Back to the future 

Idaho Commission on the Arts looks forward after a year of many changes

Michelangelo completed David, said to be the most famous statue in the world, in 1504 after more than three years of work. The piece is hailed as one of his greatest works; however, it was actually begun some 35 years earlier by Donatello's assistant, who did some preliminary roughing out of the figure before abandoning the marble when Donatello died.

Today, David stands in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy, as it has for the last 135 years, attracting admirers who, hopefully, extract some semblance of the emotion the work embodies. Carved from Carrara marble, David depicts a powerful moment either prior to or immediately after the Biblical David's battle with Goliath. Regardless of its place in time, in stone, David is undoubtedly intense, with his eyes focused, his veins visible and his stance defiant, and yet he's also quite at ease. The statue is literally a physical manifestation of that which exists in the realm of the abstract, and its completion was a collaborative effort.

But this isn't a story about a statue or about masters of the Italian Renaissance. Rather it's a story about the state organization officially charged with the support and development of the arts in Idaho. Equating that organization, the Idaho Commission on the Arts, to Michelangelo is a grandiose analogy; however, on some very basic, organic level, the two have parallels.

The last year has brought major internal change to ICA, and in recent months, the commission has done some fishing in the ether, seeking to reel in the beast of collective opinion about its past performance and synthesize those notions into a concrete plan for the organization's future. And for the new executive director of ICA, Michael Faison, it's a process that builds on the work begun by his predecessor.

Faison arrived in Boise from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts last July to fill the executive director's position, which had been left vacant following the death of director Dan Harpole in December 2006. Faison went to work on the last day of the organization's fiscal year, saying at the time that after a tough year for ICA, it was symbolic and important for new leadership to be in place by year's end.

The task that lay before Faison was immense. In the six years Harpole headed up ICA, he'd taken the commission to a level where it was not only operating effectively, but was also receiving attention beyond Idaho.

"Nationally, we watched him arrive here and watched Idaho go from a somewhat problematic place in arts policy to a very functional one," says Faison. "He had a good personal and professional reputation, and he very quickly rose to the board of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. In fact, he became president of the board. That's how effective he was, and how well regarded he was."

In 2005, Harpole was able to lure the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies to Boise for its annual conference, which, Faison says, cemented Boise's improving arts reputation. Harpole received an official nod for a job well-done from the National Endowment of the Arts when he was notified that he would receive the endowment's Chairman's Medal for his service to the arts, just weeks before his death.

Part of Harpole's success in Boise was the result of a meticulously crafted five-year plan he put in place to take the organization from its fiscal year 2003 until the end of fiscal year 2007. A new five-year plan would have been formulated to take effect following the conclusion of the first plan were it not for Harpole's illness and subsequent death.

Once Faison was in place, he began looking toward the commission's next five years.

"Everything that's been worked on from the last plan that's measurable has been pretty effectively dealt with," says Faison. "But that was that plan. The next step is to see where it can go from there. Yes, the last plan has been going well, it's concluding well, but it's not enough, and it needs to be further developed."

From September to November 2007, Faison and members of ICA's staff traveled throughout Idaho, holding regional planning meetings in a total of 12 locations, each of which represented a different geographical and cultural aspect of the state. ICA developed four focus questions, engaged two facilitators from Boise State's Public Policy Institute, publicized the events as widely as possible in each of their destinations, and then hit the road to find out what Idahoans thought about the arts and the commission set up to promote those arts in the Gem State.

"My hunch is that Dan probably engaged in this when he first arrived, but we did it a little different than it frequently is done," says Faison.

Rather than host a town hall meeting or solicit a focus group, Faison says his intention was to create a discussion setting in which participants were not just talking, but responding to very specific questions.

"Through that process, you find out not only what people's values are but what they specifically need from you. And then, in the context of their values, you understand what those statements of need are. They're doing all the talking, and all you're doing is facilitating their discussion," he says.

The first question ICA posed to its constituents was, "What do you value most about living in Idaho?" From an arts perspective—and judging by the responses—it seems a curious starting point for an arts organization hoping to flush out its faults in the eyes of the masses.

"This question was very general," admits Faison. "And the answers may not have anything to do with the arts. That's OK. What we wanted to know was what do they love about life here? In asking that, we get a broad sense of where their values lie."

Many of the respondents proffered answers that didn't have much to do with arts. Sense of community and regional identity, the environment, affordability and ease of transportation were among the most popular answers. While at a glance, the answers seem irrelevant to an arts commission, for Faison, they provided a window through which he could begin to understand the foundation of belief on which Idahoans predicate their opinions about art, and ultimately, the art commission.

