April Topic: What Can Organizations Learn From Artists?

In April, we’ll be focusing on artists to explore what kinds of practices adaptive organizations might learn from the artistic process.

Yeji Yun Sangon Kim
What can organizations learn from artists to help them stay adaptive and resilient? Image: Sangon Kim/Tumblr.

This post is the second in a series of investigations into the practices, processes, and behaviors that organizations undertake in order to stay continuously adaptive. Each month, we’ll explore a different area of organizational life. Learn more about this series.

This month, we’re continuing with our new editorial direction, in which we’re deeply exploring our 2014 Research Question: How do organizations stay continuously adaptive?

In April, we’ll be focusing on artists to explore what kinds of practices organizations might learn from the artistic process.

What can adaptive organizations learn from artists?

When I sat down to write the introductory piece for this month’s topic, I’ll admit I was daunted by the prospect of having to define “artist” and “the artistic process” in a useful way. Those labels mean different things to different folks in different contexts.

So, I won’t attempt to do that at all. Instead, I’ll speak from my own experience and invite all our readers to contribute theirs. Our goal is to illustrate a rich tapestry of what it means to be an artist and what the artistic process looks like in practice, so that those who run arts organizations might learn from those practices and intentionally incorporate them into their own work.

I come from a theater background, where playwrights, director, actors, and designers bring different skills, perspectives, and responsibilities to a shared process. During rehearsals, ideas are generated from different sources (actors, directors, stage managers, designers, interns), tested out, improved by the group, and either incorporated into the overall vision or let go. Tensions arise and the success of the production often depends on the leader’s ability to manage those tensions in a productive way. In tech, the show is solidified, but it’s never truly finished. Every night, the performers respond to the needs of their audience.

In this context, the artistic process is rooted in experimentation, discovery, and improvisation. It requires that the group stays open to ideas from any source, that the leader navigates heat and ambiguity, and that everyone lets go of that which isn’t useful. Diverse voices are essential. So is collaboration.

As a filmmaker, I work for long stretches alone, punctuated by short periods of intense collaboration. During shooting, all the planning in the world can’t stop the reality of weather, locations, and personalities from affecting the dynamics of the work. In the edit room, you’ve got to let go of your original vision of the material to find the most powerful version contained in the footage you actually have, even if that requires cutting your favorite shot or rethinking a scene that’s not working the way you thought it might work.

In this context, the artistic process requires persistence, flexibility, shifting assumptions, and finding the courage to let go of something that isn’t working in favor of taking a new direction.

In my work at EmcArts, I’ve found that organizations that embrace these kinds of principles — experimentation, improvisation, openness to new ideas, letting go of things that are no longer useful — are well poised to adapt to the complex challenges they face.

I find myself asking: Can organizations be an art project of their own? Must they be?

This is just my experience. There’s a great wealth of insight about the creative process on the Creative Capital blog, the Brooklyn Commune, Springboard for the Arts’s Creative Exchange, and many others. I hope you’ll share your practices so that others can learn from you.

How do you embed the artistic process in your practice?

We’ll be investigating what organizations can learn from artists about staying adaptive by gathering insights and testimonials from a wide variety of voices. Our goal is to better understand how artists stay open, responsive, and resilient, and what that might mean for organizations looking to do the same.

We’ve developed three research questions to help guide our inquiry. They are:

  1. How can an organization embed artistic process into its practice?
  2. How can organizations create space for artists?
  3. What can organizations learn from the practices of artists who work directly with, for, and in their own communities?

How can I share my experience?

To share your own experiences in response to these questions you can respond publicly in the comments section at the very bottom of this post, or click here to share your responses with us privately.

We look forward to hearing about what practices you are implementing in your work and your organizations!

Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.

  • The Theater Offensive

    Focusing on the third question: what can organizations learn from the practices of artists who work directly with, for, and in their own communities?

    Artists who work directly with, for, and in their own communities constantly strike a tough balance between representing the historic truth of the community and pushing for the changes they want in the community. The artists who succeed at striking that balance often have tremendous listening skills and a deep appreciation for the cultures that contribute to their work. They understand that the process of transformation, no matter how positive the intended change, requires letting go of things that have been important to you in the past. They also have a keen understanding that while their unique artistic contribution is precious and pivotal, the community environment and the specific community members involved share ownership of the work. People who are the best at this work have an analysis of the forces and power dynamics at play in their community as well as an artistic strategy for how their artwork can challenge that status quo in the interest of adaptive change. For instance, terrific queer Black artists working in Dudley Square, Roxbury are tuned in to the ways racism, homophobia, gentrification, and real estate business forces play out in their neighborhood.

    Likewise, organizations which aim to work with and within a specific community need to take responsibility for analyzing those power dynamics and ensuring that their participation builds equity and challenges the status quo. To do this, any organization needs to have effective practices for hearing and integrating community input and welcoming rigorous critique. It requires organizations to understand what they offer and also what they need from their community colleagues. Organizations need to have a clear ethical stance on how the work of artists and communities is mutually owned.

    • Thanks for sharing, TTO folks!

  • Patricia Frischer

    How can an organization embed artistic process into its practice? Most administrative procedures in our experience seem to be linear and follow a ridgid format. Using circular diagrams frees ideas from being siloed into separate categories and encourages collaborations and more holistic solutions and projects. Artist often leaves very valuable blanks (negatives spaces) which allows for imagination to exist and two views to be equally valued.

    • Thanks for sharing, Patricia!

  • Jess Helmke

    I’ve thought about this too, but never have the time to actually write about it.

    Thank you for this!!

    I hope business picks up on the idea as well. Maybe you could even market it…