But, as was the case with many of the local attendees, I was stunned by two things: one, engaged, curious people from around the world and, two, productive conversation.
I can think of maybe three or four people who were almost as deeply skeptical of the conference as I was, with my faith in the event’s success ranked somewhere between believing a trillion dollar “bailout” will save the economy and believing Keanu Reeves will win an Academy Award.
“Success,” still, is a big word, and the hiccups were numerous. The conference was small, too sparsely attended and plumped with filler—so that visitors wouldn’t think themselves too few on the surface. Unlike the folks who had drifted through the Community Convention Center on its gala opening—perhaps lulled by free taquitos, Wise Fool puppets on stilts and mariachi tunes—locals who spent the week conferencing distilled their sense of the new center down into one coherent question: “Why did they build a newer, cheesier La Fonda?” Also, the conference was strangely arranged so attendees could partake in creative activities—mini workshops in clay, pastels, African dance, etc.—that ranged from mildly interesting to intensely dorky. It fit with the spirit and concept of the project, but when such offerings proved attractive, they ran in competition with the meatier aspects of the conference.
Far more topics than expected did have meat on their bones. I attended only a fraction of what I had hoped to, due to my eyes being swollen shut from the aforementioned allergies, but I came away impressed each time. In the spirit of disclosure, I admit to wheezily moderating a panel discussion titled, “Leveraging Your Community’s Art Resources.” Skeptical from the beginning, I had planned not merely to mock the conference from afar, but to be among the guilty parties wasting the city’s money on pointless bloviating. My panel consisted of a couple of bureaucrats and a travel-book author, so I figured we had a lock on saying nothing too interesting.
But I was impressed by Elmo Baca from the New Mexico MainStreet program, author Jon Villani and Cultural & Heritage Tourism Senior Planner Tom McGuire. The depth at which they were willing to speak about issues of place, identity and cultural authenticity was matched only by the audience’s own inclination toward substantive dialogue.
It was similar in each session that I attended. The discussion had a kind of realism rarely witnessed in Santa Fe. The implications of branding a city, for example, and what it means for the quality of life of its residents, was a topic that was thick in the air even though it could easily have been glossed over.
Another very frank discussion took place under the heading, “The Ecosystem of an Art Scene.” SITE Santa Fe Director Laura Heon joined gallerist Linda Durham along with independent space instigators from Salon Mar Graff and High Mayhem for a blisteringly honest assessment of arts and culture as product, industry and societal component. Representatives of the economic development departments and arts commissions from other cities were shocked to find that their Santa Fe counterparts had opted to skip out on this particularly instructive conversation.
City representatives, however, did participate in a number of instructive presentations and were on hand for the keynote speeches. The topics discussed, and the intensity and vigor with which the discussions were conducted have the potential to inspire movement across a number of city departments. That alone justifies the risk of the conference. In pure thought-value among local politicians and bureaucrats, the conference did more than Design Week, the arts and culture Web portal, and Creative Santa Fe (our city-funded vaporware umbrella arts organization) all added together.
Creative Santa Fe, by the way, was on hand—both in the form of its recently dropped-like-a-hot-rock executive director, Dena Aquilina, and its new Board President Kris Swedin, who also was former director of economic development for the City of Santa Fe and the person under whose tenure Creative Santa Fe was originally funded. Past and present, though, were not really speaking to each other.
There was more than occasional speculation about the value of an umbrella organization that could manage resources, and guide an overarching arts and culture vision for Santa Fe, mostly by people who didn’t realize that we’ve funded such an organization for years to little noticeable avail. Now, there are new whispers running rampant. Will Creative Santa Fe rise anew from the success of the creative tourism conference? That would be pulling a big rabbit out of a little hat.
Whatever happens, there’s hope the city will walk away with a sense of how to use its resources with greater wisdom as it continues to barrel down the road of cultural and creative tourism. That would be a happy accident.