The mad, mad chase for innovation in the arts

A few weeks back, I wrote in a post that I’m beginning to wonder whether the process of adapting to a changing environment has become harder for arts organizations than it needs to be because many arts funders seem to be fixated on the idea that future success will come only through ‘radical innovation’. I suggested that perhaps we could see some pretty great results through good-old-fashioned, common-sense, it’s-about-time, just-do-the-right-thing, ‘improvements’. I’m not suggesting that ‘innovation’ in the arts and culture sector should not be enabled or supported (it should). But I am skeptical of the funder-driven ‘innovation in the arts’ bandwagon. Here’s why:

First, once new ideas are funded within funder-led ‘innovation’ initiatives, they tend to get heralded (by the press, funders, and field experts) as ‘innovative’ before they have demonstrated that they are. As an example, the Dance Theater Workshop and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company merger has been called ‘innovative’; but the idea to merge a dance company and a presenting organization is not, in and of itself, an ‘innovation’.

In the long run if this new hybrid organization proves to have a stronger and more sustainable business model, and if it is able to create new or greater value (for artists and audiences) than either organization could on its own–and if other organizaitons can learn from and replicate this success–then one might very well call such a development an ‘innovation’ for the arts and culture sector. The other possibility is that it represents the (pragmatic?) acquisition by one organization (that desperately wanted a permanent space) of another organization (that had a space and was desperate to have its debts eliminated).

Second, related to point one, the path to innovation is often paved with many (sometimes boring) small experiments, small successes, and small failures–in other words nothing that sounds very sexy on a grant application. Funding ideas that sound innovative is quite different from sustaining an organization’s ongoing capacity to learn, adapt, and innovate.  The ‘innovation grant’ seems to encourage organizations to dress up, scale up, or amplify otherwise well-conceived and feasible strategies for modest improvements, in order to make them seem more ‘radically innovative.’ 

Receiving the grant can not only destabilize an organization as it attempts to take on more than it can handle, but  can put extraordinary pressure on its new souped-up ‘innovation’ to succeed. More to the point, it can make it difficult to let go of the idea if it is not panning out as expected, particularly if it was heralded out of the gate as a potential ‘model’ for the field.

Third, it seems that funders have made innovation a priority under the misguided belief that ‘funding’ is what makes organizations able or inclined to innovate. Organizations (entrepreneurs) innovate because they are discontent with the status quo and feel compelled to find a new way forward. They innovate because they see something is missing in the world and feel compelled to create that thing. Innovative organizations do not need a two-week retreat at a spa, or a high-paid consultant, or a big carrot or stick from a  national funder, to encourage or enable them to innovate. Providing innovation-inducing ‘seed money’ to risk-averse institutions seems like a waste of precious grant dollars that might be better directed (in the form of multiyear general program support) to ‘naturally innovative’ organizations (if innovation is the end goal).

Finally, it’s perplexing and annoying to others in the arts sector when funders give ‘innovation grants’ to projects and organziations that are not, actually, innovative–particularly when one knows the projects that did NOT get funding. I’m not sure how this happens but I suspect it is in large part because ideas that are truly surprising, that may even defy written rules and conventions, are unlikely to make it all the way through the grantmaking process at most risk-averse foundations (in no small part because they make lawyers nervous).

All of this prompts me to ask:  Does innovation happen because one feels incentivized or mandated to innovate? Can one pursue innovation? Or is it a side-effect of … any number of things: having one’s organziational eyes wide open to a changing environment; having strong values but flexible practices; having vision and creativity; having the courage to see the truth and act; continually seeking to create greater value for your constituencies and develop new sustainable resource streams … for instance?

Eating Ideas image by Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt, licensed from

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  1. real_endings says

    Rant on!! Your point about funding risk-averse organizations really resonates with me. Funders tend to play it safe, and the organizations that get funded are “safe” with long track records and capacity and history and $ to hire safe grantwriters and/or consultants. That’s the game. And I think we can admit that for all its worth and all the work, most times “innovation” is not the end goal. Giving and getting are the goals, and until there’s a way to innovate that process and shake up that power dynamic, it is what it’s been. So some innovative projects end up getting funded (thank God!), but many go unfunded, and maybe that’s just how the game is played.

