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Everyone Wants Creativity, But Don’t Want To Flirt With Failure

Now and again I have cited the 2010 IBM study where CEOs worldwide ranked creativity as the most relevant and important skill their employees needed to take their companies in the future.  According to a piece by Larry Robertson on Creativity Post, similar studies by consultants and multi-national companies like Price Waterhouse Coopers, Boston Consulting Group,  Ernst & Young and Adobe have all arrived at the same answer.

Robertson expounds on seven general themes that emerge from the studies. (I am just providing a simple list.)

Creativity clearly surfaces as:

1. A Key Quality…

2. Relevant at Every Level…

3. Critical in Every Sector…

4. A Motivator and Value Maker…

5. One of the Few Things You Can Actually Control…

6. The Telltale Sign of an Effective Leader…

7. A Greater Social Need…

And yet, even with all the agreement and evidence, a substantial gap still exists between what we want, value, and believe creativity’s importance to be and what we actually do to encourage and fuel it.

Few organizations hire, train, or create environments that promote and prioritize creativity. Few leaders set an example beyond their declarations of creativity’s strategic importance. And the few exceptions? Not surprisingly, they are the leaders viewed by their industries, the market, their employees, and their customers as having the highest likelihood of thriving in a disruptive world.

One leader, in a single organization, could read this and seek change. That would be good, but the need is far greater. Collectively, as human beings, we need to bridge the gap between “perceived need and actual use” when it comes to creativity…

I think we probably all realize that creativity isn’t supported in practice because it involves risk. No one wants to be the one blamed when something goes wrong. When TV shows and movies depict a creative risk taker, it is often a father (is it ever the mother?) who has relegated himself and his family to near poverty due to the failed inventions he has sunk resources into. If something works, everyone is surprised and it is usually to save the day.

If someone is successful at plying their creativity in a scientific way, it is usually as a vehicle for some adventure. If it is depicted in association with the arts, it is a rags to riches story that often involves the recognition of hubris that grounds them.

Rarely are creative abilities depicted as part of a successful character’s normal background that isn’t the basis of moving the story forward or some character flaw/quirk. Creativity is either the reason why someone’s life is held back or it enables them to lead an amazing life of opportunity. Sometimes it is a combination of both– the broke, but zany person who finds meaning in the simple pleasures of life and helps the main character change their life. Rarely is creativity associated with a solid, normal life.

Think about how many characters have been successful doctors, lawyers and business people who didn’t seem to have to do much in these areas to be successful. How many characters have a comparable life in a creative profession? (Mike Brady from the Brady Bunch? Can you think of more?)

Granted, most people get into a creative field because provides interesting opportunities and elevates your day above the mundane. They don’t necessarily want their story to be completely normal.

My point is that creativity is often depicted on the extremes, either part of resounding success or abject failure. With that context lurking in the collective subconscious, I wouldn’t necessarily blame businesses if they viewed cultivating and employing increased creativity with some apprehension.

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Talking To Your Neighbors About Saving The NEA

Margy Waller’s piece about How To Talk About Saving the NEA has been making the rounds these last couple weeks. You should take a look at it if you haven’t already.  Her piece isn’t so much about how to convince your legislator that the NEA is worth saving as much as it is about making the case to your neighbors.  While there is a lot of immediacy about preserving the NEA, Waller’s piece integrates the longer, broader encompassing view that aligns with the agenda of building public will for arts and culture.

She addresses the common objections about supporting the arts: arts are entertainment and a private experience; they are a commodity; they are a passive experience; and a low priority.

The response she proposed advocates for support based on the ripple effect arts have (my emphasis):

A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.

These are broad-based benefits that people already believe are real—and that they value:

A vibrant, thriving place: Neighborhoods are livelier, communities are strengthened, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents economic argument and is about creating and sustaining an environment that is memorable and a place where people want to live, visit, and work.
[…]
This organizing idea shapes the subsequent conversation in important ways. It moves people away from thinking about private concerns and personal interests (me) and toward thinking about public concerns and communal benefits (we).

Importantly, people who hear this message often shift from thinking of themselves as passive recipients of consumer goods, and begin to see their role as active citizens interested in addressing the public good.

Now obviously, this shift in perception can’t happen in a vacuum. There actually has to be artistic and cultural activity occurring that resonates with people as contributing to the public good.

She notes that “While it’s true that some decision-makers expect to see this economic impact data, our research reveals that it is not persuasive to the public and is not useful to build broad support for public funding.”

She provides a check list to help keep messaging focused. The following is only an excerpt so be sure to check out the whole thing.

[..]

✓ Vibrancy/Connectedness: Does the example include benefits that could be seen as examples of vibrancy/vitality or increased connectedness?

✓ Benefits to All: Does the example point out potential benefits to people who are not participating in the specific event?

✓ Behind the scenes: Does the discussion also remind people that this doesn’t happen by accident but requires investment, etc.?

✓ One of Many: When possible, it is helpful to mention additional examples in the discussion, which helps audiences focus on the broader point that a strong arts sector creates a range of benefits.

[…]

We can’t say the sky is falling—that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.

