Commentary: Why innovation in the arts matters

CanadaWest Foundation's website, 12/19/12

Traditional arts groups that neglect to think about how they fit into the broader social context and respond accordingly will fail. This might not happen today or the next day, but the writing is on the wall. While the arts are inherently creative, the need to be innovative is particularly important right now given how our communities have changed and how people want to engage with the arts. Perhaps the most important factor is the growing disconnect between the audiences of traditional artistic productions and population demographics. If you walk into a typical theatre or opera performance and glance around, you will likely observe a relatively homogenous audience in terms of age and ethnicity. It is unclear at this time who is going to replace these audiences as they age. We know that European art forms do not necessarily resonate with groups from different ethnic backgrounds or, if they do, there is an appetite for a more diverse menu of artistic offerings. At the same time, the rise in technology has changed how people engage with the arts. People are able to curate their own lives and to decide what types of art they want to experience and support. The challenge for traditional arts organizations, then, is to think creatively about how they can attract a younger, more diverse and technologically savvy audience to their productions. The good news is that many arts organizations are well aware of this issue and are working hard to come up with interesting and creative solutions to the challenges ahead. These innovations need to happen in order for traditional arts groups to be successful going forward. There will always be an important place for the classics and for traditional performance spaces but to meet the needs of the next generation, our arts groups need to be thinking innovatively about how the social context is changing, how they can express that change through their art and how it is presented if they want to be successful going forward.


Commentary: The arts urgently need 'change capital' to support innovation

Richard Evans, President, EmcArts Inc.,, 1/15/13

During the first 50-year phase of developing a professional arts and culture sector, the primary focus was on growth and longevity. 'Growing up' as an arts organization meant owning a building and taking on fixed assets. In the past 10 years, unprecedented developments in the operating environment have placed radical new demands on arts and culture organizations. The 'muscles' we exercise to promote organizational stability now need to be balanced by equally strong 'muscles' around adaptive capacity. In the past, little attention has been given to strengthening qualities such as adaptive, distributed leadership. With hierarchical staff structures, most companies have not focused on learning how to effectively use cross-functional, multi-constituent teams and have not yet evolved organizational cultures that are intrinsically flexible and responsive to fleeting opportunities and changing community dynamics. Nor have most organizations equipped themselves to continuously incubate and test new ideas and projects as an ongoing part of their business model. Notably absent to date -- and urgently needed to foster innovation -- is available change capital to underwrite well-designed new initiatives and enable them to reach new markets.


Related: An innovative project leads to a culture change

Brian Hinrichs, Guest Contributor,, 1/15/13

The leaders at Springboard for the Arts knew that change was coming, but they needed to figure out just how to manage it. After participating in the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in 2011, the Twin Cities-based organization -- known for delivering professional development services to artists -- found that preparing for change with a new toolkit of approaches enabled them to grow in unexpected directions. [Read more about their experience here.] Two years later, Springboard has found a successful project in Irrigate, a creative placemaking initiative spurred by a massive construction project in St. Paul. It has impacted organizational culture, structure, financial profile, and audience reach in new and meaningful ways. Springboard always considered itself an organization that focused on "reciprocal relationships between artists and communities," but in the Lab they realized that they had been working almost exclusively on the artist-side of the equation. With the launch of Irrigate, Springboard built on strategic partnerships developed in the Lab, created an Artist Community Organizer position, and intentionally began to focus on the community-side of its programming while always keeping an eye on their goal of ability to spread on a national level. Because Irrigate spans community and economic development as well as cross-disciplinary arts, new funding opportunities -- including a major ArtPlace grant -- availed themselves, quickly making Irrigate a third of the overall Springboard budget. In addition to being able to fundraise in new arenas and taking advantage of public-private partnerships, Springboard may also be able to generate new revenue streams as it develops toolkits of national interest.


Roundtable: Teach artists to innovate and not to rely so much on arts institutions

Janice C. Simpson, American Theatre magazine, January 2013 issue

Artists of all stripes are now devising innovative ways to do, fund and market their work. Of course, theatre people are no strangers to this DIY approach. Coming up with smart new ways to tell stories is what working in the theatre has always been about. And creating strategies to get that work before audiences has usually been part of the job description, too. But that task has become tougher over the past few years. The recession has made it harder to get funding. Audience tastes -- and audiences themselves -- are changing. Technology has emerged as both a rival for the public's attention and an ally that has the unique ability to engage it -- and even to raise money from it. The techniques that artists used to learn in the conservatory, or later pieced together on their own, are no longer enough to navigate this changing terrain, and within the past few years, schools around the country have introduced courses and programs to prepare their students to deal with these new realities. American Theatre brought together a panel of four of the leading practitioners of arts entrepreneurship, all of whom have enjoyed long careers as practicing theatre artists, to talk about how they define it and how they teach it in the classroom: Lynn Book, Linda Essig, James Hart, and David McGraw. Here are excerpts from their discussion, which took place in early November:  

How does teaching artists to be entrepreneurial differ from the way that entrepreneurship might be taught at a business school? 
ESSIG: A lot of it has to do with the means-and-ends relationship. When we teach entrepreneurship to artists, or within an arts context, we're not necessarily teaching them business skills so that they can maximize profit. We're teaching them business skills so they can maximize creative opportunity. 
HART: This is a burgeoning discipline, and people are trying to develop models to find out what works best. It's really important, as we develop, that future curriculum appeal to artistic sensibilities. If artists want to receive an MBA, for example, they can go do it. We need to be able to teach arts entrepreneurship in such a way that it doesn't discourage artists, but it encourages them.  

You have mentioned technology and social media. Why is that so important?

BOOK:We should be training our artists in both artistic innovation and entrepreneurial innovation. Wrestling with technology in a deeply artistic way -- and you cannot not do that today -- is also a way of innovating. And that, in and of itself, is a very powerful idea for students to understand and embrace. It's quite different from marketing for particular audiences, or marketing period.

If there were one thing you wanted your students to take away from your programs, what would that be?   

McGRAW: We've been talking a lot about new ventures and new components, but I think that so much of our industry is in stagnation right now. With the birth of the NEA back in the '60s, we had these pioneers founding all these theatres. Now these theatres have reached middle age and are functioning in a much different way than the founders originally envisioned. It worries me that some of our theatres have grown so large, and so many people depend upon them for their livelihood, that they are less able to take the risks that they did in the beginning. So I want my students to be able to reexamine and reinvent the existing structures -- I hope that's a takeaway they have.
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