Reimagine your future in the midst of historic change

EmcArts pilots new digital programs in Toronto and Detroit focused on recovering and rebuilding

EmcArts spent months during the COVID-19 pandemic reinventing itself as a digital-services company. After all, helping organizations across the arts sector build the adaptive muscles they need to chart new paths forward is what our team does best. We simply turned the lens inward to fundamentally reimagine our own future.

Since then we’ve been putting our new online offerings to the test with funding partners in Toronto and Michigan who believe that investing in adaptive-capacity work has never been more critical to the viability of the sector than it is today.

“Part of the discourse here in Toronto is we are not going back to normal: What was before is not sustainable or desirable moving forward.” said Michael Trent, Director of Performing Arts at The Metcalf Foundation, which recently funded a pilot of EmcArts’ new digital workshop series, Building Adaptive Capacity.

“Too much has been disrupted by the pandemic.”

The second round of Staging Change | Toronto launched in November 2020 and Stage 1 of the program concluded in February 2021. Ten organizations took part in Stage 1, composed of 10 two-hour interactive sessions online that take small teams through a process that centers early thinking and practice around adaptive change. Eight of the organizations have now progressed to individual adaptive projects in Stage 2.

Response from participants has been decidedly positive thus far.

“We recently heard from the artistic director of The Theatre Centre here is Toronto how transformative this process had been for them. She used the word transformative,” Michael recalled. “She says their goal now is to invent the future, not to wait for it.”

The Metcalf Foundation, through its mission of enhancing the effectiveness of people and organizations working to build just, healthy and creative communities, has offered strategic-intervention programs to grantees for nearly two decades with some notable successes.

“But when applicants came to the table with an already imagined or predetermined way to address a challenge or solve a specific problem, we sometimes found that they would come to a screeching halt because so many assumptions were baked in,” Michael explained. “We felt that there might be a better way.”

Metcalf found that better way with EmcArts, which challenges ingrained assumptions and “business-as-usual” in favor of an experimental mindset and new ways of thinking.

“It dawned on me that the adaptive capacities EmcArts was building could really speak to some of the challenges that we were seeing in the design of our program,” Michael said.

All of EmcArts’ new digital programs are custom-built and delivered on multiple platforms with real-time, facilitated team and cross-organizational learning. All feature our distinctive, well-researched processes of adaptive change at a significantly lower cost than in-person offerings.

President Emeritus Richard Evans called the change “a democratizing of access to our programs.”

“I think most people would agree that learning deeply how to adapt and do things you’ve never done before as an organization and as a leader are now the most important capacities you can strengthen as you look to recover from the pandemic, advance and thrive in the future,” Richard noted. “This fundamental work addresses questions like what kind of organization do we want to be, who do we serve in our community and how do we serve them?”

Early in 2021, EmcArts partnered with Advancing Macomb in Southeast Michigan to provide two new online offerings: an Adaptive Leadership Circle and a Community Workshop Series. Both programs will wrap up this summer.

Omari Rush is Executive Director of CultureSource, an association for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in the region that provides capacity-building resources for its members. He took part in EmcArts’ ALACI (Adaptive Leaders as Cultural Innovators) program in 2018 and came away changed.

“So much of traditional strategic planning is about creating controls or making predictions as if you are a fortune-teller, which does not honor the need, the almost certainty, to adapt to unexpected changes — and the need to make all of the uncertainty not something that is suffocating but something that is life-giving,” Omari said.

“EmcArts offers a different way of thinking about planning and organizational development.”

Omari continues to draw heavily on the skills he honed and his core approach to the job has fundamentally shifted.

He put it this way: “I will always be stressed and worried about our organization’s progress. That just comes with the job of being the executive director. But I’ve learned how to use that energy and channel it into developing new ideas. It’s also helped me help our team settle down and not get overly demoralized when things don’t work out or we have to make a change.”

Change, Omari pointed out, is inevitable. How you face it is another matter. He was able to help his team remain cohesive, energized and productive during the ultimate test: the COVID-19 shutdown.

“We surged in our relevance and our output during the pandemic in part because we had some skills and muscles around dealing with ambiguity and knowing how to try new things — test and experiment. It helped us move quickly and responsibly at a time when a lot of organizations were just waiting for something to get firmer before they could act.”

Others in the ALACI cohort, who developed deep relationships during their time together and continued to meet after their work with EmcArts concluded, reported similar experiences.

“I was very pleased to hear other leaders in the cohort talk about navigating the early days of COVID-19, what was happening and how they were going to respond, with real strength and clarity,” Omari recalled. “It was fascinating that we would all get tested in the real world so soon after the program.”

Toronto’s Michael Trent believes that investing in adaptive reimagining across the arts now will be critical to the sector’s resilience long into the future.

“What is offered by EmcArts is not only an experience in response to a singular challenge — it is a skill set that you develop to be able to take on the next challenge, however it may appear in the future.” Michael said.

“EmcArts has a long arc of impact that enables an organization to address complexity as it emerges in time. We want to impact the DNA of the organization, and I think this adaptive-change work does just that.”


If you want to join the growing number of organizations committing to this work at low cost, more details are here; or contact Richard Evans at  If you’re a grantmaker looking to support selected grantees beyond immediate COVID relief, we can create a learning cohort with you.  We also have a history of establishing collaborations with service organizations and intermediaries to support their members; we would welcome a conversation to explore a new partnership.

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.