Working Open at EmcArts: An Introduction

How can the arts and culture field learn from the values of the Open Web movement? We’re committing to a “working open” approach and sharing learning about innovation projects in real-time.

The values of the Open Web movement. Doodle by Mark Surman of Mozilla, Image found on Hive NYC's Teach the Web blog.
The values of the Open Web movement. Doodle by Mark Surman of Mozilla; Image found on Hive NYC’s Teach the Web blog.

If you use the internet, you’ve probably heard the phrase “open source.”

You may have even downloaded free software like Mozilla’s Firefox browser, or the Word-esque program Open Office, which were developed through an open source process.

In the tech world, “open source” most often refers to software that makes its source code — the language of commands that compose instructions for a computer program’s functionality — free and accessible to the public to edit, remix, improve, and distribute. It supports the development of software that’s prototyped out in the open by a community of peers — who “work open” together on the program.

Recently, I was bowled over to learn that the concept of open source, and the process of “working open,” wasn’t limited to techies. As I discovered, there is a New York-based group of education-centered nonprofits (the Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network) exploring what it means to “work open” in a in-person network.

I immediately became obsessed with the idea of working open and what it might mean for our practice at EmcArts.

What is “working open”?

In my exploration of working open ideas, I connected with Leah Gilliam, Hive NYC’s Director. She shared two resources with me that I found immensely useful and interesting:

From these posts, I learned about the core principles of working open, which draw upon the values of the Open Web movement:

  • decentralization
  • transparency
  • openness
  • cooperation

I’m still in the process of figuring out what exactly it means to “work open” at an arts organization, but I think it has to do with sharing not the just outputs of our work, but the process as it unfolds. In the arts, our “source code” isn’t programming language; rather, it’s our ongoing learning, our failures, our revelations, and our thinking.

Matt Thompson’s post, “How to work open,” outlines the different levels through which a person or organization could approach “working open.” These levels really got me thinking about the kinds of mindset shift required from our organizations if we are to embody these principles:

  • Closed: Your organization could be closed to working open, and feel like your current process is not a safe one to share — you’re dealing with lots of personal information or confidential decisions.
  • Not ready yet: But you might move towards a mentality of being open to working open, but not being ready yet. Your organization might not be prepared to handle the potential input and feedback from others outside the organization, but you want to move towards interactions that might facilitate such input and feedback.
  • What is "good theft" when it comes to remixing, prototyping, and combining ideas across organizations and processes? Original image by Austin Kleon, Image found on Hive NYC's Teach the Web blog.
    What is “good theft” when it comes to remixing, prototyping, and combining ideas across organizations and processes? Original image by Austin Kleon, Image found on Hive NYC’s Teach the Web blog.

    Working open: Eventually, your organization might embrace working open, sharing information about processes it’s embarking on internally with an external audience — through updates, open conference calls, and other intentionally produced avenues that encourage involvement with those processes.

  • Sharing with everyone: After sourcing input and participation from external people, your organization might get the itch to share with everyone! After working in a way that opens processes to the public, it might feel right to now announce your initiative to a larger public audience. This kind of an announcement is much more active, and could mean you’re writing a press release or taking bigger steps to reach out to participants.

We think the practice of “working open” — that third level we mention above — has huge potential for the nonprofit arts and culture field, especially as organizations pioneer innovative new approaches to sector-wide challenges.

Why is this so important for the field?

In the past, EmcArts has captured learning about innovation projects through in-depth profiles produced at the end of the process — such as the story of Springboard for the Arts’ Seedlings project or the Wooster Group’s Video Dailies Blog.

While these profiles are valuable assets, we recognize that they often cannot communicate the complexity and depth of learning that happens as this work unfolds over time. We believe that sharing learning in real-time throughout the process has value not just for the participants in EmcArts’ programs, who may find resonances in each other’s work, but also for the wider field, which rarely has access to the live story of new ideas being tested under the radar in other organizations.

To dive deeper and explore this process in real-time, we’re committing to the values of “working open” here at EmcArts — and, we’ve invited our newest Innovation Lab participants to an experimental opportunity we’re calling the Working Open Fellowship.

Participants in EmcArts' recent New Pathways for Arts Development in New York join in an activity that helps collaborate and collect feedback from other organizations. Image: EmcArts.
Participants in EmcArts’ recent New Pathways for Arts Development in New York join in an activity that helps collaborate and collect feedback from other organizations. Image: EmcArts.

About the Working Open Fellowship

The Working Open Fellowship is inspired by the core principles of “working open” (decentralization, transparency, openness, and cooperation). We believe that those same principles are relevant to the work of arts organizations developing new and innovative strategies.

Our design of the Working Open Fellowship is driven by our belief that:

  • Guided reflection is valuable when trying new things
  • Real-time, person-to-person exchange is where deep learning happens
  • Learning from real-time exchange should be archived and accessible anytime
  • Sharing knowledge about the process of innovation, not the product, across program participants and the field will increase adaptability in the sector overall

Our Working Open Fellows

We’re thrilled to announce the three Working Open Fellows who will be joining us in this experiment!

  • Sherrine Azab, Network of Ensemble Theaters (Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies, Round 2)
  • Hana Sharif, Center Stage (Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, Round 9)
  • Monica Valenzuela, Staten Island Arts (New Pathways for Arts Development | New York City)

The three Fellows will explore “working open” ideas together as a cohort, share ideas from their internal organizational processes with each other, and source input from those outside of their organizations. They’ll do this by participating in a series of open conference calls and producing digital media for ArtsFwd that captures their learning and discoveries — and the productive messiness of their organizations’ innovation processes. Today, we’re extending an invitation to our wider community to join us as observers, participants, and/or co-creators with the Working Open Fellows.

Do you want to join a community of people exploring “working open”? Are you interested in learning about these organizations’ innovation projects as they unfold in real time? Sign up below to join us!


About
Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.