The rise of the ‘edge-pert’

A recurring theme at this year’s Arts Presenters conference in New York was boundary crossing. Artists and arts organizations were celebrated for dancing with unexpected partners — city planners, farmers, inner-city kids, health professionals. Other speakers encouraged such new connections and new commitments to becoming relevant to communities in non-traditional ways.

There was also much talk about silos, about the insular structures of deep experts in arts organizations, in higher education, in scientific knowledge. Here, again, the call arose frequently to find or build partnerships between such silos, to rethink them in more open, more engaged, and more collaborative ways.
Some suggested we get rid of the silos altogether, which didn’t quite make sense to me. Our world demands deep expertise, and tightly connected communities of really smart people who explore a common terrain. That’s a silo. And without a silo, at least some of the time, we don’t get the obscenely focused training, learning, and inquiry that’s necessary for complex and challenging problems. We need to rethink and redesign silos, of course. But eliminate them? No.
All of which led me to invent a new word (I think I invented it, haven’t found it elsewhere). Because we can’t entirely dissolve silos, we need people who are exceptional at working across and among them.
I call them ‘edge-perts‘: Masters of crossing boundaries of deep expertise. Experts of the edges.
I’ll admit that my new word didn’t get unanimous praise. My students thought it was pretty stupid as a word, but pretty good as a concept. But whether you like it or not as a pseudoword, it’s worth exploring what it might mean.
Often, artists and arts organizations are uniquely positioned to be edge-perts in their community. They’re used to working across deep functional expertise (the stage technician, the acoustician, the lighting designer, the professional musician, the dramaturg, the accountant, and so on). And they work in a field that’s designed to connect dissimilar thoughts and insights into a new whole. But increasingly, their scope of boundary spanning isn’t nearly wide enough, and their missions and skills keep them disconnected.
How would we find, foster, and develop edge-pertise? How might we stretch the current capacity of artists and arts leaders to encompass even more experts — in agriculture, policy, science, health, education, the environment? And how do we protect the deep focus and occasional isolation required of exceptional creative work while also extending its reach and enriching its connectedness?
Figure it out. Let me know. Edge-perts of the world, unite (and then disburse).


  1. says

    There is a long established word in German for edge-pert. It is Grenzgänger and in its simplest usage means border crosser. It is often applied to the arts, and I’ve even seen some festivals devoted to Grenzgänger.
    The idea of inter-disciplinary work in the arts has been an ideal since the 60s, and schools like CalArts were founded on the principle. Unfortunately, none of the efforts have been successful. Even at CalArts, the departments quickly barricaded themselves in their insular, professional worlds and there is little inter-departmental interaction among faculty or students.
    The main problem seems to be a lack of people with enough expertise to work at a high level in at least two departments. The inter-disciplinary ideal is nice, but it doesn’t happen unless there are people who can serve as the bridge.
    Perhaps that’s why some of the best arts administrators have backgrounds actually working as professional artists in the field they later administrate. The insights provided are invaluable.

  2. says

    Having spent my career on the edge, I’m inclined to think those silos exist for a reason. Most people don’t feel comfortable on the edge and most arts folks would rather cling to the security of their silos than subject themselves to the vagaries of the world outside – even if their silos are in danger of collapsing.
    But I’m glad you’re teaching this, Andrew, because if the silos do collapse, only the edge dwellers will have the perspective to know what happens next.
    Do you mind if I suggest “nexpert” (nexus-expert) as an alternative to “edge-pert,” though?

  3. says

    Thanks Trevor,
    I accept any and all suggestions for alternate terms. Nexpert is pretty cool.
    And I’d be cautious about framing silo-dwellers in negative terms (clinging, uncomfortable), as I think there’s real power and importance in those silos. If I’m getting heart surgery, for example, I’m rather glad that my surgeon has trained deeply and specifically on the heart, among peers who did the same. Of course, during the diagnosis, I’d rather have an edge-pert or nexpert who can explore the whole system of possible problems and remedies.
    The silo-dweller v. boundary-spanner strikes me as an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’. We need both. The relationship within and between them is changing rather drastically, but that doesn’t mean either will go away.

