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I Don’t Want to Talk about Innovation

A Talk about Innovation


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Summit for Arts + Culture.

This piece is a revised version of Todd London’s address delivered at the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture in Denver, 21 October 2013.

I’m reading Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. It takes place inside a Google-like company by the same name. As the book begins, the Circle’s latest hire, Mae, tours the sparkling, communitarian campus, “400 acres of brushed steel and glass.” It’s heaven, she thinks.

The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. “Dream,” one said, the word laser-cut into the red stone. “Participate,” said another.

There are dozens of these word-bricks, but Eggers just names a few: “Find Community.” “Imagine.” “Breathe.” And yes, you guessed it, “Innovate.”

You know where this is going. It’s not heaven at all. It’s Orwellian hell, Steve Jobs meets L. Ron Hubbard. The people are warm, brilliant, and aglow with a perfectly modulated passion, like those shiny charismatics who dominate the TED Talks. In other words, Eggers’ novel describes something like the Platonic ideal of a 24/7 “innovation summit.” It’s a nightmare.

I’m a writer and I live and work with writers. The stone steps to the old Midtown Manhattan church that houses New Dramatists don’t have words etched on them. No one needs to be told to imagine or, since they’re with us for seven-year residencies, to find community. The domed window above the wooden entrance doors does have words, painted in gold: “Dedicated to the Playwright.” That’s all. We dedicate our service to their efforts and, because art leads change and not the other way around, their work cuts a slow path to the new.

Most of us there—writers, staff, board—swing between incredulity and fury at the rampant spread of this innovation obsession in the arts. So I have to confess: I come to bury innovation, not to praise it.

Here’s how the siren call of innovation sounds from our church: It signals another incursion on the arts by corporate culture, directive funders, and those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of high-tech hip and devotional entrepreneurism. It announces the rise of a cult of consultancy, already a solid wing of the funding community. One New York foundation, which formerly gave out sizable general operating support, now requires each grantee to send two senior staffers to spend several mornings at the feet of turnaround-king Michael Kaiser as a prerequisite for payment and any future funding. You follow? They hire a high-paid macher to teach us how to fundraise even as they stop funding us.

The world is changing radically and so must we. That’s the agenda underlying the innovation mandate. This change agenda is actually a critique, a presumption that arts organizations are calcified, failed. Of course, most of us share this critique and believe it’s true of every company but our own. More, it implies that our companies, many five or six decades old, don’t know how to adapt.

Where innovation thinkers see ill-adaptive organizations, I see decades of unsupported art and artists, energy and money thrown at institutional issues, as if this can make the art relevant.

It’s not that we’ve failed to adapt; we have adapted and adapted, twisting our adaptive muscles into shapes for this funding trend or that initiative, for the new, improved, think it, do it, be it, say it, better believe it world of organizational reorganization until we’re blue in the core values. We have lost sight of the ocean, in which we may be sinking, and keep returning to the mechanism of the boat.

Where innovation thinkers see ill-adaptive organizations, I see decades of unsupported art and artists, energy and money thrown at institutional issues, as if this can make the art relevant. I’d suggest it’s the funding community that needs to take a deep, humble look at its assumptions and, most urgently, at the human relations and power dynamics of money and expertise. Doctor, please innovate thyself.

Change is no measure of success. Do we do what we say we do? Do we do it well? If we don’t, we shouldn’t be funded. If we are worthy of funding, we have proved we’re capable of self-determination.

So why did New Dramatists attend an “innovation summit,” if this is all so wrongheaded, and why did we apply to EmcArts Innovation Lab? It’s simple. Funding and learning, in that order. We’re as desperate for new funding as the next guy. We’ve been known to pretzel our priorities to get some. The Lab came with money; the summit with a roomful of important funders. Can we admit this? Both have brought us new colleagues and new insights.

And the summit gave us a chance to talk about artists leading change. To do so in the context of a playwright’s laboratory, we have to wrestle with the problem of language. We make home for fifty playwrights in a world of their words. Words discovered and discarded, considered, blown apart, and put back together. Maybe this explains the deep offense I take at the jargon of corporate America that floats the innovation boat.

