The 20Under40 Interview Series, Part 4: Ann Gregg

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In the first three installments of the CFR’s chapter-by-chapter coverage of the new anthology 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, I:

engaged in a spirited dialogue with its editor, Edward P. Clapp;

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ran a Q&A with Brian Newman, author of the opening chapter, “Inventing the Future of the Arts: Seven Digital Trends That Present Challenges and Opportunities for Success in the Cultural Sector”;

and ran a Q&A with David J. McGraw, author of the second chapter, “The Epoch Model: An Arts Organization with an Expiration Date.”

Now to the fourth installment: a Q&A with Ann Gregg (pictured), who, with the aforementioned Clapp, authored the third chapter, “Structures for Change: Recommendations for Renewed Institutional Practices to Support Leadership Qualities in Young Arts Professionals.”

I find that the abstracts for each chapter provided on the 20Under40 website are helpful for a quick summary of what is being explored. For the third chapter, the abstract is, in the best sense, idealistic:

…to capitalize on the talents, skills, and unique generational perspectives of younger arts professionals, the authors make several recommendations for change in organizational practice, management, and culture. Based on findings from a 2007 pilot study investigating the current workplace experiences and future interests of young arts professionals, these recommendations include: valuing all individuals as leaders and agents of change; viewing individual leaders as instruments of greater, common purpose; fostering a polymathic approach to practice; addressing a need for omni-directional mentorship, and; investing in time for experimentation, exploration, and play.

Naturally, questions immediately arise in my mind as well. When we talk about “a polymathic approach to practice,” are we cuing the strings, reciting Byron and executing a jeté? More seriously, how prepared is the American workplace — in or out of the cultural sector — for the implementation of an essentially egalitarian spirit of management? How do we reconcile the idea of “valuing all individuals as leaders” — an ideal we can all, presumably, agree upon — with the realpolitik, if you will, of efficiencies, of corporate goals and, at bottom, of the core idea of work? It’s work. Sometimes there needs to be a boss, right?

Well, yes, of course — and nothing in the Gregg/Clapp chapter suggests the cultural sector, or any other sector, would become a performance paradise without hierarchies and chains of command. This chapter is subtler: Can we achieve efficiencies and better spirits and, most crucially, more innovation by listening more? And why is the cultural sector, in terms of its governance and daily operations and overall attitude, innovation-averse? Why does the “new” — or the contravening — frighten?

Here is Gregg’s bio:

Ann Gregg (Born 4-3-1973) has experience as a music administrator, educator, and performing artist. Ann is currently the Director of Community and Professional Programs of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Ann has also been the Director of Education with the NPR and PBS phenomenon From the Top for four years. Ann has provided interactive performances to public schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis, and in conjunction with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the Ravinia Festival. She has also taught instrumental music in the Madison, Wisconsin public schools. She is published in the American String Teacher and American Music Teacher, and has served as Managing Director and Education Specialist with the Lake Tahoe Music Festival Academy. As violist of the San Francisco based Cypress String Quartet for three years, she toured internationally, recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, and was featured on NPR’s Performance Today. Ann has participated in the Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi, the Juilliard Quartet Seminar and the Isaac Stern Chamber Music Seminar. Ann holds degrees in Music Education from the University of Wisconsin and Viola Performance from Indiana University.

If you have additional questions or comments for Gregg — or for any of the 20Under40 contributors — please feel free to leave them below or send them to me directly.

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1) You and Edward call for a “polymathic approach to practice” in creating 21st century arts and arts education leaders. With specialization as fashionable as ever, how do you propose forcing society (or the arts) to re-embrace the ideal of the Renaissance man (or woman)?
I don’t see the two ideas needing to conflict — a person can be specialized in more than one area of expertise, but even if someone is specialized in just one subject, that specialization can be infused with learning from all sorts of experiences. What’s important is not so much the “what” of the subject, but the tissue that lies beneath: the overarching themes of practice that a person instills in everything they do. I like to think that my adventures in home cooking help build my confidence in experimentation, which impacts the way I direct programs at Carnegie Hall. If I didn’t have that completely separate outlet for creativity, problem solving and practice, maybe my work would be more one-dimensional? Hard to say — I don’t plan on giving up cooking to find out!

2) Your 2007 workshop asked 20 young arts leaders to imagine themselves in 2027. Based on your observations, what are today’s young arts leaders still not grasping about the arts in 20 years? What are they getting right that we don’t fully appreciate right now?
What struck me in the workshop then, and in consequent workshops since, was how similar people’s vision of 20 years from now is to what is happening today. There’s nothing wrong with articulating a future that’s concrete and built in reality, but in a visioning exercise, you hope people go out on a limb a little. We have 3D printers, holograms and space travel now (yes, Richard Branson is experimenting here). And we live in a time that’s changing at an accelerated pace. To hear people excited about starting nonprofits that bring arts experiences into schools is good, but isn’t that what people wanted to do over 20 years ago?

Though that shocked me in the workshops, overall I think what young people “get right” is an openness to try new things. Even as I approach 40, my “try this” attitude is different than it was during my mid-20s because I have experiences that help filter choices into categories of “that will work, that won’t.” However, younger people new to experiences sometimes think of things these filters would have filtered out. I currently work with staff in their mid-20s and when there is time for them to articulate their ideas the work improves, and new solutions are found.

3) You ask why young arts professionals, when with peers, “feel free to articulate their wildest ambitions,” but “turn reticent and timid” among senior professionals. What must young arts leaders and senior professionals actually do to shift this dynamic? What is the single biggest obstacle facing each group to do this? Do they know their own challenges?
We’re working in a fast-paced world with huge pressures to find the “right answer.” Always thinking you have to do this can inhibit people, especially young people who are trying to impress, trying to move up, trying to get it right.

