Can an Innovative Project Lead to a Culture Change?

This project update from Springboard for the Arts takes a recent look at one project that emerged from their prototyping phase in the 2011 Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts.

The leaders at Springboard for the Arts knew that change was coming, but they needed to figure out just how to manage it. After participating in the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in 2011, the Twin Cities-based organization—known for its work in delivering professional development services to artists—found that preparing for change with a new toolkit of approaches enabled them to grow in unexpected directions. Read more about their experience with the Lab in our Innovation Stories collection.

Two years later, Springboard has found a successful project in Irrigate, a creative placemaking initiative spurred by a massive construction project in St. Paul. In what follows, we’ll look at how Irrigate grew out of Springboard’s participation in the Innovation Lab, and how it has impacted organizational culture, structure, financial profile, and audience reach in new and meaningful ways.

An opportunity to develop a prototype

Springboard was accepted to the Innovation Lab for Performing Arts in September 2010. For years, the organization had been building momentum and facing increasing demand with neither the guiding principles for growth nor the practical tools for expanding its local footprint. They left the Innovation Lab with both. After the Lab, the principles they left with began to coalesce around a key theme: movement building. Enter Irrigate, “an artist-led creative placemaking initiative spanning the six miles of the Central Corridor Light Rail line in Saint Paul during the years of its construction.”

Collaborating with local agencies and organizations

PrintIrrigate is founded on a partnership between Springboard, the City of Saint Paul, and the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (TC LISC). At the heart of the initiative are artist-driven collaborations with businesses, organizations, and community groups affected by the new rail construction in St. Paul. Springboard is fueling the action by training artists in creative placemaking, giving them the tools and confidence to engage new constituents.

A definition of placemaking

By their definition, “placemaking is the act of people coming together to change overlooked and undervalued public and shared spaces into welcoming places where community gathers, supports one another, and thrives.”

At, visitors can track potential placemaking sites, works in progress, and completed works on a live Google map. Examples have included bus stop residencies, restaurant performances, murals, and more, all informed by Springboard’s training of the artists who guide such placemaking sites.

Cultural impact: Centering around movement building

Key to getting Irrigate off the ground was a continuous engagement with the guiding principles and ideas generated from the Innovation Lab. In doing so, Springboard began to hone in on the notion of movement building as central to their mission and organizational culture.

According to executive director Laura Zabel, a big question for Springboard was, “How do we build artist agency so that they can go and do the work on their own and make a sustainable life for themselves? It isn’t about doing things for people, but about teaching them and giving them skills to do for themselves.”

Zabel and Erik Takeshita of TC LISC both point to an existing organizational culture of innovation as key to their success, but according to Zabel, the full impact of their culture change after the Lab was apparent at a board retreat this past spring. At that gathering, they were able to say, “Locally, we’re an organization that does things. Nationally, we’re an organization that can help other people make things happen.”

Structural impact: Focusing more on community relationships

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 11.58.10 AMSpringboard always considered itself an organization that focused on “reciprocal relationships between artists and communities,” but in the Lab they realized that they had been working almost exclusively on the artist-side of the equation. With the launch of Irrigate, Springboard built on strategic partnerships developed in the Lab, created an Artist Community Organizer position, and intentionally began to focus on the community-side of its programming while always keeping an eye on their goal of ability to spread on a national level.

Irrigate’s central goal is to build relationships between artists and their communities. Jun-Li Wang, Artist Community Organizer at Springboard, adds that it’s about “looking at artists not only as creators of artwork, but as critical thinkers,” and thinking about how to embed artists and the way they think into everything that happens in the city. The process of thinking about artists in those broader civic terms while actively engaging the community meant new, non-artist audiences and partners for Springboard.

Structural implications can also be found in the organization’s new focus on movement building. For Springboard, almost every program is now produced with transferability in mind, and toolkits and educational materials are planned from the start. Zabel says that they are always thinking, “How can we share this? How do we use it to inform the field? How do other communities pick it up and make it their own?” As Irrigate takes root at the height of what seems to be a national focus on creative placemaking, Springboard has positioned its organization as one capable of contributing on a national level by being adaptable.

Financial impact: New opportunities for growth

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 11.56.39 AMBecause Irrigate spans community and economic development as well as cross-disciplinary arts, new funding opportunities—including a major ArtPlace grant—availed themselves, quickly making Irrigate a third of the overall Springboard budget. In addition to being able to fundraise in new arenas and taking advantage of public-private partnerships, Springboard may also be able to generate new revenue streams as it develops toolkits of national interest. As Zabel points out, Springboard was growing steadily and was already a success story in the field, but after leaving the Lab with new wind at their backs, the pace of growth picked up exponentially.

Audience impact: Acting locally and nationally

Through Irrigate, Springboard has taken on a new role in its city and stepped in to the national landscape of creating placemaking initiatives. New key successes include:

  • Over 300 artists trained in creative placemaking in first ten months
  • Helping local businesses attract business with arts events during construction
  • Changing the conversation around rail from one of disruption to positive focus on creation and new possibilities, with regular news coverage of events
  • Increased awareness in city government of artists roles in large scale projects

Irrigate has allowed Springboard to develop into an organization that offers services to artists to an organization serving the community through artists, drastically increasing its footprint both locally and nationally in the process.

Brian Hinrichs grew up playing the cello and began transitioning to the administrative side of arts organizations in college. He is interested in innovation through programming and technology, and believes strongly in the power of connecting audiences to the process of creating new works. Brian is currently an MBA candidate at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, WI, where he works as a graduate project assistant for the Pro Arte Quartet and is researching the impact of composer-in-residence programs at American symphony orchestras. Previously, he was the director of marketing and community engagement at Madison Opera. As a Fulbright Fellow to Thailand in 2007-08, Brian explored the emerging classical music scene in Bangkok with an eye for organizations and composers fusing traditions. A 2007 graduate of Colgate University, he is originally from Bay Shore, NY. Follow @classicalive