  4. Heather says

    Here’s how I’ve been thinking about this topic lately:
    I see a continuum between INTEGRITY (what I mean is: the quality of holding together or gathering around a central core, of being interconnected in a way that establishes a clear boundary around an idea/form/group and allows the interconnected parts to recognize each other and hang together, as well as a quality of discernment–not only being clear about what is, but also establishing what is not part of the idea/form/group) and OPENNESS (what I mean is: the quality of spaciousness that allows new ideas/energies/elements in, that quality that separates the idea/form/group, softens it’s edge, makes it permeable & malleable, allowing for connection between apparently disparate parts). I don’t see one as better or worse than the other, and I see them clearly on a continuum. In other words, it is impossible to embody both at the same time, but it’s more about degrees of one or the other. The skill lies in knowing how to strike the balance that fits the task at hand.
    As a small example, this has come up countless times in the small contact improv community that I am a part of. We want to have a jam, and we want it to be open to anyone. But we also want it to be focused on contact improv. If we aren’t clear enough about the form, what it is (and what it is not), and what a contact improv jam entails, we end up with a structure that’s so open that no one knows what to do, and the contact improv gets completely lost. But if we hold to the CI structure too tightly, and insist that only people with a narrow understanding of what CI is or with a certain level of expertise in the form attend, our group shrinks, we lose the opportunity to teach, and we aren’t growing as a community.
    So. We’re constantly shifting. Sometimes we have to increase our integrity and re-commit to the original idea for our group. Other times, we have to open up and let new people & energies in.

  5. says

    It seems to me that the only way to become an edge-pert is to first be an expert. It is impossible to have deep expertise in multiple areas without first having learned how to internalize a deep set of information and reprocess it into new ideas. Once you’ve done this in one area and gone through the sweat and tears to realize you still have a long way to go to understand a particular topic, only then can you apply that same rigor to another area.
    One caveat to this is that some people are simply good at looking at issues systemically. They can assess a situation and see the big picture, then look at another situation and see how the two overlap. It is this kind of person that we do not always support in the arts. We tend to dismiss those who are not deeply entrenched in the arts, but I believe we really need people who are not politically or economically tied to the arts to help address our industry’s issues.
    Ironically, many artists, particularly those who create new works (rather than reproduce already created works) are incredibly good at this. They work with abstract or seemingly incongruous information on a daily basis to find ways to create a aesthetically pleasing whole. This type of thinking can be applied to numerous situations. So perhaps our solution is right under our noses – involve artists in the decision-making process and make them part of policy and program design engine. Furthermore, educate artists to utilize this strength through a curriculum that develops their communication, leadership, and teamwork skills.

  6. John Guthrie says

    I love this concept, and I have to say Grenzgänger is a pretty cool word for it, even if most people won’t get it.
    I find myself in this very spot, and the Herculean effort required to bring people together can be exhausting, but the potential is incredible.
    A project I’m working to bring together now will need to bring together city planners (you mentioned above), artists, residents, a health center, a community center, a housing organization, donors and policy makers, working together to revitalize a neighborhood.
    Many of these groups would not naturally cross paths, but if a Grenzgänger can help bring them together the outcome could be greater than the sum of the parts. If they remain in their silos and ignore the each are doing they end up competing for resources and attention.
    Any word that uses an umlaut gets bonus points in my book.

  7. Amy Smith says

    You might be interested in two projects that Headlong Dance Theater is working on right now, both of which come out of our deep interest in nexi and edges. In one project, we are making an original dance theater piece using 5 faculty members from Bates and Colby Colleges as our cast of collaborating creator/performers. Three are trained as dance artists, one is a theater artist, and one is a set and light designer. So we are bringing outside artists (ourselves) into the academy, as well as bringing together faculty members from colleges and departments that don’t usually interact with each other. It’s an exciting project that we hope might get some traction. The other project we are working on right now is called “This Town is a Mystery”. We will select 4 households from different neighborhoods in Philadelphia and create a dance theater performance for the members of the households to be performed in their homes. Small audiences will come see the performances (as part of the Live Arts Festival) and bring a dish to share, so there will be a potluck afterwards. If you know anyone in Philly who might be interested, please spread the word!

  8. says

    I think it is important to question your notion about the insularity of knowledgeable professionals. Are we asking those professionals to change the way they communicate between fields and with the person on the street or are you asking them to change their message? The later seems to be a participation in the dumbing down of society. This method of criticism of the arts seems to be very popular with arts administrators and civic developers ever since Richard Florida’s pop-sociology book- “The Rise of the Creative Class” took governmental leaders and art agencies by storm. Is the problem that the art world is too insular from the rest of society or that the rest of society just gave up trying and settled on life in front of the flat screen TV?

  9. says

    Silos and Edges… These are vague ideas. Please excuse my ignorance regarding the more in depth discussions that took place the Art Presenters conference. I am intrigued, though, by these ideas. I have no problem with insulated, specialized, even elitists circles of thinkers, administrators, artists, etc. One concern, though, is the sometimes incestuous relationships between press, granting agencies, city planners, etc. (your edge-perts). I do not mean to take issue with your ideas. I would rather like to investigate how these relationships being forged across professional lines may play out along geographic lines to further alienate arts organizations, universities, city planners, and cultural patrons in other parts of the country not associated with the art world.