I Don’t Want to Talk about Innovation
A Talk about Innovation
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.