Sunday, September 18, 2011

Innovation Incubation

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on............................

Where are the new big ideas?

I read an article last week about some innovation conference going on in Silicon Valley, and two of the founders of PayPal were lamenting that innovation in the Valley was dead - or at the very least - getting harder to find. They were critical of the trend towards venture capital dollars moving towards novelty applications (from angry birds to I surmise even angrier cows or whatever is popular at the moment) for mobile phones, pads and other devices in the growing hustle to score a quick buck. They wondered where the real innovation and the really big ideas that change things will be coming from if the trend continues.

That made me wonder where are the big ideas for the arts and culture sector going to come from. And that made me ask when was the last time we actually came up with any really big, new idea that was even a moderate game changer -- at least apart from the purely artistic side of things. I’m not sure precisely what I would say qualifies as big, or new or as a game changer. I might argue that simple things like the concept of Open Studios or the idea of Operas broadcasting live to local movie theaters are big ideas, perhaps new, and maybe even small game changers. I don’t think we’re talking merely “best practices” here - for those aren’t really innovative, new ideas. Rather they are more likely improvements on the better mousetrap as it were.

We have grant programs that specifically seek to incubate new projects and good ideas of value to artists and the artist’s community, but where is the grant program or the conscious attempt to incubate good ideas of value to the business of the nonprofit arts sector? Where is the attempt to drive innovation in our sphere? Why don’t we have some means to support think tanks and the like the purpose of which is innovation in our approaches to how we function? If I look at some ideas that I think are good ideas and are having some impact on the way we do things - ideas like the Kickstarter and similar platforms - while I like those ideas - they didn’t actually originate with us, but came from outside our sector.

I’m guessing there are a lot more innovative ideas emerging out there than I am aware of. But I am constantly looking for them, and if I’m not aware of them, I suspect many other people aren’t either.

I’m not sure I can argue, like the PayPal founders in the article I read that innovation in the administration side of the nonprofit arts sector is dead, because I’m not sure I can argue it was ever alive. I think most of the management ideas we employ that work and were at some point new and novel - again originated from outside of our sphere. Ditto models we have co-opted for use in everything from fundraising to advocacy, communications to program development. 

There is certainly no shortage of challenges that we face. So why don’t we come up with bold, new ideas to address those challenges? If we are the very backbone of the creative sector, why aren’t we more creative. Or if that is an unfair characterization, why aren’t we, at least, bolder in our support for innovation on our part?  To answer that question, I suppose we need to understand much more about the creative process and the phenomenon of innovation than we do (or probably anybody does).

This week Brain Pickings (my favorite newsletter site about all things creative), featured "five timeless insights on fear and the creative process".  More than one featured work noted that: "the myth of the genius and the muse perseveres in how we think about great artists. And yet most art, statistically speaking, is made by non-geniuses but people with passion and dedication who face daily challenges and doubts, both practical and psychological, in making their art."  If indeed creativity is more (or as much) about perspiration than inspiration, we ought to be able to figure out how to design and nurture ecosystems that encourage ideas and innovation - starting with ourselves.  Moreover, I think that fact (again if indeed it is true), might be enormously helpful to us if the public (and the business community in particular) understood that reality - for it would help to demystify creativity as all about genius.  Creativity and innovation are very likely about process.  And how that process actually works, what principles govern it's genesis are subjects ripe for discussion with stakeholders, decision makers and especially the media and the general public.  The more we can get people across all sectors to think about creativity and innovation and to begin an ongoing dialogue about it all - the better for us on multiple levels. 

If we are going to champion creativity and innovation as the outcome of what we do; if we are going to base our arguments for support on our role in fostering and enabling those twin processes; if we are going to claim that creativity and innovation are within our domain -- we need to soon learn a whole lot more about it from a practical perspective - and we really do need to work on being more creative and innovative ourselves.  As the more we learn about it, the more we can share that knowledge.  To learn about the process will help us to achieve a more informed public.  To come up with new, big ideas would only be a bonus.

Have a good week.  Goodbye summer, hello fall.

Don’t Quit.


  1. I'm so surprised to hear this on a blog that's profiled both Fractured Atlas and 20UNDER40, just two of the collectives that have very recently provided specific ideas as well as tangible tools to move the field forward.

