Building the Capacity to Innovate and Adapt: Philadelphia Workshop Series

In October of 2019, EmcArts was thrilled to undertake Building the Capacity to Innovate and Adapt with a robust cohort of sixteen diverse arts organizations. Thanks to Knight Foundation, we were able to work with the following Philadelphia arts organizations:


Asian Arts Initiative

Bearded Ladies Cabaret Company

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra

The Crossing


Headlong Dance Theater


Mural Arts Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Philadelphia Contemporary

Philadelphia Film Society

Performance Garage

Philadelphia Theatre Company

Power Street Theatre of Culture Trust Greater Philadelphia

RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency)

You can read more from Knight Foundation’s Priya Sircar about our workshop series here. You can also read her 2017 post on ArtsFwd about Flipping the Script here.

Consisting of a set of three pairs of half-day Workshops, this program brought together teams of three to five artistic, board, and staff leaders from each organization to tackle their most complex challenges. In order to recognize the time and effort required for teams to take part, as well as to help underwrite the experimentation that took place before the final pair of Workshops, each organization received a grant totaling $10,000 from Knight Foundation.

These Workshops were led by our Managing Director, Jonathan Halsey, and Lead Process Facilitator, Liz Dreyer. Our time together was firmly grounded in the situations and real issues of each organization. The series provided an entry point to developing the awareness of organizations about innovation as a core organizational process, supporting peer-to-peer sharing of effective “next” practices, devising adaptive responses to the complex challenges that participants themselves identified, and building the necessary skills and capacities to effectively design and implement innovative initiatives. By working in home teams, as well as exploring challenges cross-organizationally and developing new support networks, participants gained new perspectives and acquired new knowledge.

As with all of EmcArts’ programming, we aimed in this Workshop series to provide participants a wide range of practical tools and techniques that they could take home and continue to utilize, alongside arts-based experiential learning and creative exercises to reframe thinking and advance new understanding. Through lateral thinking, creative use of metaphor, and activities drawn from the visual and performing arts, participants explored their complex challenges and adaptive responses from a number of divergent perspectives.


In the six weeks between Workshops 3 and 4 and Workshops 5 and 6, participating organizations executed Small Experiments with Radical Intent (SERIs), as they began to probe innovative, out-of-the-box solutions to their complex challenges. The design of these SERIs illustrated both the aspirations many of these organizations hold in common, and the incredible diversity of approaches and forms present in Philadelphia’s arts sector.

As an example, Asian Arts Initiative, in keeping with the external focus of their complex challenge and radical new vision, planned to examine their external partnerships, gauging partners’ alignment with their organization’s internal “community agreements.” Headlong Dance Theater, which centered its work on applying its founding artistic values to an innovative organizational structure, called its SERI “Partnered.” Partnered work and thinking sessions across the organization were designed to focus alternately on “to do” items as well as broader visionary thinking, with everyone experimenting with at least two sessions per week.

We were delighted by the insights and action learning we observed over the course of the workshops, and hope that the tools and frameworks offered in the workshops continue to be helpful far beyond the four months we spent together . One participant stated this of their experience: “We came in looking to be ‘less adaptive.’ I now realize that we are ‘reactive’ and not always ‘adaptive.’ Piecing out the differences between these two approaches will be helpful.”

You can read Knight Foundation’s announcement of the cohort here.

ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.