Business Unusual Event: Recap and Takeaways

Liz Dreyer facilitates an exercise with the participants in “Business Unusual” at EmcArts.

For over a year ArtsFwd has been facilitating conversations about innovation and organizational change using blog posts, videos and audio postcards. Last week ArtsFwd and EmcArts brought that conversation offline and into the historic Harlem brownstone that they call home.

The event, Business Unusual, brought together staff members of arts nonprofits, students and policy makers to talk about what drives innovative change in the arts. The discussion centered on why organizational change matters, how it works, the barriers to it, and how it impacts our work and communities. In line with EmcArts’ approach, the evening focused on changes that go beyond improving “business as usual” and towards creating genuinely new ways of working and thinking.

In his introduction Richard Evans, President of EmcArts, stressed the timeliness of these conversations saying, “This is a time in the arts when we need to try new things.” However, for innovative organizational change to occur Richard pointed out that arts organizations have to not only, “Do things differently, but get good at doing things differently.”

Innovative change: three case studies

To emphasize what innovative organizational change can look like, the event featured three guest speakers who presented Pecha Kucha style about adaptive change in their organizations.

April Lee from Dia: Beacon discussed how the approach to education has changed at Dia and now, “Focuses rigorously on how meaning making can happen around contemporary art.” The foundation used to resist interpretation of its pieces, Lee explained, but now they are, “Looking to the horizons of the field to disrupt traditional models of education, just like the artists featured at Dia did with art.”

Megan McDermott of Global Action Project, which works to develop youth leadership through engagement with art and media, focused her discussion on leadership. “What kind of leadership is actually relevant to sustainability?” she asked. For those working with youth and the arts she emphasized that, “If we are committed to our young people being the next generation of change makers we need to create pathways to leadership.” McDermott stressed the importance of using the organization’s core values to guide change, saying “We want to know where we are going because our core values take us there,” and asked the essential question, “Where and how do you see your leadership structure reflecting your mission or your art form?”

Lily Binns of Pilobolus Dance Theatre also touched on values and she discussed the challenge the company has faced as they focus on stabilizing and strengthening the organization, which was founded in 1971. “The idea at the core of Pilobulos is independent of the company’s technique or aesthetic,” she explained. By prioritizing their internal values and the company’s mission to bring people together to make dynamic work they are forging a plan for the future of the company. They are adapting so that they can, “Shepherd the founders’ values using new technology and methods for sharing that are available now,” Lily said.

Perspectives on change design

After the presentations the focus of the discussion was on the process of creative change. EmcArts staff facilitated a conversation with participants about the Do’s and Don’ts for organizational change, based on the participants’ previous experience. This brainstorm informed a discussion about three perspectives of organizational change design, which were presented by Jonas Cartano, the Director of Community Engagement at EmcArts. He introduced participants to John Kotter’s 8 step change model, the U process of change, and EmcArts’ own Framework for Innovation.

Jonas emphasized that EmcArts has found that, “There’s no one way to go through a change process and that how it happens depends on your organization and the people in it.” The change process, he explained, involves staff members at an organization working together to develop innovative solutions to a specific challenge with an eye towards shifting the organizational culture to be more responsive and adaptive to change.

Towards a better understanding of change and innovation

To close the discussion Karina Mangu-Ward, director of Activating Innovation, posed two simple questions for participants to discuss: what will you take away? What will you leave behind?

I would like to share my responses to these questions. As the evening began I felt unsure about what innovative change really looks and feels like. Through listening to the presentations, considering change models, and talking to other participants I felt more comfortable with the fact that innovative change can take many different forms.

My two key takeaways from the evening focused on the importance of leadership and change as a discovery process. The idea of aligning an organization’s mission, leadership, art form and values to facilitate change really struck me and is something I will carry forward in my own work. One question that still remains for me is based on the financial reality of arts organizations. Organizations can reach a stalemate in a change process because they need changes to pay off immediately and do not have the financial flexibility to experiment with new ideas.

Overall Business Unusual reminded me that while change is always challenging embracing it as a discovery process that is aligned with an organization’s mission and values can facilitate a greater openness to finding an innovative, adaptive solution to an organizational problem.

I look forward to deepening my engagement with these ideas in person at a future Creative Conversation!

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.