Question two was slightly more arts-pointed: "What roles might creativity play in Idaho's future?" Answers ranged from aesthetic goals like preservation and beautification to more surprising answers like fostering diversity and aiding in community planning.

"Creativity means many things. It also means things that are not about art. People work in creative industries of all kinds, and some use creativity to solve larger issues and are not bound by old ways of solving an issue—whether it's transportation or health or architecture," says Faison.

The economy even cropped up in a number of answers related to how creativity could play a role in Idaho's future.

"Creativity helps with tourism and aids in the economy just on practical terms. Like the Saturday market here in Boise or the annual Art in the Park. Those are very specific, practical market examples of people making money or spending money. And that money goes into a proprietor's hands, it doesn't go into a corporation based out of the Bahamas. It actually goes into a creative individual's hands," says Faison.

He doesn't cringe when questions about creativity morph into the economy, political issues or even city-planning ideals. Faison cites Garden City's current regeneration as the result of creativity. It's what detractors may snub as bohemian naivete or simply write off as practical gentrification, but Faison sees it slightly different.

"Garden City is one place where young creatives are looking because it's affordable and there are physical places—buildings and houses and such—that have been sitting unused. Somebody needs to pay the mortgage on them, and there's somebody else who's willing to go in and fix it up and make that place nice. Usually the people who do that are young, creative individuals who dream and create new work. There's a lifestyle of people who are exactly the kind of people you want in your community. They give it energy and chutzpah. They don't necessarily have gobs of money but they create an energy around their presence."

The third question Boise State's facilitators posed on behalf of the commission to each of the attendees at all 12 regional meetings began to home in on specifics: "What value do you believe arts and cultural activities offer to your community?"

It was a question much like the first, but with a narrower geographical focus than a broad sweeping evaluation of the entire state and one that asked for specific comment on the arts. The idea that arts and culture build social bonds and pride within a community were among some of the answers, as was the idea that the arts foster tolerance and support the values held by people in a specific community. Not surprisingly, the economy was again a popular answer.

As for what he thinks of art for the sake of the economy rather than art for the sake of art, Faison isn't judgmental.

"We're not the art police. I don't want to tell people what to think. If they find value in the arts, then they find value in the arts—whether it's because their priorities are in some other place and this is useful to that priority, or whether it's because they have a personal value that art is important."

The fourth and final question drove to the heart of what the commission was hoping to learn: "How can the Idaho Commission on the Arts assist you to achieve your vision for your community?"

It was a question that left the organization wide open for constructive criticism but also prompted some of the most useful feedback to come out of the sessions. Respondents answered that ICA needs to be more visible, especially in smaller towns. They also said that in the future, they'd like to see ICA provide better technical assistance, marketing and information, as well as be a better advocate for the arts. Finally, respondents felt ICA's grant process needed to be simplified in order to make funds more accessible.

The field of answers ICA accrued throughout its dozen regional meetings yielded not only some helpful criticism for the commission, but also some entertaining answers: "Gets you through the mud season" and "MFA is the new MBA" among them. There were also a few noticeable trends.

In addition to the aiding the economy, another consistently appearing answer was that creativity and arts and cultural activities are good for education and that their presence in a community strengthens families. Faison says Idahoans' tendency to see arts education as positive for their children and their families mirrors national findings, as well.

"We've found generally, around the country, that parents really do want the arts in their children's lives and education," he says. "The disconnect is that they don't know what is enough, and many of them think their kids are getting a lot when they may not be.

"This agency is very focused in the schools, especially the elementary grades," says Faison. "I've found that [ICA's] director for arts education really understands the issue of building the capacity of arts educators themselves. Other places in the country may still be focused on funding a grant, but here, it's more about capacity building. We don't have that much money, so we need to use it effectively rather than dish it out piecemeal, and our director of arts education really understands that."

Ruth Piispanen has been the director of arts education at ICA for 12 years. She supports introducing students to art in a more formal, academic sense rather than simply giving them a bucket of paint and telling them to be creative. An integral part of ICA's arts education philosophy over the years has been Piispanen's belief that art can be taught like more academic subjects by better training and better equipping teachers to do so.

Piispanen's goal is to reach as many teachers and students as possible given ICA's limited budget. To do that, she says ICA has developed a two-tier grant system (one large annual grant to an organization serving multiple school districts and smaller quarterly grants awarded to individual teachers or schools), and an intensive, week-long summer educators' institute designed to train teachers how to teach and incorporate the arts into the everyday classroom. Under its arts education arm, ICA also facilitates communication between students and professional artists. Every other year, ICA accepts applications in June (as it will this summer) from professional artists who are willing to go into classrooms to teach students about their art form and help them engage in it.

