Richard Evans Speaks on New Toronto Program

When Richard Evans co-founded EmcArts 20 years ago, he recognized that, though many arts organizations wanted to adapt and innovate in response to a rapidly changing world, they often lacked the necessary tools to successfully move forward. Two decades later, Richard is now regarded as a leader in adaptive change for cultural organizations. As a nonprofit enterprise, EmcArts has worked with over 300 institutions and 2,500 leaders across the U.S. and Canada in identifying innovative new strategies to engage audiences, generate revenue, and create public valueA graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, his research and analytical expertise have been published in numerous field studies. Prior to founding EmcArts, he held senior positions in arts management and philanthropy, including Co-Director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Advancement Program, Chief Executive of the Bath International Festival of Music & the Arts, England, and Vice President of the National Arts Stabilization Fund.

On Monday April 23, Richard will be in Toronto for an info session on Staging Change, the exciting new program EmcArts is undertaking with the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation. In preparation for this information session, Richard talked with us from his office in New York about his belief in the power of adaptive change and his hopes for working with Toronto’s performing arts companies.

Metcalf: What is adaptive change?

Richard: Adaptive change is an approach to organizational development; how you manage it and how you think about it. Ten or twelve years ago, in EmcArts’ early programs, we spoke more about innovation. The difficulty with this term was that it was really hard to separate it from its more customary association with product innovation in the corporate sector. Whereas, from our point of view, innovation is a process in which organizations diverge from what they’ve done in the past in order to identify and explore new pathways to success. They do this in response to complex challenges, which require that they don’t just adopt an existing best practice or tune up their strategies by bringing in an expert, but actually diverge from previous strategies in order to discover their ‘next practices’ for the future. They have to go through a series of experiments and rethink as they go, in order to learn their way into a new future. So, realizing that cultural organizations these days face more and more complex challenges, we came to see that the term innovation was insufficient. We realized that we were really talking about adaptation. With adaptive responses, you have to let go of old assumptions in order to find a new path forward. Building adaptive capacity in organizations is not an occasional activity or something that only some special group of people in the organization can do. It means strengthening a set of core competencies that everyone in the organization has to commit to and adopt. Cultural organizations are learning to build, then flex, new muscles in order to address the complex challenges they face to achieve success in the future.

Metcalf: Why do you think that performing arts organizations need adaptive change now?

Richard: We are used to the idea of an audience as a group of people who buy tickets and turn up to performing arts events, with basically no influence over what happens. But over the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a significant shift in how people want to participate in the arts. They want to be more engaged, to participate in a wider range of activities in different kinds of venues at different times of day. Initially, this change was regarded as an opportunity for a new outreach program or an online engagement program. But now we realize that it’s far more than that. This shift in what audiences want goes to the heart of performing arts organizations, to who they are, what they’re trying to do, how they engage their communities inclusively, and how they’re structured to do that. In addition, over the last fifteen years technology has gone from being a communications tool to becoming the locus of creative exchange and engagement. People also want to use their time in different ways. There’s increasing competition from other kinds of nonprofits and a shift in the funding system, which is no longer inclined to go on just supporting what has been the ‘business as usual’ way of doing things. All of these factors impact an organization. It’s not just a period of bad weather for the arts, but a climate change in which very different approaches are needed. It means fundamentally rethinking and asking: what kind of organization are we?, who do we want to serve?, and, what kinds of structures, programs and personnel will best serve those goals?. Organizations that increase their adaptive capacity are able to consider those kinds of questions and successfully move forward. They realize that it’s more than grafting a new way of doing something onto an old structure. Part of the work of adapting is also to learn how to give things up. Adaptive change can’t just be adding things on – that results in higher budgets and is inherently unsustainable.

Metcalf: How do organizations know what the difference is between a fundamental shift in their audience and a trend that might last a year or two?

Richard: Sometimes initially it’s hard to know what the difference is. In dealing with demographic changes, for example, we see a lot of companies offering a special program, advertising in a different way and/or setting up better online forums. This is what I would call a technical response and if it works in a sustainable way, that’s great. But often an organization will offer a special event and, when they go back to their normal repertory, the audience for that special event doesn’t come with them. The persistence of the challenge is an indicator that the organization needs to do something different, that it is an ongoing and complex problem. In our adaptive change work, we spend a lot of time helping organizations dig down into the core assumptions they hold about their business models. We find that people hang on to old assumptions without realizing it, assumptions that live below the level of consciousness, and persist long beyond their sell-by date. But if you give up an assumption, you have to be able to think of an alternative, something that might actually lead you purposefully in a different direction.