The first point on her check list was “Arts Organization: Are the benefits created by an organization/event/institution that NEA supported?” An important distinction to emphasize if you are talking to people about this is that while many smaller arts organizations, especially in rural locales, may not receive support directly from the NEA, there is a good chance that they do receive a fair amount of funding through their state arts agency, which in turn is strongly supported by the NEA. Since there is likely to be a dearth of private funders, arts organizations in more rural locales potentially have the most to lose even receiving indirect NEA funding.

It can be important to emphasize these indirect relationships to NEA funding because it can be easy to disregard the relevance otherwise.

As someone pointed out to me yesterday, even if you don’t ultimately see a significant impact to your finances, the fact that another organization has to scale back can mean fewer great opportunities for your organization when a group decides not to tour.  Perhaps fewer venues participating in touring means the routing doesn’t work out for your location for a performance or visual arts show. Indirect impacts can have the most significant repercussions but can be the hardest to anticipate.

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Real Men Draw Superheroes

An interesting article in Pacific Standard came across my feed in the last few weeks. It suggests that male disinterest in the arts is a result of social pressure to conform during the early teen years.

Author Tom Jacobs was reporting on a study involving 5227 students in Belgium, which found:

The results: “We found that the more typical a male adolescent considers himself to be, the lower his interest in highbrow culture,” the researchers report. “The more gender congruent a female adolescent is, the higher her interest in highbrow cultural activities.”

Perhaps more importantly, they found “the more pressure for gender conformity a young man experiences, the lower his interest in highbrow culture.”

Young women under similar conformist pressure were more interested in cultural activities, but only to a small degree. This difference reflects the fact “it is more difficult for young men to like an activity perceived as feminine than it is for young women to dislike a feminine activity,” the researchers write.

If you are like me, you may have caught the repetition of the term “high brow culture,” and wondered if perhaps the results would have been different if they changed their definition of art.

The categories they surveyed on were “making music, studying drama, painting or drawing, attending plays or dance performances, using the library, visiting an art museum, and reading.” While these don’t seem inherently highbrow I wondered if the Dutch terms they used had certain highbrow connotations.

One of the article commenters, Ginnie Lupi, (who, on closer inspection, I see is the Director of the NH State Council on the Arts), said much the same thing:

“I agree with the study designers in the need to focus “on topics that are closer to young men’s interests.” We’re going to keep getting these kind of results if we continue to cleave to an outdated definition of the arts. Maybe some of the questions should have involved video games, reading comics and drawing superheroes?”

Drawing superheroes especially resonated with me. My friends and I used to draw all sorts of sci-fi and superhero battles as kids. If you had asked me if I had any desire to hone my skill to become better, I would have said no.

However, if you were able to draw me out into a conversation and asked me why I liked to draw these scenes, I might not have been the most erudite, but I would have given you a sense of how it helped me connect with my imagination and with my classmates who were doing the same thing.  That could have provided the basis of further conversation.

Now granted, I went into the arts so I probably didn’t need that further conversation, but discussions like that can provide good opportunities.

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We Accidentally Built An Arts And Community Space

This really great story on the Americans for the Arts blog caught my eye that I would label as unintentional placemaking. Though I could think of other apt terms.

Douglas Sorocco writes about how Oklahoma City law firm Dunlap Codding built an arts and community space as part of the construction of their offices.

Except,

…to be completely honest, “decided to build” is a bit misleading. We didn’t expressly set out to build an arts and community space. Like most creative endeavors, the concept evolved over time and in response to observations of our community’s needs. Our original blueprints called for a full kitchen/breakroom. An imposing commercial overhead garage door existed in the area and, thinking ourselves clever, we decided to replace it with a glass door to allow for natural light and fresh breezes. Of course, we didn’t want to look out the door at a parking lot filled with concrete—so an urban green space was necessary…In the end, we created a kitchen and indoor event center that opened to the outdoors—complete with modular tables and reconfigurable seating.

Having initially designed the infrastructure for our staff’s use, we soon realized that it would be empty 99.9999997% of the time—OK, maybe only a slight exaggeration. It seemed wasteful to create such an inviting space and leave it fallow…An off-hand comment made by a young creative resonated with us: “While community doesn’t need a space, it doesn’t hurt to have one.” We decided to make our space available. Rather than saying “no,” we simply said, “why not?”

Use of the space is free for community groups and $20/hr for private events. Sorocco says they initially had to coax people into using the space, but since then there have been over 1200 events, including a music series which they have underwrote.

The reason why I wanted to call attention to this wasn’t just simply because they were generous enough to open up a space intended for staff to the community, but because it even entered their minds at all.

I saw it as a positive sign that their mindset was attuned to the possibility employing the space to this purpose. Typically, a business that was inclined to support cultural and community events might make donations, advocate for their staff to volunteer their time, participate in a 5k walk/run, etc., People will laud them for their generosity.

No one is going to reproach a business for keeping their awesome employee lounge to themselves. It takes some flexibility and creativity to look at employee lounge, decide it is being under utilized, see the opportunities, and make the effort to share with others.

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