"We have the access to the artist and the art organizations because that's what we do," says Piispanen. "So we're trying to take that resource and make it significant in the schools."

Piispanen says that what she was able to glean from the regional meetings was that, on some level, people see arts education as a key piece to sustaining an overall creative community. And, in fact, arts education was one of the most popular answers for the question of how ICA can assist people achieve their vision for their community.

"There are so many things we could do, but we're a relatively small commission, and I think we'll have to plan strategically in terms of our resources and what the needs are out there," says Piispanen. "Arts education will be building on a foundation of strategy that's taken place over the last 10 years, and as we actually create the new plan, it will build on what we've had in the past."

She says one of the commission's goals now is connecting authentic arts resources to students—which essentially means putting artists in schools—and that under the new plan, what might change is not the overarching goal but the way in which ICA accomplishes it.

One example Piispanen offers for how ICA spreads its limited resources is by supporting Idaho Shakespeare Festival's Shakespearience program.

"In Idaho we really have a core of organizations that are committed to arts education. So what we tried to do in our larger grant category is say, OK, rather than 100 schools come to us and ask to have Shakespeare, what we want is the bigger organization to create the service to go into the school."

What ends up happening is that, rather than fund individual schools' productions of Shakespeare, ICA supports Idaho Shakespeare Festival as it tours a single production throughout Idaho schools each year, thus helping ISF reach 54,000 students annually.

"I love the ICA because they value the fact that we're getting into virtually every county and every school district and that we're providing something that's special and that the teachers want," says Mark Hofflund, managing director of Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Idaho Commission on the Arts and Idaho Shakespeare Festival have long had a close working relationship. In fact, according to Hofflund, the largest single-entity funding source throughout the history of ISF is the commission. However, he adds, the ICA's endorsement is as important as its funding.

"I think we're a really good community asset. We are a good value, but if we can have the seal of approval from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, that really helps us. It strengthens the fabric of everything we're trying to hold together financially," Hofflund says.

Hofflund plays the part of humble public servant, downplaying his own contributions in forming the symbiotic relationship. Hofflund joined ISF in 1993 and in 1995, began serving at-large appointments to the Idaho Commission on the Arts until he was appointed a commissioner. Now he serves as the commission's chairman, a position for which Faison says Hofflund "sublimates personal interest for his civic interest."

After Faison and his staff completed all 12 of the long-term regional planning meetings, Faison says he did some heavy lifting, collating the information for the next step in the process. For two months, he examined the information he'd collected to determine what significant impact ICA could reasonably achieve given the organization's limited resources. How could ICA balance efficiency with effectiveness while ensuring the link between the values people offered and their expressed needs?

"I debated on it and deliberated on it," says Faison. "I had consultants working with me, and I had walls filled with notes."

In mid-February, Faison gathered ICA's commissioners, including Hofflund, and presented his findings. It was a marathon discussion and planning session during which Faison told the commissioners that all of the answers culled from the regional planning meetings boiled down to four key issues.

First, respondents agreed that ICA should simplify its grant-making process, thereby creating easier access to funds. Second was to assist communities with isolation—geographical and cultural—freeing up communication between communities within Idaho, as well as those lines between Idaho and the rest of the country. Third was to deliver practical information that people can actually put into practice, and fourth was to provide professional services, that is, actually get into the field and get hands-on within communities.

To find solutions to those issues—solutions that would not only benefit ICA's constituents over the next five years, but that would also ensure the continued success of the organization—Faison engaged the commissioners in a variety of analytical thinking and problem-solving exercises throughout the February meeting.

When the day's work was finished, Faison asked the commissioners what the very next step in the process would be for them. For him, in the short term, it meant going back to his office and hanging an assemblage of cards from the meeting on his wall. In the long term, it means the creation of a draft of the next five-year plan, which he hopes to bring to the commissioners' meeting in May.

"Hopefully there will be people who come in as fresh ears and eyes at every part of the process," says Hofflund. "We're interested in coming up with a plan that is of genuine excitement to the people of Idaho."

The final plan, which will span through the end of ICA's fiscal year 2013, should be ready for approval in August. Once in place, Faison is off and running with other ICA business, but one could surmise that his approach to Idaho's arts commission is similar to that of his approach to art.

"A good artist is in constant self-evaluation. The best artists work reflectively. They ask the questions, such as, what happened, how did it happen, what does it mean to me, and what am I going to do about it next," he says. "As a result, when they create amazing results, it wasn't by accident, it was by intent. The ones who work without reflection, simply achieve happy accidents every once in a while, but it's not dependable. The ones who consistently produce amazing work do so reflectively."

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