The freshness of our language reveals the freshness of our thinking. We live with the example of Shakespeare’s 1,700 new English words. We live with the awareness that, as the poet Audre Lorde famously wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And we live with the understanding that, at this moment in history, the master’s house is corporate America. Its words are tools that, even uttered with fine intentions and our hearts in our mouths, have one aim: To sell us stuff we don’t need. To make a marketplace of our relations.

I teach the history of visionary American theatres to management students at Yale. When we hit the fervent amateur art theatres of the nineteen-teens, the same thing always happens: The students catch fire, infected by grand words: beauty, truth, gift, spirit, play, communion, amateur (from the Latin for “love”), love. Can these chestnuts stand up against our contemporary lexicon: sustainable, adaptive, competencies, sector? We’ve already sucked the meaning out of that powerhouse word “community.” What do we stand for when every website claims the same “core values?”

The summit was not a conference about art. We came together to explore and share organizational-process innovation. But my beautytruthgiftspiritplaycommunionamateurartheart says enough already. We always talk organization. We’ve learned the language of strategic thinking and economic impact. We’ve learned to talk about marketing as though it were community engagement. And now we are challenged to add innovation to the list of empty phrases to live by.

I am grateful to the EmcArts hosts for gathering so many disparate artistic companies together, though I disagree vehemently with the gathering’s focus, its leading questions, and the recommendations that inevitably follow. In the weeks leading up to the summit, Richard Evans, EmcArts’s president, published an essay in the Grantmakers in the Arts newsletter. He approvingly cites “the first major study of organizational innovation in the not-for-profit sector,” in which “the Kellogg Foundation concluded that ‘every nonprofit should make innovation part of its core competencies.’”

Since when is it the job of funders to dictate what every nonprofit should do? What is the Foundation’s “core competency” that entitles them to tell museums, symphonies, dance and theatre companies what is essential to fulfilling their separate, varied, and sometimes vital missions? Evans then suggests that arts organizations might create capital funds for organizational innovation equal to 20 percent of their operating budgets. Have you ever met a company that actually wants more earmarked capital? For years theatres struggled to build endowments to support the long life of their most essential creative work, to escape the whims of restricted funding. Why in the world would we want a fifth of our budget for mandated newness?

Artists innovate every day, because what they make, they make up. How do they innovate? Trial and error, mostly, boring hours alone or with other artists. Years facing their own limitations. The real work of innovation is theirs, alone or together. It is organic and ongoing, one bold or tentative foot in front of another.

Karina Mangu-Ward, EmcArts’s director of activating innovation, seconded Evans’ call on HowlRound last week: “We believe that innovation should be considered a core discipline of organization life, along with marketing, administration, fundraising, etc.” I’d argue the opposite. Instead of adding another department to our bloated institutions, I’d suggest shrinking those existing departments and bringing more artists in.

Artists innovate every day, because what they make, they make up. How do they innovate? Trial and error, mostly, boring hours alone or with other artists. Years facing their own limitations. The real work of innovation is theirs, alone or together. It is organic and ongoing, one bold or tentative foot in front of another. Try to find funding in innovation-land for persistent effort and incremental breakthrough.

Why fetishize innovation? Why not excavation, elaboration, celebration? Not all artistic enterprises, not all historical moments, demand radical departure. More often than not, the new is actually something old, something other, that we’ve previously refused to hear, like all those voices struggling to be heard through the thick white walls of our institutions. But we want our innovations new, even if they’re flatuous, a word which, if you don’t know, means gassy, inflated, and fatuous. I just innovated it.

There’s another crusty word out there: leadership. If art is led by artists, why is the “leader” label applied mostly to us administrators? What would it mean to let them lead? How can we reimagine—innovate if we must—a way forward in which artists curate work, determine who gets funded, and choose the place that will house their work, rather than the other way around?

W. McNeil Lowry, the first great funder of the nation’s not-for-profit arts, from his perch at Ford, wrote,

At its most basic level, art is…about the surge of artistic drive and moral determination…. And philanthropy, in the arts at least, is professionally motivated only when it accepts the artist and the arts on their own terms, and learns from the artist himself at least to recognize the atmosphere in which the artistic process is carried out.

What an innovative idea: ask artists what they need, what they wish for, what they have. Let that guide practices. Let that guide funding. This is the new thing we’ve been trying to figure out over the past sixty-five years at New Dramatists—sometimes disastrously and sometimes happily—how to listen and how, with limited means, to make small adjustments with big impact.

