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 shutterstock.com.