Metcalf:  How will Metcalf’s Staging Change help performing arts companies learn to adapt?

Richard: The program is staged or tiered in a deliberate manner. In the first stage – a series of six workshops – performing arts companies identify the complex challenges they face. They decide which one to focus on, because realistically you can’t take on more than one at a time. But we are not asking for them to propose a solution at the outset. Adaptive change doesn’t require the immediate creation and implementation of a plan – just the reverse. In the second stage, an organizational team develops a hunch about a possible way forward – an alternative to ingrained assumptions – and then begins to experiment with it. They undertake what we call ‘small experiments with radical intent’. These experiments don’t cost much and don’t take much staff time, but they are designed to give an indication as to whether this course of action is worth pursuing further or not. In the third stage, the team undertakes larger-scale prototypes. This involves repeated public trials of one or more ways forward with a larger grant to underwrite this expanded phase of work. In this stage, the expectation is that the organization gets to a point where they begin to learn what is getting traction, what works. Then, in the fourth and final stage, which has the most financial investment from Metcalf, the performing arts organization receives multi-year support to scale up the emerging strategy so that it can become a part of its core business.

Metcalf: What is the Associate Facilitator Training Initiative?

Richard: Threaded through the first three stages of Staging Change is the Associate Facilitator Training. We will train up to eight people as adaptive change facilitators in the performing arts. The trainees will all be selected locally and will be drawn from a range of backgrounds. They may currently be independent consultants, work for a service organisation, or they might even be employed in a cultural organisation of some kind. The trainees will be paid to train and paid to deliver the program.

Metcalf: You work throughout North America, with large and small performing arts organizations alike. What are some of the most exciting transformations that you have witnessed?

Richard:  One of the most striking examples is the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. It is quite a large organization with four theatres. One of them, the Jones, was empty. So, they came to our program some years ago to address the challenge of how to make use of The Jones Theater in a way that would foster a much younger and more adventurous community of theatregoers. The Artistic Director was wise enough to be on the team but not to run it. He put in charge younger people in their 20s who are digital natives and who were very connected to technology and the local arts community. For the empty theatre, they created ‘Off-Center’, an initial season of four prototype events working with local artistic collaborators to create highly participatory events. It got a tremendous response. The new audience was younger, more adventurous, and so connected online that their total reach soon exceeded the reach of all the people coming to the mainstage productions. The next year, the Board invested $100,000 to expand the series, matched in the community, and the following year more. Then, in a recent season, the Artistic Director invited the curators of ‘Off-Center’ to produce one of the mainstage shows. So as you can see, an innovation that was initially just a marginal initiative became part of the mainstream of the whole enterprise.

Metcalf: Wow! That’s incredible.

Richard: Yeah, it’s a terrific story. It’s been studied a lot all over the country. And, at the other end of the spectrum, is The Wooster Group here in New York. Though very well-known, it’s a very small avant-garde company. It’s the darling of European theatre festivals and tours, often so much so that the company spends very little time actually performing in New York. The challenge for them was how to retain the loyalty and support of their New York following when they’re spending so much time elsewhere. Compounding this is the long gestation time of each show. Elizabeth LeCompte, the founding Artistic Director, dedicates months to creating new work (frequently including live and recorded video), which then has a short New York run before touring. After spending time with the adaptive change process, the company came up with something highly counter-cultural for them. They decided to record short 1- to 2-minute videos every day of rehearsals, or short interviews with one actor. Rapidly selected and edited by the full company at the end of each day, these were then posted online as a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes. They called them ‘dailies’. And since they started doing this, they’ve generated a real cult online following of literally tens of thousands of people. These videos enabled their audiences in New York, around the United States, and around the world to be a continuing part of what’s going on. After touring, back in New York, they launched a new show and sold out the run without spending a single dollar on marketing. The videos attracted the audience and their marketing went down to zero. And they’re reaching people in a whole new way.

Metcalf:  What do you hope to achieve working with the Toronto performing arts community?

Richard: The program really has three circles. One is the leadership within the participating organizations — the board leadership, the executive and artistic leaders — who become strengthened in their confidence and their experience in doing adaptive work in all aspects of their organizations, say over the next five to ten years. Then the organizations themselves develop cultures which are more adaptive, better able to respond rapidly to new opportunities and challenges. And then the third circle is the effect of these leading organizations on the larger cultural community in Toronto and across the country.  We hope to help support the highly vibrant artistic community in Toronto and to create new ways of doing things of which the rest of the country will take notice.

The deadline to apply to Staging Change is June 11, 2018The deadline to apply to the Staging Change Associate Facilitator Training Initiative is May 28, 2018. Click here for more information and application guidelines.

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