Often, it’s a matter of words. New Dramatists had a wonderful facilitator in the Innovation Lab, John McCann. In our early discussions with him, board member/alumnus Gordon Dahlquist and then-resident playwright Lucy Thurber turned a simple, pressing question on its head. The staff was asking how to better engage and serve the playwrights. Instead, Lucy and Gordon asked: “What is the writers’ responsibility to each other?” Suddenly the ownership and success of the artistic company fell squarely in the laps of the playwrights. Another shift of perspective occurred when playwright Karen Hartman coined the term “host artist” to describe our writers, who mostly think of themselves as guests in the American theatre, waiting to be asked in. In their creative home, they do the inviting. Again, the place became a little more theirs.

Playwright Francine Volpe further changed our culture by asking the writers to create a safety net together. She asked each of them to teach one low-cost, two-hour public workshop in their seven years. The money would establish an emergency fund, administered by and for the writers. Within a year they had $4,000 and paid down uncovered medical bills for two New Dramatists.

Our Full Stage program is designed to provide large commissions, extra lab time, and a path to production at partner theatres. During its conception the playwrights again surprised us. The staff suggested teaming up with large theatres with big resources and middling track records with new plays. We would change these theatres’ tired ways. But the writers had their own list: they wanted to reward the theatres, including small ones, that already supported their work. They were selecting theatres, instead of the other way around. The theatres, surprisingly, were thrilled to be chosen.

More and more of our writers have opted out of waiting to be read, commissioned, and produced and, instead, formed their own companies—Young Jean Lee, Richard Maxwell, Lisa D’Amour, Qui Nguyen, and Deborah Stein, to name a few. Will their examples embolden others to do the same?

“Ah,” the wise ones will say, “this is innovation talking.” No. It may fall under innovation’s broadest terms, it may be what the deep organizational thinkers are guiding us toward, but it’s not what our culture means by it. These small, significant changes are unfundable, unsexy, unseen. They prove the power of real words, not trumped-up ones. They are the call-and-response of artist to artist. They are what can happen when artists lead and we—despite our own brilliant ideas, pressing agendas, and spectacular plans—listen.

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I like taking one line and commenting: "There’s another crusty word out there: leadership. If art is led by artists, why is the leader label applied mostly to us administrators?" And I wonder why administrators are so politically polite and that is the way they get popularly elected? Healthy seeds need to be planted in new fields. Administrators are old seeds in infertile ground and playing life safe. Maybe that is why the administrators of the corporate world are killing the planet with infertile soil. However, I still believe: "We shall overcome some day." We want the new. But is there really any such thing as new? Or is it just getting better glasses. Did any of this make sense?

I'm intrigued by this discussion. Isn't innovation the same as creation? I bristle at the idea that organizational innovation is somehow different than artistic creation. As an artist/educator/administrator, I see my organization as a work of art, ever changing, ever evolving, constantly striving to be better at what we do AND to change what we do in response to our changing environment. Art is by nature innovative. Sure, some works of art are more innovative than others, but if we can run our organizations with a similar mindset to how we create art, we can't not be innovative. I think many of us are doing this already.

Thanks, Todd! --your words are always inspiring, and these latest on the spectre of 'innoVAtion' are oddly comforting, given how having held together an artist-run company for nearly 40 years doesn't seem to qualify as 'innovative' even though it's so rare, as Laurie McCants points out. I've loved reading the comments so far, whether they are in agreement or if they challenge your proposals. Cheers!

Todd - decided to put my thoughts on the Summit into a post on my blog, where I took the opportunity to respond to some of your criticisms/concerns. Look forward to a healthy dialogue! http://artscultureandcreati... PS. Was great to reconnect in Denver in person - it had been far too long...

Nothing not to love about this article, but I believe the arrows should be directed less at the corporations per se and more to the liberal thoughtspeak that is the groundwork of the pseudo intellectual treachery you speak of. This awful trend took hold in foundations long before its adaptation in corporate life. Think...where did the notion of "social relevance" gain traction? It was not a big leap before the methods by which we were called upon to prove our relevance morphed into the prescriptive horrors you describe. The commissars in the corporations are indistinguishable from their foundation counterparts because THEY ARE THE SAME PEOPLE-PODS! Just listen to the way they've all been talking about art for the past three decades...it's never about pure art, but a bunch of b.s. about "change" and challenging our "view of ourselves" and all the other hogwash. Bravo nonetheless!!!

