“Minds” in Motion 

Virginia's arts organizations discover the Internet for a statewide tribute to women in the arts.

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Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly identified the General Assembly chamber that threatened to seriously cut arts funding. It was the House of Delegates, not the state Senate. In addition, "Minds Wide Open" runs for four months, from March to June.

It's all pretty much right there in the opener of House Joint Resolution No. 247:

WHEREAS, MINDS WIDE OPEN: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts is recognized in 2010 for its organization of a statewide celebration to showcase the many outstanding contributions by women to the arts and culture of the Commonwealth.

Presented at the end of January, the resolution was sort of the first official bit of praise for a three-year project, the goal of which is to bring together as many arts groups as a nifty Web site and a lot of fundraising will allow. That the very same House of Delegates threatens to cut funding that enables many of these arts groups to operate is one of the typical ironies of politics and culture.

But more on that later; for now, we celebrate.

Because what may well be the largest collective arts initiative in the state's history is, after three years of preparation, getting under way. “Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts” brings together the two dozen major arts organizations in the state (those outfits running budgets in the millions of dollars) with the small players — the theater groups, the art galleries, the music organizers — under the banner of a common theme: women.

Aside from overthrowing the dominant patriarchal paradigm, the theme is also, simply, accessible — whether it's incarnated in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon or during a performance by the violinist Midori at the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival in Woodstock. Participation for interested groups is free, provided they stage their event within the four months — March to June — of “Minds Wide Open.” Or, as organizer Peggy Baggett, executive director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, says: “It was chosen because frankly it was easy to do. But I think the theme resonated.”

The thinking is not novel, certainly. Every month, Richmond art galleries throw their doors open at a certain time, on a certain day, to maximize exposure through cooperation. Every year, local theater groups stage one show that explores more or less religious themes for the Acts of Faith Festival, which then gets coverage in media outlets such as (ahem) this one, in large part because it's all so nicely packaged. Richmond Ballet Managing Director Keith Martin, who chairs the steering committee for “Minds Wide Open,” says it's a way to “leverage change through collective action,” which is what bees do too. “It's a level playing field for everybody,” he says. More honey for all.

The project started in January 2007, when Baggett challenged the major arts organizations in Virginia to come up with a large-scale collaborative event. The 23 big arts groups were wrangled, decided on a theme, built a Web site and cranked up the machinery of marketing, which by January 2010 reached what Martin calls a critical mass.

The Commission for the Arts gave the initial $25,000 start-up money, which has been supplemented by funding from Altria, Dominion Power, Norfolk Southern and the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Baggett says the project has raised $286,000 in cash and $60,000 in in-kind support on the way to a $375,000 goal.

The money goes toward a marketing campaign that serves two purposes: one, to give exposure to smaller groups that otherwise wouldn't have the kind of public, statewide access that “Minds Wide Open” provides; and two, to share costs in these times of shrinking budgets. By running the event in the spring and summer, organizations can fit the theme into existing programming. “This way it's part of our normal operating budgets,” Martin says.

The marketing includes radio spots on National Public Radio in and around Virginia, plus magazine inserts and a “Virginia is for Arts Lovers” campaign by the state tourism board.

All of which is intended to generate a lot of excitement for these events. But perhaps what's most significant is that arts in Virginia has discovered the Internet.

The “Minds Wide Open” Web site, at www.vamindswideopen.org, provides the calendar that levels the playing field. All the events are listed, and there's information on how to add an event. There are tutorials on how to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which may seem forehead-slappingly obvious as marketing tools, but Baggett says that many smaller organizations just aren't that Web-savvy.

Net result: Should your wanderings carry you to towns big or small in the next few months, there's a portal to tell you what's happening there. But will there be an app for that?

One thing at a time. For now the approach seems to be working. Martin says the site lists upwards of 5,700 individual performances or exhibitions at more than 520 events, and 12 events are being added each day. That kind of volume means more exposure for everybody.

B.J. Brown of the Richmond Jazz Society says she's fielded more calls since the Web site went live. “This is the first time that I've seen a full network for the arts,” she says. “And that's the point — that we should all be connected.”

The hope is that the bigger organizations take a leadership role over arts in the state, like when parents tell the older kids to play with their young siblings. And just like when parents say, “We won't always be here to watch over you kids, so take care of each other,” so too do budget cuts threaten the lifespan of patron organizations such as the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Virginia's House Appropriations Committee has recommended that funding be cut by half for the commission in 2010-11 and that it be eliminated by 2012. Baggett says that because the commission isn't going to be a funding agent anyway, its fate should have no bearing on the future of “Minds Wide Open.” Others will take over the steering committee. Still, it's probably best that the infrastructure has been built; that makes the next time easier. “There will be a marketing plan that can be adapted but doesn't have to be made from scratch,” Baggett says.

The future's clearly on the minds of the “Minds”: The next “MWO,” in 2012, has a theme: children.

Teach them well and let them tweet the way.



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