    I’ve been in this arts fundraising thing for about 5 years. Everyday I learn things that are all together lovely, exciting, surprising, disappointing, frustrating, and ugly about this work. I got into it because I believed there was more “innovation,” more potential for social and personal change in the arts, than I saw in my previous work experience. I’m not so close to that “arts awesomeness” I value in my day-to-day work. It seems to exist without funding, without any grantwriter, without any measurable outcome. Ha… actually, that’s what it is: No income, no (measured) outcome, just awesome.

    And I do think that “innovative organizations” that deserve general operating support to continue testing new methods, processes, products, have courageous leaders on staff and on boards committed to the work of innovation. How many of those people really exist in our field though? How many can you point to? If you can lead me in their general direction, I’d be much obliged! :-)

  2. says

    Great post Diane! The mad, mad chase for innovation in the arts…

    Mergers, acquisitions, strategic partnerships have been around in the corporate world for a long time.

    I have personally witnessed and participated in some and for a very long time have advocated for the same in the not for profit world – arts and culture.

    There needs to be a “new philanthropy” and in my opinion this begins with strategic partnerships, no matter the size of a not for profit organization in arts and culture.

    Zarin Mehta, current CEO of the New York Philharmonic, who will retire this year, has lead the way with a stunningly successful strategic partnership with Credit Suisse.

    Bombardier has partnered with Lang Lang in promoting music in schools.

    Strategic Partnerships enable our strengths and help us conquer our weakness’; be they artistic, financial and or building our Brand.

    Have a look at my thoughts on the “New Frontier” in the Arts –

  3. says

    This is a great post. I see too many programs that work go unfunded because they are not innovative. If they work, why change them? Without proven results, why is innovation so desired? And why do some organizations innovate? Sometimes it is because they are chasing money. Never a good thing.

  4. Kathleen Cerveny says

    A terrific post, Diane. In my years as a grantmaker I have observed a few organizations that are inherently innovative – flexible and nimble in responding to both challenges and opportunities. They tend to be the smaller and mid-sized organizations – those with a clear focus on mission, but a willingness to be in constant planning mode around how to deliver on the mission. It seems it is the larger, more well-established groups that often have to wrench themselves into motion – and only when threatened. I just met with a small dance company that has managed to develop the most diverse audience of almost any other cultural organization in town by keeping its ear to the ground, building relationships and thinking and planning creatively as a rule of thumb. Innovation comes from an internal culture of self awareness, attention to the environment and willigness to change. It’s not rocket science and it’s an attribute that the availability of money alone won’t genuinely foster.

  5. says

    Diane, as usual you’ve said something that needed to be said. I’ve often wondered how many grant-funded “innovation” projects would have been undertaken anyway, either with support from other grant programs not explicitly focused on innovation or within regular operating budgets. The term is becoming the very definition of “buzzword”: feel-good, vague, ubiquitous. Your lovely point about the real wellsprings of innovation (“They innovate because they see something is missing in the world and feel compelled to create that thing”) only reminds us how incremental and familiar most of what gets called innovations really are. It’s also an apt description of the art impulse, which has somehow (and I’m by no means the first person to see this) become less and less a part of the art management impulse.

    If you’re right that “ideas that are truly surprising, that may even defy written rules and conventions, are unlikely to make it all the way through the grantmaking process” at foundations, then we probably need to look elsewhere: to something like venture capital (but with a low expectation of return), something that can give certain individuals and organizations risk capital to play with possibilities, money for real R&D and even for what scientists call “basic research.” And it may not just be the funders we need to step away from; we may need to step outside of our own institutional structures in order to really innovate in the ways you’re talking about. Hence the Culture Kettle model that Carroll Joynes and I are working on: experimentation in neutral spaces to see what else is possible…

  6. Annette Simons says

    Thanks for articulating this issue. As an arts fundraiser with 20+ years of experience with grant applications, I have often wondered: Would J.S. Bach, George Balanchine, or Samuel Beckett have qualified for these innovation grants?