  2. In no way did I mean to marginalize the contributions of any organization or group. I was talking about the lack of systemic innovation incubation in our field and the really macro impact of game changing new ideas ala Google, Facebook and the revolution.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post - and I've wondered (especially in my early years in the arts) about the same thing...a la, why don't we bring the same creativity to our business practice that we espouse in our art? is it that the for profit sector seems to be more creative in approaching their business than "we" are? I think, over time, my quest (ions) evolved to, who is doing interesting thinking? how do design systems thinking and processes translate to our world? what are the issues that become barriers to creative management?

    What I love about your post and your questions is the macro direction you are taking. The, "how do we flip the script" approach as opposed to only looking at incremental acts (however, if we really are taking a page from business, I learned in business class that "profits are won and lost on the margin" so incremental can be a game changer).

    That said, I do agree that Fractured Atlas is an important player in shifting the field, I also like the work of Easy Office in providing back office services, and I can't wait to find out what you discover as a game changer as you continue to pose this question in your world.

    Meanwhile, I do see artists innovating in small ways, creating a core operating structure with a variable cost method that allows them to scale as needed, or job-sharing to spread the earnings and the responsibilities among several people, and sometimes just doing a really good job of utilizing old stand-by strategies like activating volunteers.

    For the fun of it I'll share two daydreams I have for the field (which some people may already be doing): that some museums let go of their buildings, become completely distributed and virtual - meaning they store collections in inexpensive remote places and concentrate on putting exhibitions into community spaces (art centers, schools, restaurants, historic houses, etc.) and develop companion learning modules online and rid themselves of the high capital expense of a building.

    And...performing arts centers becoming far more permeable through resident incubating companies, regional and national touring systems (I love National Performance Network for their work in this arena), and a real understanding and connection with what is recently referred to as "informal" or "participatory" arts. Although this sounds a lot like programming - I think it can flip the business model script in a variety of funding, membership, and giving circle mechanisms as a result of a more complete activation of performing arts spaces as public spaces.

  4. I work at EmcArts (, one of the only non-profit organizations deeply engaged in incubating innovation in arts and culture organizations. I thought the readers of this post would be interested to learn a bit about our work.

    Our programs include the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, New Pathways for the Arts, and just today, we launched the very first Innovation Lab for Museums. To read more the new Lab and to apply to the Request for Proposals, visit

    To give sustainable innovations a chance of overcoming resource constraints and cultural inertia, we've found that what's needed is a robust framework to shape and propel your work, so it doesn't run out of steam after a few months, or get beaten down by the burden of carrying on with your everyday tasks. Organizations need a formal structure to do this, because it won't be something you're used to, or practiced at, so you won't be able to rely on the processes you already know. The framework you select should also protect the work of your innovation team from the fatal attraction of business as usual, so it can operate to a degree on its own as it opens up new pathways. Without a well-researched incubation structure, green shoots of innovation tend either to wither under the glare of established practices, or become excessively wacky so as to justify their existence, regardless of mission.

    Our programs support the development and implementation of mission-centered new strategies being pursued by the country’s leading professionally managed arts organizations. Our programs range from directly incubating specific projects to community-wide learning programs that enable new thinking and build a culture of innovation across local arts communities.

    Our programs are supported by major foundations who are making innovation a priority in their work, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, MetLife Foundation, James Irvine Arts Innovation Fund, The Cleveland Foundation and more.

    This October, we'll be launching ArtsFwd, a new website dedicated to highlighting organizational innovation in the arts and providing inspiration and resources for organizations who recognize the critical importance of innovating in response to the enormous challenges we face. Stayed tuned!

    Karina Mangu-Ward
    Director, Activating Innovation
    EmcArts / ArtsFwd

  5. Barry, in my experience, the one game-changing big innovation in the arts is El Sistema--in Venezuela, across Latin America, growing across the world, and now in some 50 U.S. cities. I know some doubt its genuine innovativeness, saying it is just the "flavor of the month" in music education or just a new spin on youth orchestras, but I don't see it that way. The Venezuelan example is hundreds of thousands of the least-advantaged kids spending 20 or more hours a week in intrinsically-motivated work in orchestral music making, creating music that is irrepressibly, palpably joyful, life-redirecting, and community building. If the movement in the U.S. can commit to discovering how to authentically plant those seeds in this soil, it challenges many of our entrenched beliefs about what it takes to produce excellence in classical music, what a life in music can look like, and what an orchestra can be in a community. Yes, we have a lot of learning to do, and a our soil is very different, but the example is more significant than anything I have seen in ... maybe ever.

    Eric Booth