Questioning The Innovation Agenda

Questioning The Innovation Agenda is the first of a series of six essays taking a critical look at innovation culture, its assumptions, influences and impact.


From the 2006 launch of The James Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund to the upcoming 2013 National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture, the Innovation Agenda in the Arts has grown exponentially, gaining ever-wider acceptance until it has become the coin of the realm of the funding world. Over the course of time, “innovation” has become the cornerstone of a sizable industry of consultants, analysts and facilitators offering their services to help guide funders in their program strategies and then implement those strategies. Consultants hired by funders enjoin arts organizations to become more innovative and encourage artist service organizations to transform artists into entrepreneurs.

But despite the best intentions of many very smart and dedicated individuals, there is little evidence to suggest that these efforts at innovation have made any impact whatsoever. Even the Arts Innovation Fund’s final report, prepared by SloverLinnett Strategies and published in December 2012, admits that, “As of this writing, most of the Arts Innovation Fund projects appear to have limited long-term prospects.” (Though their number one recommendation is, not surprisingly, “Build third-party consulting into grant programs that support innovation and change, but give grantees choices when it comes to selecting their consultants.”)

If there is no significant quantitative data to confirm the success of the Innovation Agenda, why does it still loom so large in the landscape, why are these strategies being propagated and implemented despite no tangible proof of their impact?

We propose that the very premise of the Arts Innovation Agenda as it is currently conceived is fundamentally flawed and inherently problematic. Many of its underlying assumptions have gone unquestioned, and much of the basic terminology has been accepted without rigorous inquiry, to the detriment of artists, organizations and funders alike.

While comprehensive quantitative analysis is beyond the scope of my expertise or capacity, I hope that these essays will encourage others to take a closer look. All I can do is ask questions, propose alternatives and offer a critical perspective drawn from my lived experience of being a critic, curator, artist, administrator, producer, and even, briefly, a funder.

If there is any confusion about my use of the word “critic” I refer you to my previous essay, “Re-Framing The Critic for the 21st Century”, where I quote Daniel Mendelsohn as saying, “…the serious literary critic (or dance critic, or music critic) loves his subject above anything else…”


Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones? (“Ballad of a Thin Man”, Bob Dylan)

Conventional wisdom holds that the arts in America are in crisis. The arts as we know it are in decline. The arts are losing cultural relevance as quickly as they are losing audience, legacy institutions are hemorrhaging money as they fail to adapt to changing social structures and demographics. All the reliable, well-known structural support for the old economic models are failing and nothing new is coming to take their place. The sky is falling!

Only it isn’t.

The Arts in America are more vital and dynamic than ever. Dance, theater, music, visual art, film, new media, and an ever-increasing number of projects that exist outside of any traditional definition of discipline, are flourishing throughout the country. In fact, I would say we are in one of the most inventive moments in the arts in recent history! It’s just that none of it is happening in symphonies, operas, ballets or regional theaters. It is happening in small artist-run spaces, through community organizations and annual festivals, it is happening in Des Moines and Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia, it is happening at pop-up spaces and in living rooms, at informal gatherings organized by non-hierarchical organizations that are “organizations” only insofar as they are comprised of multiple individuals working together. Art is happening everywhere, and thriving everywhere, except in large arts institutions.

So when I read the foreword to the Irvine Foundation’s final report on the Arts Innovation Fund, one key flaw of the entire innovation enterprise becomes apparent:

We launched the Arts Innovation Fund in 2006 to help California’s largest cultural institutions learn how they might become more capable of adapting to widespread changes affecting their businesses. The initiative enabled these institutions to conduct projects as a type of research that would shed light on their appetite for these innovations, their capacity to produce them and the enduring impact they might achieve from new practices.

We have long partnered with major arts organizations because they are important to civic life and essential to a stable arts ecosystem. Their ability to evolve and gain relevance in today’s California correlates to the quality of life in our local communities.

Major arts organizations are not the only arts structure that is important to civic life nor are they essential to a stable arts ecosystem. Civic life depends on engaged and active citizens, not institutions. A stable arts ecosystem depends on equitable economic structures and mechanisms for capital allocation; stability depends on mitigating the precarity of as many stakeholders as possible in an interdependent system.

As new technology continues to transform the everyday life of the individual, those transformations ripple outwards to influence the organizational structures of our society. Our behavior changes along with our expectations of how we interact with the world around us.