  7. says

    Thanks for this Diane. “Innovation” has been the focus of so many grants in the last 6-7 years that great work — both artistic and business — slips through the cracks.

    The most innovative thing I can do everyday is ensure that the concert series I produce reflects my values. The concerts, their formats, and their venues allow me to show how I want to be a citizen. For me, that means programming that is based on bringing people together as a community (as opposed to community being the byproduct of what we put on stage.) At the core of each concert (whether it’s as apparently traditional as Beethoven piano sonatas or as apparently innovative as new work for throat singer and string quartet) is this value-based intent.

    Does making such a change to the philosophy of presenting and producing rock the “innovation” vote on grants? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    But as cultural entrepreneurs, we’re not creating work for grants. And we’re not innovating and interrogating our work — both artistic and business — because grants are available.

    I do think though, that many organizations (especially larger, more established business as Kathleen Cerveny notes above) really do need a kick in the pants when it comes to examining how they deliver their art. As an industry, we tend to continue with decades-old performance models and look to external factors to explain decline in audiences and revenues. Then most of us use decades-old business models to try to turn the decline around.

    I believe that many funders developed the idea of innovation in their grants so that organizations and artists could step back and look at ideas with fresh eyes. But you’re absolutely right when you note that truly innovative organizations don’t need big carrots or two-week retreats to innovate.

    If more granting bodies develop what Peter Linett identifies as a venture capital approach to funding, we’d see a greater investment in natural innovators. And that could allow more artists and organizations to open their eyes to the changing cultural ecology, and perhaps become the incentive to innovate in ways that truly reflect their values.

  8. says

    Brava Diane –
    Such insightful comments. My impression is that arts groups ( and relationships, so says Woody Allen) are like sharks — they must keep moving forward or die! Arts creative entreprenaurs are driven to be better, different, amazing, surprising — pushing themselves and their audiences to grow and imagine and dream.

    Seems to me funders could be truly helpful to the field by supporting people with ideas that are too risky to be attempted with “keeping the lights on” capital. Maybe start with little ideas and give them a chance to blossom and evolve. I spoke with Clay Shirky a few months ago and his mantra is — “If someone comes to you with one million dollar idea, throw him/her out and lock the door!! Rather find a million one dollar ideas and pick a few to nurture.” Let’s think about funding as true RISK capital that can help people fail interestingly (some of the time) and learn masterfully thereby!!

    Thank for starting this discussion, Diane. We denizens of the Big Apple miss you!

    Cheers, Mary

  9. says

    It may be my own bias, but the take home point might be this: we all – funding agencies included – are embedded in a narrative that puts a high value on innovation. For us to give attention, passion or funding to anything it must be innovative. In so doing, we forget that innovation was supposed to be good because it improves on the status quo, as you rightly say, and not per se. It has become an ideology. Some people say “innovative”, but they really mean “good, not evil”.

  10. Ben Cameron says

    There seems to be some lack of clarity in this discussion about what we mean by innovation –and whether we are talking about innovative practice for a particular organization or innovative practice for the field. For our own part at Doris Duke, our interest in innovation arose from field conversations where participants clearly acknowledged that business as usual was unlikely to sustain them in the future, but that pathways to future success were unclear. Participants also lamented that there was too little funding available to help them undertake such new behavior–the equivalent of risk capital. The work we have done with Richard Evans where he has defined innovation as “new pathways to mission fulfillment, discontinuous from previous practice, resulting from shifts in underlying organizational assumptions” has been useful for us. The keys here are mission congruence, bold new direction, and change in assumptions–all of which may be far more modest that than “radical” would imply and which would place the lens on what is innovative for the organziation itself rather than for the field. The Bill T/ DTW represented an unpacking of assumptions for them about their individual identifies, about who their collaborative partners could be, and whether their missions to date were best served by traditional roles assigned to dance companies and presenters. While mergers may not be new, the new roles they have adopted–and the assumptions that will guide them going forward–meet the definition of innovation as Richard would have it.