Orchestras are getting "Community Engagement" and "Becoming more relevant" jammed down our throats. Following those paths is making us engaged with and relevant to people who will never support us financially or philosophically.

HowlRound, thank you for publishing this timely and important essay. Todd, every time I read your work, I am inspired. What can we do to make this vision a reality: "ask artists what they need, what they wish for, what they have. Let that guide practices. Let that guide funding." The areas that you criticize within the American theater are, unfortunately, identical to the practice in Norway and Western Australia, two places where I have worked extensively since 2008. I am going to forward your essay to some of my colleagues in Perth, see if this discussion can begun down here in the Southern Hemisphere.

For a while, people loved "Titanic." Then, too many people loved "Titanic." Then, everyone hated "Titanic." (Or at least only secretly loved it.)

Sadly, "innovation" is now the too-popular kid at the party.

Listen. It's still a good movie, and innovation is still a good idea. It just means, don't get complacent. It's a popular corporate buzzword because corporations are a great place for people to kick back, enjoy the routine and start planning for retirement, and thus corporations often need a little shaking up — but so do many larger theatre companies. So yes, let's hate the tendency for corporate buzzwords to get thrown around glibly at board retreats — and for granting agencies to keep moving the goalposts. But let's not hate on innovation, necessarily. It just means: it's a good idea to have ideas, and to have an organizational philosophy that welcomes new ones.

Regarding the separate point about inviting artists in to run institutions because they "innovate every day." Artists are people. People running theatres (implicitly grouped into some separate "other" by this post) are also people. Neither career path, sadly, leads to automatic daily (or incremental) innovation. Great artists can innovate, great administrators can innovate, and by all means, it may be innovative to shake up institutional structures and invite more artists into the process (thereby making them administrators?). But you're also inviting division and confusion if you continue to separate these people's inherent qualities and motivations into separate categories based on their early career choices. It's a lot more mucked-up and confused than that, sadly, and whether someone's effective at running an arts organization has more to do with their talent, tirelessness and sense of ownership than whether or not someone's chosen to call them an artist. Why fetishize "innovation"? Well, why fetishize "artist"? What you really want is just smart, creative people getting stuff done and caring about it, and doing it in a way that's sustainable — wups, bad word, but that means (among other things) "not screwing over the people who are the core of the process," that is, the artists. And that, by the way, takes leadership. So maybe we're all just talking about the same thing in different ways.

TANSTAAFL. Embrace the jargon, take the money and keep making theatre in whatever way works best for you. You don't need to be the kid who sees the emperor naked (or James Cameron, for that matter) to make a difference; just do good work.

Thank you, Todd. I am so grateful for your words. This is the line in the sand that we should have drawn in the early 1980s. When the NEA was gutted by the neo-cons and American Art and Artists were tarred disrespectfully and with contempt and disdain as decadent, trivial, meaningless and irrelevant, Business inevitably became the only form of human interaction that was deemed wholesome, important, meaningful and relevant. Mandated "Innovation" is a corporate construct to control the boundaries of the creative act in a business model. I don't Buy It. No Artist should. Make it clear: The Arts aren't Business. Education isn't Business. Government isn't Business. Social Services aren't Business. Life isn't Business. How's that for "innovation"?

Innovate is a buzz word. It's not as important as it used to be. Now the word is "Disrupt" which puts out a different idea. I want to give kudos to Howl Round for leading innovation, and I want to never read an article like this again. Here's the basics for those who want to skip it, "I'm tired, i'm angry, here's why, all my friends are innovating, innovation is good." I think from what I see in this, you basically proved yourself wrong.

Thank you, Todd. This is excellent and, dare I say, innovative thinking. But i mean it in a good way. My 2 cents, echoed in other comments here and elsewhere, is that we need to have more artists on the staffs of theater companies, large, small and in-between. Money is important, yes. But so is creative thinking and art making.

Bravo for your bravery and directness Todd! You spoke my heart as well. ARTISTIC innovation will happen with sufficient time and space - that is what should be subsidized. The most innovative eras happened when there was either inexpensive living conditions or high subsidies. Grant us time and space and trust we will do the rest.