In a world where individuals come together for a project, accomplish it and move on, permanence seems archaic. In a world of autodidactic polymaths, the so-called “expert” invested with cultural authority by hegemonic institutions seems suspect. In a world of conditional hierarchies, organizational transparency, cultures of collaboration and “free”, top-down, opaque, closed-system, high-cost institutions are an affront. (If you haven’t read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, now would be a good time to do so.)

In light of these changes, large, vertically integrated arts institutions attempting to assert cultural hegemony seem less and less relevant, less and less able to deliver on their value propositions. By virtue of their size and the necessary infrastructure required for them to exist, they are essentially resistant to adaptation.

Thus the underlying assumption that the arts in America are in crisis and in need of innovation is wrong. Major arts institutions, and the system that privileges them, are in crisis and in need of innovation. In fact, I would propose that it is less essential that major arts organizations innovate as it is crucial that the system needs to be re-imagined, but I will get to that later.

The second major flaw is the use of the term “innovation” and the belief that the pursuit of innovation unto itself, applied widely across the arts sector, will prove to be a successful strategy for creating lasting, meaningful change.


The other day I asked someone what time it was and they responded, “I don’t know, I don’t have my phone.”

Every time I have that conversation I reflect on how much the world has changed during my lifetime. I’m not so old, but I’m old enough to remember when that statement would have sounded like a surreal knock-knock joke. Referring to our handheld mobile digital devices as “phones” is a reflexive habit, a quaint anachronism. The landline telephone was the interface for a closed system two-way communication platform. The mobile phone was an innovation to the existing interface that allowed us to access the communication platform from anywhere. But the invention of the handheld mobile digital device, in the form of the iPhone, was a game-changing disruption that fundamentally redefined how we communicate.

The iPhone didn’t come from the telecom industry any more than the iPod came from the recording industry, because those industries don’t think the way Apple does. Before the iPhone and iPod, the telecom and recording industries had existing systems that were generating revenue, they had longstanding legacy structures in place; if they faced so-called “adaptive challenges” in the form of falling revenue or diminishing market share, they hired expert consultants to identify and “fix” them, but they weren’t in a position to fundamentally reimagine their businesses or interrogate their assumptions about the market and their role in it. Even the market-dominant software behemoth Microsoft didn’t think like Apple. Who can forget what Steve Ballmer said about the iPhone back in 2007?:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

And we all know how that worked out.

Back in 2000 I was working as an interactive producer and brand strategist at a major global ad agency when Jeff Dachis, co-founder of Razorfish, was relentlessly mocked in the mainstream media for not being able to explain his business clearly to senior 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon:

What does Razorfish actually do? Dachis, who is worth about $180 million, has a little trouble with that question. “We’ve asked our clients to recontextualize their business,” he said. “We’ve recontextualized what it is to be a services business.”

Which means? “We radically transform businesses to invent and reinvent them,” he said.

These days that statement makes complete sense, but back then most people thought Dachis was being disingenuous at best, a cocksure braggart snake oil peddler at worst.

In 2011 Jeff Bezos addressed an Amazon shareholders meeting by saying:

A big piece of the story we tell ourselves about who we are is that we are willing to invent. We are willing to think long-term…. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.

I believe if you don’t have that set of things in your corporate culture, then you can’t do large-scale invention. You can do incremental invention, which is critically important for any company. But it is very difficult — if you are not willing to be misunderstood. People will misunderstand you.

Any time you do something big, that’s disruptive — Kindle, AWS — there will be critics. And there will be at least two kinds of critics. There will be well-meaning critics who genuinely misunderstand what you are doing or genuinely have a different opinion. And there will be the self-interested critics that have a vested interest in not liking what you are doing and they will have reason to misunderstand. And you have to be willing to ignore both types of critics. You listen to them, because you want to see, always testing, is it possible they are right?

But if you hold back and you say, ‘No, we believe in this vision,’ then you just stay heads down, stay focused and you build out your vision.

