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The Art of Making Art

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraffJeff DeGraff

My family belongs to a ponderous array of arts organizations – symphonies, museums, theater companies and a mélange of performance ensembles that defy category. While we are not the House of Medici we do our best to support the cause of institutional creativity. Though I am an avowed proponent for supporting the arts, I am perplexed as to why is it that the most creative people in the world run their organizations in the most doctrinaire and conventional ways. It’s a maddening paradox.

Curators, museum-directors, theater-organizers, and a variety of other art leaders look for and value original, imaginative artworks. But when it comes to developing novel sources of funding, alternative forms of public participation and reimagining the functions of the institutions themselves, they are relatively slow adopters. Consider how businesses like coffee shops or microbreweries, based on mature commodities thousands of years old, have reinvented their categories by changing the experience via what might be deemed performance art while your favorite symphony or art museum is a comparatively staid affair.

While there are obvious examples of success such as Cirque du Soleil, which resurrected an outdated form of entertainment, for the most part, they still follow the basic conventions of the industry – performance palaces, subsidies and tax abatements, highbrow advertisements and of course the radiant sound of “tickets please”. There is little here about the business itself that Shakespeare or Beethoven would find astounding.

Of course, not all arts organizations are incumbent with a full purse of endowments. These start-up arts organizations live week to week by their limited resources and prospects trying to move past the conventions of the conventional. Theirs is an assortment of inexpensive apps, shared spaces and clever business arrangements to quickly navigate around the most intractable challenges.

Whereas in the competitive world of commerce the innovative practices of these upstarts would be copied by organizations with greater scope and scale there is little evidence to suggest that these new approaches have taken hold. As long as there is a generous source of funding from the willing wealthy, there is no reason for many of our most cherished arts organizations to innovate. This is a dangerous situation given that the worst of all growth strategies is to have an increasing share of a decreasing market. Just ask Blockbuster Video.

So how do we help our favorite arts organizations to be as imaginative in the way they run their organizations as they are in the artworks and performances they put on exhibition?

Let’s start by getting their mid and back office functions up to date. Think of it as a digital intervention on a highbrow makeover program:

Strategic planning: LivePlan and Prezi
Finance: Kiva and KickStarter
Hiring and Staffing: LinkedIn and Beyond
Project Management: Yammer and InnoCentive
Marketing: SurveyMonkey and Shutterfly
Training: TED and Khan Academy
Merchandising: Etsy and Pinterest
Of course there are thousands of other applications that digital natives know best as well as new takes on conventional services like ZipCar. Visit some successful professional service providers to get a better sense of how these post-conventional converts have crossed the digital divide to embrace new tools and methods that have changed their way of thinking and working within a federation of free agent affiliates.

If you would like to increase the speed and magnitude of innovation in your arts organization earnestly perform the following thought experiments:

What would you do…

If your traditional sources of funding dried up completely in the next three years?
If no one currently under the age of thirty would ever attend a performance or exhibition as they exist now?
If you could only have three staff members that managed a virtual federation of talent?
If you sold all of your buildings and everything went digital?
If you could no longer play, perform or display the classics?
Sometimes the best way to avoid a crisis is start one that you have some semblance of control over. What this does is quickly connect cause with effect so that you may find innovative solutions in time to revitalize your arts organizations.

You can start by showing your support in new ways. Help an arts leader choreograph a social media marketing campaign or rehearse a pitch to a prospect as if it were performance art or sculpt a unique business model of operation. Just become part of the unseen creative process.

With apologies to Maestro Sondheim – “The art of making art is putting it together”…together. Cue the music.