Good God, yes. Thank you for this. Though I would add that artists forming their own companies is not innovation enough... Artists must get out and produce their own work. We *are* being emboldened by those who have done so. If companies form, that's lovely. But there are too many companies right now who are busy surviving as companies rather than concentrating on their work, not sharing resources with each other, and continuing to scrape at the emptying bowl of funding. These little scrappy companies are emulating and repeating the models of the bigger, older ones, and becoming subject to those same criticisms you mention. I know it's difficult logistically/economically/legally, but funders must find a way to fund artists, and not just institutions, even if those institutions are "innovative."

Cogent and in fact, brilliant. The ideas you express here Todd are at the core of an Arts Leadership (yes, we do use that term) Graduate Program that we have just started at USC in Los Angeles. It is by, for and about artists and is centered in the idea that the creative process that drives artists is the one that should drive organizations as well - not the corporate model that is the basis of most arts institutions. Who is more entrepreneurial, innovative and tenacious than the artist? We are not the infantalized social outliers in need of advice and guidance from our superiors, but instead, the authentic leaders of society. We need to embrace that understanding of ourselves and our work more fully than we do.

This also needs to go out to educators and administration in education. Educators are asked to invent all the time but are shut down due to assessment and standardization, more catch phrasing that means "doing for the sake of doing." Administrators ask for innovation but always cut budgets in the name of innovation because they need a political face for their "community involvement and educational/institutional progress." As I see it, innovation is innovative because it flies in the face of administration and politics.

I think you have better expressed the state of today's arts institutions and the bodies that support them than anyone else. The landscape here in Canada is a bit different, but almost everything you have said is analogous to some other phenomenon or catch-phrase up here. Grant makers twist us into bizarre shapes to meet their ideas of organizational effectiveness. They have forgotten that we are supposed to be art makers.

The most innovative idea of all might be to tear down our institutions and fund artists directly. But then who among us would write the voluminous applications necessary to secure, and then report on, funding received?

Todd wrote:

"Karina Mangu-Ward, EmcArts’s Director of Activating Innovation seconded Evans’ call on HowlRound last week, 'We believe that innovation should be considered a core discipline of organization life, along with marketing, administration, fundraising, etc.' I’d argue the opposite. "

So would I. By way of background, I'm a funder. I'm also a trustee of a non-profit theater. Early in my professional career, I even specialized in "innovation," having participated in an extensive study of scientific/technological innovation; then I interacted with several NSF panels on innovation, then organized panels of experts to advise a government agency on innovation, then worked briefly in a Federal office charged with "fostering industrial innovation." Okay, so innovation in the arts is not the same as industrial or bureaucratic innovation -- or is it? I think there are valid parallels, whether the outcome is new science, a tangible product, or simply "art."

Without going into what could easily be the substance of any number of learned treatises or doctoral dissertations, let me mention a few salient findings from my experience that I think might apply:

1) innovation is often, even usually, serendipitous; the harder you try to "make it happen," the more elusive it becomes (but you can and should "allow it to happen" -- more about that later);

2) results are not always proportionate to the investment; some small investments yield huge results, many large investments yield paltry outcomes -- funding innovation with an eye on ROI or the bottom line is frequently disappointing, especially in the short term;

3) often the greatest benefit from a conscious attempt to innovate is not a planned result, but something unplanned and unforeseen; the more closely an organization hews to a particular model or formula for innovation, the less likely they are to capitalize on an unforeseen outcome, or to even recognize it as worthwhile;

4) the most significant driver of true innovation is the freedom to experiment, sometimes to fail, and to learn from successes and failures; innovation efforts can produce long-term organizational benefits even if short-term "project" benefits are hard to discern.

One important takeaway is that, while it may not be especially effective to try and "plan" a particular innovation, or to build and fund an organization charged with "making innovation happen," it's very worthwhile to position your organization to "allow innovation to happen." An organization can be innovative without formalizing the process; ideally, it's part of the organization's DNA -- if it's not, THEN the organization can examine itself and explore either informal or (gasp!) formal steps to move towards a more innovative stance; in the end, dinosaurs die off, and more adaptive species survive and thrive. Adaptability, flexibility, creativity, [insert buzzword here] are survival traits that enable a business or an arts organization to keep in step with their marketplace (audience) and even to develop new markets (audiences). Innovation should mean sharing, collaboration, a willingness to listen and an eagerness to experiment. I think that, compared to established organizations in many other sectors of our society, America's theater community embodies these values especially well. I think innovation is and always has been a "core discipline" of most American non-profit theaters; I don't see a need to impose it as a formulaic construct, replete with formal benchmarks and reporting requirements monitored by third parties (e.g. grantmakers).