Notice that Bezos doesn’t use the word innovation but, rather, invention: earlier I talked about the invention of the iPhone. While there are various –and always evolving – models around processes of change, many are derived from this model of the three phases of the process of Technological Change:


When we talk about creating change, innovation is only one part of a complex and dynamic process that is actually predicated on invention. And while I know Wikipedia is an unreliable source, I will quote this entry because it is apt:

Invention is often a creative process. An open and curious mind allows an inventor to see beyond what is known. Seeing a new possibility, connection, or relationship can spark an invention. Inventive thinking frequently involves combining concepts or elements from different realms that would not normally be put together.

To put it bluntly, if you spend all your time innovating the horse and buggy, you’re never going to invent the automobile. Major legacy arts organizations are the 21st century equivalents of the horse & buggy.

The profound – and real – changes in society wrought by rapidly evolving technology, domestic and global politics, economic volatility and the inevitable shifts in civic and cultural life require reinvention, not innovation alone. Innovation is, more likely, a parallel process, a byproduct even, of invention, for it is invention that drives people to create something that has been imagined but never existed, or to reveal that which has heretofore been hidden or overlooked.

Looking at it from this perspective we see that the Innovation Agenda itself suffers from several significant adaptive challenges, the first being that funders are looking for innovation in all the wrong places.

When we look at truly inventive – and disruptive – businessmen like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos we see people who are inventors, who have the ambition to see things not as they are but as they might be, a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time, the vision to think long-term and the resolve to stick to that vision when things get rough. Apple, Amazon, Google, and many of the major corporations currently shaping our world, differ in many ways. But what they share is a worldview that embraces whole systems, not mere parts, and celebrates the excitement of discovery rather than mere mastery of the known.

Invention is often a creative process. An open and curious mind allows an inventor to see beyond what is known. Seeing a new possibility, connection, or relationship can spark an invention. Inventive thinking frequently involves combining concepts or elements from different realms that would not normally be put together.

That sounds like what artists do. So if artists invent and entrepreneurs innovate, then individuals who can do both, or organizations that can put inventors and innovators together then get out of the way, will be the most likely transformational influencers in the sector.

Unfortunately existing innovation strategies mostly seek to introduce new practices to large, unwieldy organizations and hope it will trickle down rather than going where the innovation already is (artists, small organizations, new independent initiatives and start-ups) and fostering it, allowing it to bubble up and out.

The second major adaptive challenge is that the innovation frameworks and methodologies currently deployed originate from the corporate sector, with little if any relevance to the arts sector. Management techniques and innovation strategies from the corporate sector may tangentially apply to large, legacy arts organizations, but they are almost entirely inapplicable to small and medium sized organizations, much less to artists.

These corporate frameworks and practices, mandatorily imposed on small and medium sized organizations under the rubric of “innovation”, do more harm than good, compelling these organizations to create new programs to attract funding, divert financial resources and sweat equity to administer these new programs and comply with reporting requirements. These added responsibilities increasingly divert these arts organizations from their missions and core competencies.

At the same time, the Innovation Agenda seeks to transform artists into entrepreneurs, though the very notion of the entrepreneur has itself undergone profound transformation. Nathan Heller’s recent essay in The New Yorker, “Bay Watched” proposed:

The word ‘entrepreneur’ has undergone a redefinition,” Ben Casnocha told me over lunch one day at LinkedIn’s Mountain View campus, down the road from Google. “For a while, it was like you’re either running the laundromat or the coffee shop, or you’re trying to create the next Apple. But there’s been a whole flourishing of people who are starting different kinds of businesses—who are having pride in a small business that gives them autonomy.

Increasingly what we see in the New Economy are entrepreneurs using practices usually found among artists such as collaboration, sharing, trial and error, bricolage, non-traditional organizational structures and diverse funding streams. Yet the Innovation Agenda in the Arts continues to impose corporate entrepreneurial frameworks onto artists, trying to teach them to be like corporate middle managers and businessmen, rather than looking to artists for innovative entrepreneurial strategies.

While the deleterious effects of pervasive corporate values in the arts sector is nothing new, the Innovation Agenda has provided a new and increasingly insidious challenge. The pursuit of innovation and its attendant vocabularies are incredibly effective in creating the appearance of change, of supporting our perception of ourselves as “change agents” even as we perpetuate systemic dysfunction. Thus well-meaning, thoughtful, passionate and dedicated people will take on the mantle of innovation out of a desire to create change only to find themselves frustrated, years later, to be confronted with the same questions and same problems.

We’ll discuss that in the next essay.

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