CultureQ, Your two cents multiplied

CultureQ is a professional dialogue about front-burner audience issues in the arts and education.

March 2010 CultureQ

“Innovation is on everyone's mind, or at least lips. What does it mean in your organization or sector, and how much of it is going on?”


Many of you started with what innovation is not. It’s not mere brainstorming or sudden inspiration (“a team of folks sitting in a Zen-like environment tossing Nerf balls around and instantly solving an organization’s biggest problems,” as media researcher Nic Covey put it). It’s not just any change or newness, nor the everyday, incremental evolution of methods and approaches that all fields experience.

It’s not, according to Sarah Billmann of the University Music Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, merely responding to “the latest and greatest” trends or technologies in the marketplace — a point also made by Colleen Ross at EmcArts in New York, which runs national innovation programs for cultural organizations.

So what is it? Something much more active, challenging, and risky than that. It’s the application of those exciting new ideas, and — crucially — the new processes and institutional behaviors required to pull that off.

It involves leaving the familiar and comfortable behind. That can be “a great leveler,” notes an educator at a university art museum, because it requires people to “step back, slow down, and collaborate” in ways that are unfamiliar to everyone involved.

So it’s inherently risky, as many of you emphasized. You have to “accept taking some risks that might not pan out,” in the words of one zoo and aquarium marketer.

And it’s never finished. It’s about creating an organizational culture and a set of processes that continuously nurture new ideas from conception to implementation to refinement.

All of which means it’s not easy, in your experience. Innovation can be thwarted by “older, existing paradigms,” notes a filmmaker, and is often “messy and disruptive” (EmcArts’s Ross again).

But boy is it worth it, you told us. New ideas can “unlock pent-up or untapped existing capabilities,” writes Bill O’Brien at the National Endowment for the Arts. The energies may be there all along, he notes, but they’re waiting for an innovation to harness them. Innovation breaks down departmental silos, creates new relationships with audiences, and helps organizations carry out their missions.

You gave vivid examples, from Miami Beach to Queensland, Australia. Interestingly, many of these centered on audience empowerment and co-creation, confirming that a major thread of innovation today is the shift from one-way street to participatory engagement.

Thank you all for your thoughtful — dare we say innovative? — responses. If you want to explore this topic further, we recommend checking out EmcArts’s definition of innovation and other materials here.


re:search newsletter

More info

Keep in touch. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, re:search, and be the first to know about our reports, articles, professional dialogues, and more.

Our blog. Your comments. Jump in.

March 14, 2014 | Nicole Baltazar

Multiculturalism is key for creating inclusive arts experiences


Last month, Coca-Cola aired its now-famous Super Bowl ad depicting people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups singing “America the Beautiful” together in different languages. Among the instant outpouring of polarized reactions to this ad rang much praise for its depiction of a multicultural America. Yet the ad provoked a slew of negative responses as well. Many of the ad’s detractors questioned whether this multicultural America could ever feel as cohesive as an America whose citizens speak a common language, and therefore have taken great strides toward assimilating into a common culture.

More »