As a funder, I eschew trying to tell an organization how they should conduct their business, and I don't prescribe a business model (or an innovation model) as a precondition for funding. I'm happy to make a grant for general operating purposes, if the target organization has demonstrated a track record of delivering good outcomes. In the case of social welfare agencies, it's not that difficult to recognize a "good outcome" when you see it. It's tougher in the case of arts organizations, including theater companies; I don't want to become an arbiter of "good art;" a good outcome is more amorphous, more subjective, more treacherous a concept here. When I attend theater, I ask myself, "Does it make me think? Does it challenge my preconceptions? Does it expand my horizons? Does it engage me in a meaningful way? Does it connect me with something outside myself? Was it satisfying in any sense?"
...and that's also what I care about as a funder. I'd like to hope that most arts funders care about these things, too.

If I were an administrator of a theater or a group like New Dramatists, I too would be gnashing my teeth at this latest funding dance. It doesn't really matter if the buzz word is "innovation" or something else: the point is it's a new shiny buzz word and everyone must dance. But as a playwright, and as someone with a day job in a non-profit but nonetheless corporate setting, I find these words HILARIOUS. I once kept a Post-It with a hashmark for every time someone said "proactive" in my hearing (this was a while ago). Remember "incentivize?" How about cutting edge, which became next gen, and the now-tired game changer? Business poetry. Meaningless. Laugh before you kill someone. These people, these words, are in my plays. Just as they inspired Dave Eggers' The Circle. Shakespeare invented words. Sometimes I think my artistic mission is to kill some.

"A new shiny buzz word and everyone must dance." Perfect! Yes, kill those words and invent your own. A viable mission statement. And co-opt every word of power you can and turn it into a torch of hope. Next stop: "God". Reading Galen Guengerich's "God revised: how religion must evolve in a scientific age". Evolve the language, evolve the society. Write it and it becomes. The Living Word, indeed! Write on, Catherine.

I'm not fully sure I understand why, but I feel a bit anxious about the point of view you've articulated here.

Maybe it's obvious: I've spent the last few years doing what I might have happily called "innovating" (without giving it much thought) before I read this essay: in particular, co-founding The Welders and leading the charge on the development of the New Play Exchange. So maybe I'm taking this as a bit of a personal rebuke... and i should probably set aside any personal feelings for the moment.

So, an attempt (perhaps feeble: we'll see) at a dispassionate response:

What it feels to me as if you're concerned with, Todd, is not innovation itself but the external demand from the funding community that we innovate. Am I misreading you? If so: I agree, in large part, that there's been a lot of pressure to "innovate" (though no one seems to know what that might look like), but (like Scott Walters below) I'm not sure that pressure is being applied in useful directions. It feels more like "dance for your money" instead of "the leaders of the American theater want to innovate and so we want to support them in doing that." That's a problem.

But I DO want to innovate. I ALWAYS want to innovate. That's in my nature as an artist... as I think you've also said. I want to make NEW forms, not redistribute and tinker with the old ones. (Whether that's genuinely possible or not -- or even easy, if it is possible -- strikes me as an interesting question.) I'm tremendously disappointed with the institutions I've inherited from the people who came before me -- even though I also admire them greatly -- and I want to make them work differently. I see fewer and fewer people connecting with the culturally dominant versions of our art form, and I want to explore new possibilities. That's all innovation, and nobody needs to "incentivize" me to do it. I wake up wanting to do it and go to bed feeling the exact same way.

(For what it's worth, I fully expect some young punk to come up behind me years from now and say the same sorts of things about the experiments I'm working on today. My hope is that I greet her with a smile and step gracefully aside... but I have my self-doubts.)

Having said all of that: I do agree very strongly that I wish more people would ask me what I needed and give it to me. I've got a list of seven things I'll happily discuss with the first funding body that knocks on my door. And I also believe -- as I think you do -- that the first and last and best innovation, so to speak, would be to put every funding and administrative body in direct service to art and artists, rather than the other way around.

