Choose Your Own Adventure: Innovate or Bust

Stephanie Hanson is the Program Manager of Leadership Development at Americans for the Arts,  where she works with arts leaders all over the country to provide professional development, networking opportunities, and resouces.   The ArtsFwd team invited Stephanie to respond to our NextGen Quick Poll because of her unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing young leaders today.  

Pretend you have two job offers in front of you (I know, we’re just pretending here, okay?!)

  • Organization A is a respected organization that has been producing high quality artistic work for the past 50 years.  You get the sense that your role in the Marketing Dept. will be to continue business as usual to an audience who can afford the organization’s $150 per seat tickets.  There is no social media campaign, something that you are very interested in starting.  However, it’s unclear whether the organization’s leadership understands social media, or if they think it’s a good use of time or energy.
  • Organization B is a start up organization that is 3 years old.  The social impact is clear – Organization B is providing a safe space for children from dual income families to go after work.  The children are exposed to art, music, and dance classes at an affordable rate.  Your job would be to launch a social media presence, but you’d also be tasked with finding new untapped sources of revenue and creative partnerships to help sustain and grow the important work this organization is doing for the community.

So, which position would you choose?  (By the way – we’re also pretending the pay scale, benefits, and title level of both positions is the same, although we know that in reality, this would not be the case).

If you choose Organization B (which we’re defining as the highly innovative organization), then according to ArtsFwd and EmcArts recent NextGen QuickPoll, you may find yourself feeling 80% more likely to want to “move up” in the organization.  Granted, this is not a scientific study, nor was it intended to be.  Also, I made up those above case organizations.  But, the survey and exercise itself brings up some very interesting questions and illuminates some issues in our field that I believe need addressing.

The first question I had while reading the NextGen survey results was “How is innovation being defined?”  Luckily, EmcArts read my mind and already had a definition identified.  However, I think we see innovation happening in arts organizations all of the time.  That innovation is happening on the stage, in the galleries, and in the orchestra pit.  The unfortunate scenario is that not all arts organizations do a great job with translating that innovation from the front of house to the back of house.

When Americans for the Arts surveyed over 550 emerging arts leaders across the country in 2009, the most striking result we found was that 70% of survey respondents indicated their desire to stay within the field.  However, less than 30% felt as though there was room for advancement within their current organizations.  This is a core problem, and will remain a problem until we as a field identify solutions to address it.

Could innovating the ways we manage our organizations be the key to this problem?  I believe that artistic innovation comes easily to arts organizations.  What we’re not so good at is organizational change.  And in order to innovate successfully at an organizational level, you have to be comfortable with organizational change.  Innovation doesn’t have to mean that arts organizations need to change everything at once.  As Dan Rockwell says, small incremental changes in how we do our work can lead to big impact.

This relates to another point from ArtsFwd’s survey, which found that highly innovative organizations were “nearly five times more likely to report that their organization has ‘meaningful ways for employees to invest in themselves’ than non-or slightly innovative organizations.”  These meaningful gestures can mean senior staff having regular mentorship lunches or meetings with entry and mid-level staff.  It can mean sharing professional development opportunities so everyone has a chance to attend something at least once, and then hosting an all staff meeting to debrief on key lessons learned from the conferences or workshops.  It can mean creating opportunities for staff to sit in on meetings outside of their own department, and/or generating an open system for new ideas to be contributed, tested, and perhaps implemented.  Again, none of those examples require large organizational change or funding to get started – but they do need a level of commitment and prioritization on behalf of organization leaders and staff.

Andrew Taylor recently wrote that “arts organizations are dripping with opportunity for deep connection to the artistic core.”  He’s right.  What they’re also dripping with is expertise, experience, and leaders that have an opportunity and a responsibility to develop and mentor staff.  Not all arts organizations can pay the same salary that other sectors can.  But next generation arts managers are generally attracted to this field because the arts made a difference in their lives, and they want to help make a difference for others.  They want to be connected to the art and know what they’re working on behalf of.  They have a desire to learn, grow, express themselves fully in their work, and make an impact not only within their organization, but in their wider communities.   Are we willing to risk losing that passion and energy because we’re only focused on innovating on the stage?  I hope not.

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