to take home and the second copy to be shared with participants. In this way we hope to facilitate network building. (I borrowed this format in condensed form from the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit which was facilitated by Jerry Yoshitomi.) Writing this down twice gives more time to reflect and form greater commitment to taking actions. This exercise moved seamlessly into a robust conversation around participant-identified topics. We collapsed about 10 (!) suggested topics into three broad areas: programming, operations and youth. Participants quickly gravitated toward their topic and a number of specific ideas for collaborations and resource sharing were brought forward.

Finally, in closing, we ended as we began: with participants having the last word through sharing highlights from their own action plans.

It seemed everyone felt confident that this conference was not merely the culmination of a long-standing dream, but that it would be the catalyst to move forward with closer ties between participants and their organizations from all over rural BC.

While the conference concluded officially, conversations continued into the night as some participants stayed for Thanksgiving dinner and more pub time.

More than a week after leaving Wells, these days continue to reverberate in me. I am grateful for the new connections, the new friends I made and for being part of this special community of festival and arts organizers.

SPARC – Supporting performing arts in rural communities

The successful SPARC – Symposium for Performing Arts in Rural Communities held in Haliburton, Ontario in April 2014 led to the desire to establish a network of people and organizations to strengthen performing arts in rural communities. The resulting SPARC Network Summit was held in November 2014.

To meet the Steering Committee’s ambitious goals its members focused on creating the conditions in which all participants could explore, discover and define the next action steps in creating a new kind of network.

1. The co-facilitators

SPARC engaged two expert facilitators:

  • Myself, because I know the performing arts nationally, I spoke at the first SPARC Symposium and am well-versed in design and delivery of complex facilitation requirements.
  • Jim Blake, an experienced facilitator, artist and community development consultant who has been involved in SPARC since its inception as a member of its Steering Committee.

2. Pre-summit package

We developed a pre-summit package for participants that provided a short history of SPARC and its proposed vision. I contributed a concise historic overview of performing arts in Canada; an overview of existing networks in the performing arts, their typical services and activities ;and information about four major organizational models and online platforms. SPARC shared results from two surveys related to forming a rural network and its potential activities. To help participants prepare, we shared key questions for the Summit. (Download the package here: PRESUMMIT PACKAGE_Oct28)

3. Active recruitment of participants

Recruitment communications made clear that participants would be prepared to think about all the facets of creating a network, from the big picture needs to operational priorities. Happily, most of the about 25 Summit participants had attended the Symposium and carried over the great energy from that content-rich 4-day conversation into this Network Summit.

4. Designing the Summit

Emma Lovell was the Summit's graphic recorder.

Emma Lovell was the Summit’s graphic recorder.

Jim and I designed these two and a half days of conversations using a design thinking approach that opened opportunities for exploration and creativity, analysis and synthesis, convergent and divergent thinking. There was no pre-defined destination, no right answers, but rather a general goal – strengthening the performing arts in rural communities – and deliberative processes that ensured all participants had a voice and used it.

Friday evening was devoted to rekindling connections from the April Symposium and introducing those who were new to SPARC through conversation and sharing food.

Saturday was devoted to exploration: The facilitators led participants through a series of working sessions designed to explore important questions about issues participants faced that held them back in realizing their visions in their work, what kinds of gaps currently existed, what SPARC as a network might do in response, how it might operate, who it would be for, how the network could be activated as a valued resource, what participants could contribute to a rural network and what they needed from it.SPARC Graphic recording

Through a series of structured and unstructured work in pairs and small groups participants explored, discussed and debated these questions and arrived at identifying existing gaps and key opportunities for SPARC moving forward.

This was followed by dinner conversations and sleep. Well, some also had a great time at a Harry Manx concert.

Sunday was devoted to decision-making and next steps: The co-facilitators presented outcomes from Saturday’s exploratory work for validation and feedback. Through plenary conversation and another round of small group discussion, participants came to agreement on several key decisions to move the SPARC network forward.

5. Outcomes

There was consensus to:20141116_111854

  • adopt a focused range of activities that fill existing gaps in a rural context and is centred on a well-curated online information portal and interactive tools to connect people
  • convene three working groups: 1. Online Communications; 2. Outreach and Partnerships; 3. next SPARC Symposium

Organizationally, the consensus was to:

  • keep SPARC agile, open and responsive by keeping its current structure as a collaborative partnership and build out its foundations through expanding partnerships. As a collaborative SPARC does not exist as a separate legal entity, but rather uses its partners to provide the requisite financial management, office space and infrastructure, knowledge and people.
  • keep the Network’s focus on Ontario, while sharing developments with other rural regions/networks with the intention that SPARC could become a model for a  national rural network to connect hubs across Canada.