I'm just not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

I agree that the word "innovation" is all too often being used a a synonym for "tinkering on the edges using Twitter" or some such thing. That's not innovation -- that is the usual approach in the arts to change, which is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.But real innovation is radical. Hallie Flanagan: "The federal Theater is a pioneer theater because it is part of a tremendous rethinking, rebuilding, and redreaming of America..." THAT'S innovation. And unfortunately, I don't see very many radical thinkers in today's theatre (they could benefit from reading some of the essays in "An Ideal Theater"). Creating a "department of innovation" or some such thing in an institution misses the point entirely.

Unfortunately, neither you nor most of the people who have commented here with cheers have addressed the central issue that is most in need of true, radical innovation: the reliance on unearned income. The arts have become enslaved to the NPO model of chasing funders each an every year, much to the detriment of the art itself. If you don't want the foundations calling the shots, then I would suggest that the radical innovation might be to look for a new model that would minimize if not eliminate the arts' reliance on charity. The Little Theatre folks that excite your students (and mine) created before the NEA and before the reliance on charity -- and amazingly, they survived.

The arts in this country have always been underfunded. Do you see any evidence that this is going to change in the near future? I don't. And I find the constant drumbeat from arts institutions asking for Daddy to raise their allowances humiliating. If, as you say, some of these institutions have been around for 50 or 60 years, then my question is: why haven't you figured out how to survive by now? It's time to commit to leaving the nest and flying on your own. You write, "Do we do what we say we do? Do we do it well? If we don’t, we shouldn’t be funded." I would suggest that if you do what you say well, you shouldn't NEED to be funded -- at least not to such an extent as is currently the case. I would also suggest that, in addition to those two questions, a third should be added: "Are the things we do valuable to others?"

So I would suggest that innovation isn't the problem, but rather the lack of REAL innovation, RADICAL innovation, combined with the courage to step out into the unknown and try something new. Ideally, this would be led by artists, who would look to Shakespeare and Burbage, to the 19th-century actor-managers, to David Garrick and the leaders of the Little Theater Movement. But for reasons I don't fully understand, artists seem to prefer to give others control over their work, to wait to be "picked," as Seth Godin writes. These artists of the past not only created great works of art, but they also paid close attention to the running of their businesses. Until theater artists do the same, they will find themselves quite low on the ladder.

Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of Queen Elizabeth and many other benefactors - he did not live on ticket sales/ earned revenue alone. Do you have any idea how much a ticket for the Ballet would cost without the philanthropic dollars that (in my town at least) provides for 1/3 of its budget? Philanthropy allows the community to invest their resources into the cultural institutions or artists in a region. The ROI is a rich cultural heritage sustained over time. Call it begging if you want. Make "charity" a dirty word - but I for one am SICK AND TIRED of this line of thinking. We should all be more generous and make contributions to the work that inspires us. If the work isn't inspiring - the art won't get funded. And there will be room for innovative and inspiring work to thrive.

Actually, the patronage of Queen Elizabeth was minimal. It amounted to the use of her name (actually, the Lord Chamberlain's name, then, after her death, King James' name), which was necessary for the company to legally perform. The extent of her financial contribution was to bring a few selected productions to perform at court. The payment for these performances was the same amount as the company would have made had they had a public performance. So, in fact, he and his fellow shareholders did live on ticket sales. They did so by performing a different play every day of the week. How did they do this? By writing plays designed to work within a scenery-less thrust stage and costuming the productions using contemporary garb that was re-used from show to show. In other words, the Lord Chamberlain's Men created a business model that worked. So: how much would a ticket to the Ballet cost without philanthropic donations? It would be expensive IF you believe that the current approach to production (performing in well-appointed theatres with elaborate and individual designs for each production) is the only possible one. But what would happen if productions were created to match the budget, rather than the other way around? I don't know -- it would take some innovative thinking, which is my point. But to rely on charity, but think that such charity comes without strings and expectations that may be objectionable is, in my opinion, naive. This business model is relatively new -- it isn't quite the universal model contemporary artists would like to present it as.

