Commentary: What if the arts embraced our uncertain times as fuel for innovation?

Brian Hinrichs, Blogging Fellow,, 6/25/12

Choreographer Liz Lerman is making waves again, not that she's ever really stopped. On May 4th, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun from memory, with movement design by Lerman. You can watch here. In many ways, making an orchestra dance is classic Liz Lerman. So is working with an ensemble of non-professionals. She's pushing the art form and the performers beyond preconceived boundaries, with transformative results for both the art makers and audience alike. At APAP this year, in a session on leadership, Lerman encouraged us to "quit ranking the voices" in our heads. Lerman's ideal of living in a non-hierarchical world has become a way of life that encompasses several ideas. Here are some of them, in her words:

  • "Allow for multiple perspectives and recognize that making distinctions is a creative act... many ideas can coexist...Distinction does not have to be about right and wrong."
  • "Find a way to respect something that lives at the end of the spectrum farthest from where you are comfortable..."
  • "Consider when either/or thinking is useful and when it isn't. Tolerance, generosity, nimbleness are helpmates to hiking this path, but they are also outcomes from moving along it."

Lerman [challenges] the status-quo in a dramatic way. In Lerman's world, not knowing is a virtue, it is "fuel for the imagination." Not a day goes by without someone commenting on what uncertain times these are for arts organizations. What if we embrace that uncertainty, and use it as our fuel for innovation?  Some are doing just that. In this space, I've already written about the Trey McIntyre Project, as well as the Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia, organizations that have assessed the current landscape and felt an urgent need for deep change. I also think of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, a small-budget, regional orchestra that has bucked all trends by increasing its commitment to the music of living composers in the face of belt-tightening. Lerman writes extensively about the necessity of "nimbleness" ("a certain kind of agile intelligence"), a trait these organizations all share, and one necessary for the type of innovation encouraged by EmcArts: shifting underlying assumptions, instituting practices different from those previously used, providing new pathways to create public value. It's that shifting of assumptions that emerges as the hallmark of Liz Lerman's career and philosophy. As an individual and choreographer, she pushes herself to think of "learning as verb" and to knock down the mental silos that so often prevent new connections and ideas. That's harder to do as an organization, but never impossible.


Commentary: What happens after innovative ideas are implemented

Brian Hinrichs, Blogging Fellow,, 7/23/12

[In] the development of innovative strategies...getting good ideas off the ground [is] the hardest part; the leap of faith. But what happens after innovative ideas are implemented? When should organizations attempt to measure the success of their changes, and how? If unintended consequences are inevitable, is it possible -- or even desirable -- to safeguard against failure? These questions [weigh] heavily in light of recent news out of the Twin Cities. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), long the model for new models, is in trouble. In 2002, facing record-low subscriptions, the SPCO board and leadership undertook a major strategic planning process. As a result, the board dissolved its executive committee in 2004 and the position of Music Director was eliminated in order to establish the Artistic Partnership Model, which transferred artistic responsibilities to the SPCO musicians and a group of diverse Artistic Partners. Ticket prices were reduced to flat rates of $10, $25, or $40. The orchestra was hailed as innovative and bold. [By May 2011,] subscriptions had increased by 40% [and after cutting] $1 million in marketing expenses, [they saw] an increase in net revenue of $482,000. The organization sold almost 30,000 more seats in FY09 compared to FY02. The number of subscribers that give [was] up by 45%, while the average subscriber gift size [went] up 7%. The average board gift more than tripled. But in the past year, this picture of successful innovation has grown cloudy. In November 2011, then executive director Sarah Lutman [conceded] sales had plateaued and external support was no longer making up the difference. In December, the SPCO began publicly projecting a $1M deficit for the 2011-12 season. This spring, Lutman departed to focus on consulting, and she was followed by her VP of Development. News in June was worse: the only chamber orchestra in the U.S. with full-time salaried musicians might be going part-time, as the board seeks to cut $1.5M in musician-related expenses. Here is an organization that thought big, carefully implemented deep change, weathered the worst of the recession, and just a year ago looked strong. That picture has changed dramatically, but were the SPCO's changes for naught? A mission-based perspective would certainly validate the accessibility initiatives for bringing in a wider audience, but that's come at a financial cost that could jeopardize the orchestra's ability to perform at the highest possible level, another component of its mission. Still, I would wager that had the SPCO tempered its changes for fear of failure, the outcome as of today would be no better, if not worse. The temporary turn-around increased the orchestra's network of donors, greatly expanded its footprint in the community, and enhanced its reputation as a pioneer, changes that may still yield greater rewards in the future. More importantly, going through the process of innovation builds adaptive capacity, the ability to change in the future. Evaluation becomes a constant in this scenario, and if we can get comfortable with ignoring sunk costs and learning from mistakes -- being nimble -- then forward motion is inevitable. Any true innovation carries the risk of failure by someone's definition. It's the ability to begin the process anew that makes failure an option again in the future.


Commentary: Work 'lean' to lure venture capital funding for innovation in the arts

Alice Mrongovius, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, 7/14/12

I am fascinated by the intersection of disruptive and creative innovation. One of the less glamorous similarities for both artists and innovation start-ups [is] the constant pursuit of funding to continue their practice. What I often hear from artists is dissatisfaction with the lack of funding and opportunities, but I have been genuinely surprised by the lack of knowledge of one of the most prolific start-up business philosophies of recent years: The Lean Startupby Eric Ries:

"Lean isn't simply about spending less money. Lean isn't just about failing fast, failing cheap. It is about putting a process, a methodology around the development of innovation".

Successfully this has been applied to the development of countless technology innovations and has real potential for a huge variety of art projects too. The basic structure of the Lean Startup works around the iterative feedback loop "make - test - learn." The aim is to develop the simplest realisation of the innovation concept as fast as possible and to build up from there. This is opposed to the strategy of creating the 'perfect' offering and then gauging the response, often once the resources are spent. Now not all artistic projects will benefit from audience feedback through development, but taken in a broader sense this feedback can come through a select group of peers or just from yourself in response to the material realisation of an idea. I recently spoke at the Berlinerpool event [about connecting] the Lean Startup (as new mode of business) and the venture capital that funds the start-up community to potential opportunities in arts funding. Venture capital already has the connection and interest in risk-taking and innovation potentially could deliver funding opportunities to the arts with a better cultural fit. This style of funding also extends to groups like the awesome foundation, a "worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe". Once a month in each city the local awesome foundation trustees hold an event, which emulates the pitching process at start-up events, and hand out a paper bag to the winner with $1000 - no strings attached. This can also be seen in the growing sector of crowdfunding (kickstarter, WeFund, Sponsume) that have brought new opportunities for capital at the intersection of arts and technology. Working lean speaks the language of these new funding models, demonstrates your vision (the un-imaginable) with a minimum viable product and grows the project efficiently from validated learning. Further expanding the conversation, the online collaborative design platform jovoto has sought submissions from their community to be part of a joint think-tank with communication agencies and organisations to explore creative agencies of the future. There have been some fascinating discussions around the future of work for creatives such as creating fluid networks or cultivating a culture of constant creation. The project challenges a community to articulate an alternative which is enormously refreshing from the usual bitching about the status quo. 

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