Current implementation activities include:

  • finalizing terms of reference for the working groups
  • presenting a session at the Canadian Arts Presenting Association’s (CAPACOA) national conference in Halifax in January 2015.
  • publishing an interactive report of outcomes using the various modes of recording the proceedings (video, a graphic recorder, many flip charts and worksheets) in early 2015.
  • investigating funding for a series of regional working sessions/consultations across rural Ontario in 2015-2016.

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.


The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

Power of the People: Yukon Arts Summit makes change

Over 100 performing and visual arts presenters from across Yukon gathered during four days in November to develop concrete action plans for a strong, unified arts sector. The summit was designed to create a space where all participants would shape the outcomes – at once encouraging collaboration and inviting each person’s leadership. It was remarkable to be a witness – and contributor – to this process.

The energy in the room was unlike anything I have ever experienced.  The work that got done, the plans that were committed to, will transform the way the Yukon arts and cultural communities work with each other, and present themselves to their stakeholders, the rest of Canada and beyond. People here not only dream big, they make big things happen. It seems they can’t help it; it is in their nature.

The summit outcomes will prove their transformative power over the next weeks, months and years.

Yukon Arts Presenters Summit

Breakout sessions brought people together to reflect and to pollinate new thinking.

Several key elements came together to create a summit like no other I have ever seen:

  • An attitude that set out to “Help the Best get Better” and that delivered. Indeed the best had gathered together at this summit: 100% of First Nations Cultural Centres attended, as well as 86% of the First Nations in the Yukon, and the same proportion of all the communities across the territory. All participants had a voice and used it, shared experiences, told stories and offered new thinking that could create significant change. Both performing and visual arts were actively included, and many artistic disciplines within these were well-represented. Presenters, producers, practicing artists, funders, board members and consultants all worked together throughout. Just imagine such a truly inclusive gathering of active, ready-to-work participants in BC, Ontario or the Maritimes!
  • Action-oriented summit design. There were only 5 presentations/ workshops during the summit: place-based cultural tourism, collaboration, network development, marketing and funding. Each was followed by three local responders, rather than the often used Q&A format, who reflected briefly on each presentation (what resonated, what didn’t and action items) , followed by professionally facilitated breakout sessions designed to connect, reflect and plan.
  • Deliberate creation of spaces for reflection, and spaces for action planning. This was ingenious. The summit organizers invited participants along this journey, always stretching themselves along the way, and by day 4, the work had been done to achieve agreement on several major community-led initiatives: to establish a collaborative network of presenters, create a touring network, establish a network for First Nations Cultural Centres; and to put the arts and cultural sector into the driver seat in terms of their contribution to Yukon tourism.

As an outside expert I was asked to participate in the whole conference. For me that meant there was a great deal of casual, hallway type conversation about anything that was on participants’ minds, mixed with formal opportunities to meet whether in a MatchUp program or over dinner. As a result I formed much deeper, richer connections with carefully thinking, smart people from all parts of Yukon, who were exploring how to use their understanding, new information and leadership for their communities’ benefit and the greater good. Listening and asking good questions can be much more powerful than speaking or telling.

My hope is that this new kind of close-knit, yet open network, grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments for specific actions, will become a beacon for established and new networks elsewhere.


Igniting a SPARC in Haliburton

I was invited to speak at the SPARC Symposium in Haliburton, Ontario this spring. The organizers had a clear vision for this symposium: to bring people working in all parts of the rural arts eco-system together to explore opportunities and challenges, collaborate across communities and open new doors for exchange, resource sharing and a new kind of network focused on meeting the needs of broad rural arts communities.

With that I sought to create an opening keynote that would help establish the conversation using stories and, yes, conversation. My key messages revolved around the ideas of “where there is a will, there is a way”, and a vision of “building vibrant communities fueled by the performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships” and my proposal to consider “public engagement through the arts” where arts are a means to an ends, rather than the end in itself. I told some stories based on my recent work with a focus on small, rural and remote places across Canada to give substance to these ideas through examples. I shared some data from The Value of Presenting study that shows just how much arts presenting organizations in rural and remote communities are leading the way in community-engaged practices.

The conversation and contributions by participants throughout the talk helped set the stage for a fully engaged, working symposium. I loved the energy, the thinking, the sparks that were flying over these four days in Haliburton.

I was also thrilled to see representatives of several regional presenting networks that I have been working with over the last few years at SPARC; there is much space for collaboration, strengthening connections and learning.

SPARC organizers have turned this and all the other amazing working sessions into a unique interactive online magazine. (Sticks and Stones Productions) You can also access my keynote directly on Vimeo. (The other keynotes and videos from the conference are also available there or through the online magazine.)

Finally, my presentation slides are posted on the CAPACOA site for download .

Over the summer SPARC has turned its attention to developing a follow-up conference this fall with the aim to constitute a rural arts network. If you are interested in these ideas, check out their web presence (web, Facebook, Twitter) and get on the e-news list.