  11. says

    As an entrepreneur myself, Diane, I relate to everything you’re saying here and support it 100%. It is need that drives innovation primarily. Grants won’t drive innovation in operations, only innovation in how we package things to present to foundations giving innovation grants. While Ben certainly makes a good argument for why risk capital can help actual innovation, I just don’t know that there are that many projects out there that would be justified on those grounds under the auspice of innovation.

    While it may be completely anecdotal, I’ll say that my greatest moments of innovation came when I simply took the time to listen to my patrons about their wants and needs and matched that to what I had the capacity to offer. Sometimes I drew on my line of credit to do so, but more often, they didn’t need major investments of any kind. It just took the skill to understand what would make my patrons’ experiences more valuable and changing how we moved forward, preferably using as little cash resources as possible.

  12. says

    Very true and insightful observations and thoughts on innovation in the arts.
    BUT I have a different view on the perception.

    While innovation is often a marketing view on economic, budget driven business development, in the arts, here, the discussion is focussed on changes in operation, management en presentation, together with new and undiscovered collaboration, merges or combination of art disciplines and art forms.

    My perception of innovation and arts is kind of the other way around.
    Art is the most free, autonomous and human offspring/condition/level we have. All we know, feel, experience, have, admire, believe, want, question, expect, dream of… is contained in the universal and uni-everything concept and manifestation of art, in the sense that art is our very most common, shared and unpredicted quality of human existence.

    Artists are in fact our shamans, and practical and creative and pioneering and critical and esthetic and ethic community members, we have to respect, support, challenge.

    Why not try to find/stimulate/fund the best of mankind/people with an open mind. Not hindered by trivial aspects like budget, profit, power, control and other/more less relevant short term benefits.

    To support and help art, organizations and individuals can better consider how to define a vision and take position that relates, in a sustainable way, to the freedom art needs to exist and flourish.

    The point I want to make is this: Art and artists are pioneering to find and research and co/re-create knowledge and technology into concepts and models that are fundamental to human scale and perception.

  13. says

    Ultimately, which is more important: Innovative business models for the arts? or Innovative art? Without the latter, the former is without purpose. There has been much discussion here and elsewhere (including my own blog) about realigning the organizational models in the arts. While important, perhaps a shift in focus toward the creative work itself is in order. Perhaps any realignment of organizational structures should be focused on helping funders get resources more directly to the artists who make the work so that they can build an audience for the future. Just a thought.

  14. says

    Great post and comments! Loved your point about “good-old-fashioned, common-sense, it’s-about-time, just-do-the-right-thing, ‘improvements’. ” As a consultant and project manager, I’ve helped organizations reach higher ground for decades and always start here. It’s amazing how smooth sailing becomes when you look below the surface and scrape some barnacles off the hull…

  15. Arleen Chikami says

    Thank you for presenting an honest discussion about “innovation” with regards to new business models for the nonprofit arts sector. When I think of innovation, I usually think of artistic innovation (product/programming), which, I feel, is born out of the artistic/creative impulse–not because some foundation created a new grant category.

    As for business models, it’s clear that our stagnating economy is forcing arts organizations to seriously consider new ways of operating their businesses or risk having to close shop. I think it’s great that foundations are providing resources that could potentially help arts organizations acquire, merge, unwind, transition, retire, etc to a different stage of evolution. Mergers aren’t an innovative concept, but the fact that foundations are providing grants for groups to seriously explore a new model seems innovative to me. I seem to recall that The San Francisco and the Lodestar Foundations were doing this.

    These kinds of transitions aren’t right for all groups, but if it helps to reduce redundancy in the field, that would be a good thing.

    On a related note, this is an interesting blog on new models for small arts organizations whose missions are all about Artistic Innovation:


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