Todd, thank you. I am always grateful for your unwavering and profoundly articulate support of the artist. I hope at least one program officer who sits on top of a flatuous mandate will hear your cry. I am not saying anything innovative but feel compelled to add to your rant that the issue at the heart of the matter is one of power. At New Dramatists, you give playwrights power by giving them the voice to determine their future. You've raised the money yourself by working with philanthropists, within the terms they set, and you then have dispersed the resource, transferring power to the artist. You are acting as intermediary, doing your best to keep your hands off the tantalizing effect that money has on even an intermediary who makes decisions about how money is spent (also known as power). I wish program officers would take a lesson from you, Todd. As they serve the boards of directors of their foundations, who are the true powerbrokers in the transfer of resources from corporate America to the "not-for-profit sector". Can program officers act at true intermediaries? Can they, as you are asking them to, look to the organizations that they fund to lead the way? The best program officers do. Giving real power to the "not-for-profit" organization or individual, is, to me, the whole point of philanthropy. That takes trust. Not trust in buzz-words or trendy organization-speak, but trust in action. But bottom-line decision-making has crept insidiously into every corner of our contemporary world, eroding trust. But when the bottom line doesn't drive decision-making, then you get to create a different world that is of benefit to all, not just to investors. Ain't that innovation?

No one speaks on behalf of playwrights better than Todd London or is better at encouraging playwrights to speak for themselves. I wish every artistic director in the country could see this piece. They struggle not just to hold the attention of the funders and meet their requirements, but to retain and expand their audiences, pay the staff, keep the lights on and the whole enterprise from foundering. At times they must long for a world in which their theatres could be focused more on the art and the artists who create it.

I also teach culture history classes. I always look forward and never back with history and teaching. To be innovative is to have no fear of what is happening and what will happen.

How to engage and better serve the playwrights? We'd all be lying if we didn't say "give us more opportunities to have our new plays produced." The most innovative approach, in my view, would be finding and supporting a cost structure that makes new play production on Broadway (and Off Broadway, if it exists anymore), less expensive. this means concessions from the unions, the actors, the technical staff, the playwrights, and a reasonable ticket price. I know, this doesn't speak to artistic homes, artists' responsibility to the community, etc. But ultimately, we write plays to see them produced. Finding better ways to make that happen would be, well...innovative.

Nicely said, Todd. Up here in Ontario, the same things take place. This push from funding bodies for non-profit groups (my main work is in social services, my heart is in theatre) to "innovate" does feel like empty words, an attempt to push us in directions that will ultimately have very little impact on what we do. It's administration level stuff.
And seriously, we should be expected to take advice on innovation from people who work in fields that are notoriously conservative (you'll find that wherever money is the focus) and prone to huge mistakes? It seems to me this push to "innovation" in the arts is more about investing in financial institutions (creating that long-term capital budget) and following the corporate model. And we all know how well that works.
I like the phrase "host artist"; that encompasses a lot for me. I'm in a mid-sized (Ontario/Canadian standards here) town overflowing with artistic innovation: many of us are working on making it work, trying to find new ways to enable artists (all media) to find their public participation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - that, as you pointed out, is innovating.
Thanks for your article, and many thanks to HowlRound for publishing it, and maintaining a thoughtful dialogue.

YES. No, wait, this: FINALLY. And one more: TESTIFY. I love to hear truth spoken to power. Or to me. PREACH IT.

I'm not a comment-leaver on online articles anymore. But I must break my abstinence for this one, Todd. Please, please get this article in the email inboxes and on the desks of every employee of every arts funding foundation in the nation. Everyone who reads it here can help make that happen in their region. The chasm of understanding between the funders and the (under-)funded has got to be bridged, and this article articulates one of the key contemporary issues so very well. Thank you, Todd.

I salute you, spitfire. As an artist in an artist-led ensemble that presents plays (some old, some new, some of our own making) in a small community that has supported us for over 36 years, I sometimes despair about how to justify our work to national funders. Are we "innovative" enough in their eyes??? How do I make it clear that, even though we present seasons of plays (some old, some new, some of our own making), what we do, and continue to do, is radically innovative because it's still so rare-- our artists are actually at the helm; we are in charge of our artistic destinies and our community has made a place for us. I haven't read all the reports emanating from the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, but I will, and maybe my next question will be answered then. Which is this: if "innovation" is to be the key that will unlock funds in the future, how will the funders know it when they see it?

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