Monday, November 4, 2013

National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture - I Come to Praise Innovation Not to Bury It


October 20-23 Denver was host to the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, organized by Emc Arts, locally sponsored by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, and nationally sponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, James Irvine Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. The roughly 250 participants included staff from organizations in several different communities such as Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota/Dakotas, New York, Oregon, San Jose, St. Louis, the Bay Area and Washington DC.; as well as staff from funders in most of these cities. Participating organizations were chosen by their local funders, which also covered their cost of participating. Many of the organizations had already done some work with EmcArts locally on innovation and adaptive change. This was a unique opportunity to bring together arts leaders - management and artistic leadership - from many communities around the country, all grappling with challenges of how to build organizations and programs that best achieved their missions in the context of today's rapidly changing landscape.

The content consisted of interactive workshops, 27 succinct ("TED-style") talks followed by group discussion, arts experiences and participatory games designed to expand thinking and promote interaction. the Talks were streamed to a national/international audience of participants.

So how did this all go? Was it all worth it? Probably depends on whom you ask. Todd London of New Dramatists in New York City gave one of the talks - later published in a widely read and disseminated blog post - that essentially was a diatribe (albeit a very well-articulated one) on the very idea of the gathering and the "movement" to foster innovation in arts organizations: "Most of us [at New Dramatists] swing between incredulity and fury at the rampant spread of this innovation obsession in the arts. I come to bury innovation not to praise it. It signals another incursion on the arts by corporate culture, directive funders, and those who have drunk the Kool Aid of high tech hip and devotional entrepreneurism." He essentially admitted participating solely to potentially qualify for some funding and maybe connect with some colleagues but apparently saw no value at all in the conversation and in fact finds this focus on innovation to be destructive and also to be funder and consultant-driven.

So first of all I have to say while I highly respect Todd's intellect and thoughtfulness (and was delighted to see him again after many years), I think his talk was a wild over-reaction and a simplistic interpretation of what we were talking about. But it played well to the crowd (both live and on-line) and it always sounds good to say "art is good, artists are good, funders are bad, just give us the money to do what we do however we choose to do it." (Of course, now I am guilty of over-simplifying his comments...)

He cited as evidence of nefarious funder interference a Kellogg Foundation study that found that every nonprofit organization should have innovation as a core organizational competency, implying that Kellogg was recommending that an innovation bureaucracy be created along with development,. marketing, finance, etc. I do not think this was their intention at all. And of course there was hostility towards the trendiness, the "buzz-word" nature of innovation, following on the heels of "community engagement", "audience development", etc. What I think we are talking about with innovation - and demonstrated by virtually all the other presenters - is building the personal and institutional capacity to approach everything we do through a new lens, to adapt to changing demographics in ways that HELP our art reach and resonate with new audiences, to change our organizational systems to be responsive and nimble, to take risks, and learn lessons when they don't pan out. Maybe New Dramatists can survive doing things the same way they have always done them, or maybe they feel they are already engaged in all of this sort of work, but I think most organizations are finding that many of their old ways of operating simply don't work effectively anymore, and to best serve their missions, to best serve their art and artists, they must adapt. Look at Michael Kaiser's recent blog post, questioning whether we are moving towards an era where a handful of "mega-companies" in the performing arts will serve the world, and smaller, regional, organizations will go away. (I must note, since I have referenced Kaiser, that Todd in his remarks also cited a NY funder who required grantees to study with "turn-around king" and "high-paid macher" Kaiser before receiving funds - a practice I do not support...)

Funders are not driving this trend. Funders are reacting to changes in the environment, and doing their best to build supportive responses into their grantmaking. Maybe sometimes they are overprescriptive, but they are at least trying to be thoughtful about how they best advance the arts. About 18 months ago the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation created an Arts Innovation Fund designed to provide capital to organizations "developing new approaches to creating and presenting art, engaging new audiences, and strengthening financial sustainability." I don't think Wonderbound - a Denver dance company that used to be known as Ballet Nouveau, and one of the early major recipients of one of our Innovation Fund grants - would agree that we were a manipulative funder somehow forcing them to corrupt their artistic purity to conform to our idea of what they should be. I think - I hope - they would say that we were that rare funder that was willing to take a daring leap into the unknown with them, a vision of a ballet company that could be built around collaboration, community and extraordinary artistry.

There were many challenging strands to the conversation, beyond Todd's. Many participants also were concerned by the lack of diversity among the participants, and the small number of culturally-specific organizations. Others joined Todd in reacting against buzz-words, and consultant-speak, and the need to ensure artists are at the table and empowered in these conversations. This last point was especially well articulated by Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS in some summing up comments.

Hard to single out other speakers. Eric Booth was, as always, a masterful facilitator, helping us explore the complexity of assessing results of innovation. It was also great to have the equally strong facilitation skills of John McCann (the "mc" in Emc) on hand for the workshops and concluding synthesis sessions, as well as Emc's own Richard Evans. These sort of interactive conversations can collapse in the absence of strong facilitation/moderation. In the Talks, David Devan told the story of how Opera Philadelphia dramatically advanced its art, and its connection to community, by beginning with a plan for effective and appropriate capitalization. Other inspiring stories from organizations large and small: Shake38 from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, the San Francisco Symphony's Community of Music Makers program, Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis and what they dubbed "radical hospitality." And it is always a treat to hear Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul talk about their work which puts artists at the center of their work to build community. You can find all the streamed talks archived here. (And must cite the excellent behind the scenes work of Liz Dryer, the EmcArts staffer who had the often thankless role of coordinating all the details of the Summit.)

I, for one, came away inspired by all the - yes, I will say it - innovative work being done by organizations around the country, by the deep interaction with colleagues, grantee and grantor alike. (I was, of course, also thrilled that this gathering offered the opportunity to introduce so many colleagues to the extraordinary, creative city of Denver that is my new home.) I was challenged to think more deeply about how we truly commit to diversity, to engagement of artists in our organizations (not just as "the product"), and to the role of the funder in this work. I think EmcArts tried hard to stay away from the tired panel discussion/plenary structure of other conferences. I must admit I was a curmudgeon and unwilling participant in the "Games", but others seemed to enjoy them, and they helped break up the intense focus of the rest of the program. The Summit ended with an attempt to summarize the conversations into a "Manifesto" - a document that might organize some "principles to guide adaptive change" and be shared widely. The closing session gave the group a chance to react to this effort which really - and appropriately - was organized around many questions we must ask ourselves, as opposed to a "recipe" for innovation. I am sure EmcArts will share some of the outcomes once they all recover and process. And finally, as only he can do, Ben Cameron of Doris Duke, wrapped things up with some inspiring words that truly connected innovation to art, artists and community.

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