One practical shift to slow things down and help people express their ideas is allowing work time to brainstorm possibilities together — not always just feeling the pressure to arrive at the final answer.

Another strategy is to make sure people agree on goals, not strategies. If there’s agreement on what you’re trying to achieve, there’s more “room” for people to see that multiple strategies (whether proposed by young or old) can be implemented. It makes the work a lot more organic, collaborative and, dare I say, fun.

Ultimately, you want to put into place something that is good in any learning situation — you have to recognize diversity and recognize strengths in people and what they can contribute, whether similar or different from your own strengths. As we grow older, we can get mentally “stiff.” Keep doing that mental yoga — stay flexible.

4) You offer concrete restructuring ideas (“flatten institutional hierarchies”). Yet many senior professionals would assert they involve young professionals intimately in decision making constantly, that empowerment is ubiquitous. If this is not so, how do you know? At Carnegie Hall, which suggestions in your chapter have you put into place?
If this is true, fantastic. If our chapter checklist is an affirmation of what’s going on, great. (A reminder here: the book is not meant to be in opposition to everything currently happening, but an opportunity for “younger authors” to express their ideas.) I do wonder, though, if young people are really included in decision-making on a strategic level, or if, because of being part of small organizations where everyone has 101 responsibilities, they’re in a constant state of decision-making as “doing.” I think there is a difference here. Going back to what I said in question 1, it’s important to know the “why” things are in place as much as executing the “what.” This difference can also trigger turnover and burn out, two things often experienced with young staff.

How do you know if it’s not happening? High turnover and burnout might be two signs. Another test would be asking young staff (especially in larger organizations) to articulate answers to strategic questions and see how well they do:

  1. How does current programming support the organization’s mission?
  2. What role does the organization play in the context of the community or the field?

If there aren’t good answers, you’ll know people have not internalized or processed the important questions that lead to strategic decision-making, and they haven’t been included in this process.

I’m lucky to work in an environment with very thoughtful colleagues, and reflecting on my experience at Carnegie Hall led to a lot of the suggestions in the chapter. But if you want specifics, I feel pretty good about how we incorporate 1, 2 and 3, and struggle to find new ways to incorporate 9 and 10. There’s only so much time in a day…

5) Another restructuring idea is to “look outside the arts” for models. Which industries and specific companies exemplify for you most fully the ideas in your chapter? What is holding back the flow of information between the arts and these industries/companies?

Ah, there it is: number 9. (Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…) I don’t know about others, but I have a hard time keeping up with what’s going on in arts education, let alone what’s going on in other fields. Which is why I wish we had more help! Think of the way our world is organized: by subject, not theme. The New York Times has an arts section and a technology section, but not an innovation section with best practices in arts and technology. Our granting system, our professional associations and conferences are all set up similarly. (I’ve always wondered what goes on at a math education conference!)

Technology can be helpful here: Google tags, Twitter feeds (btw, my husband follows you on Twitter — he’s a futurist!) and other aggregate technologies help synthesize information. I only wish our professional worlds helped do the same.

Bonus question:

6) What is the role of academia in creating new structures for the arts and arts education? Could you name one university you feel is most spearheading the effort, and one you feel ought to be leading the effort but is currently not doing so?
Ah! A bonus question — and a hard one at that. The question of what academia should do for the arts is to know what academia should do for any area of study. “Academia” literally translates to mean “theoretical, not practical, not leading to a decision.” So the goal of academia should be to blow things out of the water, expand one’s thoughts! If we get so narrow that we’re “preparing for a career,” then there’s a missed opportunity to explore new things.

I think universities should make sure that the collegiate “bubble” does not limit connections made to what’s happening at other universities — I went to school in the Midwest and had no idea what was happening in schools on the east or west coasts — what’s happening in the professional world (what I loved about writing the chapter with Edward was that we were combining ideas from research and practice), and what’s innovative in other fields.

I don’t know enough about any school to say who’s doing this well or who should be. Creating bridges through true academic “theoretical exploration” is dependent on every school connecting to each other and the world. It is not something just one school can spearhead. It is a value system that all schools need to adopt together.

  • Huh. I enjoyed the interview. Interesting topic. Music education and all… it really is a changing world. A world changing a lot faster than it ever has before, I think, and I think the way we go about educating our children is going to have to change along with it. Things like music and the other arts in general need to become more accessible to learn about from a young age. It’s something kids really don’t learn. Many times it seems they’re forced to sit through years of classes that bore them and will be of no use to them in their future career of say music.

  • Ann

    Thanks for this comment Caleb, and I agree with you. One of the discussions in music education and other art forms stems back to the age old question, “What constitutes art?” as there are more and more technological opportunities to explore new ways of creating and designing things. If you play Guitar Hero, is that helping you have an arts experience? Will it make you want to play an acoustic guitar more or less? Which is better- painting a portrait or digitally manipulating a photo through a computer program? The arts field is having a hard time grappling with these choices at a time when we should probably be embracing more of them instead of trying to decide how they replace or don’t replace older art forms.

    Your other point about boredom also opens an opportunity to engage kids with things they know= as a way of setting a safe foundation to explore things they don’t know. And, it points to the silos in our education system. The people developing textbooks make some decisions about what kids learn, teachers make others, and school systems make even another set of rules and decisions, but rarely do those people come together to make decisions informed by each other. So people play it safe and make general choices that leave kids bored. It reminds me of a recent movie I saw with Meryl Streep…It’s Complicated.