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The Critical Supporting Role of Curation in Making Innovation Possible

Ian David Moss

Through the work of the [Emerging Leaders Council] Emerging Ideas Committee this year, I’ve become acquainted with a wealth of new approaches to old problems and exciting combinations of existing models about which I was previously unaware. You’re seeing some examples of them on the Blog Salon this week, and we’ll be sharing more on this space as the year goes on.

For every strong example of innovation we highlight, however, I’m sure there are five more that we missed. Not because they were not among the ones we chose, but because they were never even brought to our attention.

Part of the nature of being “under the radar” is that it’s hard for people who rely on conventional information sources to find you. The five young arts professionals on our committee set out at the beginning of the year to identify novel, smart projects that weren’t getting attention from the field as a whole. We used what resources we had at our disposal – most notably, our connection to the 30+ local Emerging Leader Networks around the country – but inevitably, our ability to “spot” innovative ventures is determined to a significant extent by those ventures’ visibility.

Each of us as human beings only has a finite attention span to work with, and in many situations, that capacity for attention is not enough to handle all of the possibilities before us. As a result, we tend to take defensive measures to limit the pool of choices: we may confine a job recruitment effort to people we already know, for example, or a funder might choose not to accept unsolicited applications.

These decisions are almost always understandable in their own right, but as I’ve written in the past, their combined net effect is that unheralded artist-entrepreneurs face increasing pressure and competition to stand out from the crowd, which often forces them to choose between either self-subsidizing to some degree or toiling in obscurity forever. That makes it harder and harder for the outsiders and the economically disadvantaged to get ahead – and our field is poorer for their absence from the conversation.

We need dedicated, knowledgeable people who can each “cover” a smaller slice of the arts world comprehensively and with integrity, and who are willing to share what they learn with the rest of us. That’s what good curators do – and we desperately need more of them.

This past weekend, David Dower from Arena Stage drove home this point quite eloquently with a long post about Arena’s curation process. A couple of years ago, Dower reformed the way that Arena Stage  scouts new plays, and one of the consequences was the end of Arena’s open submissions policy. Although it makes sense in theory that if you want to support new plays (or new anything), you should be open to anyone, Dower and his team were bowing to the reality that the volume of aspiring playwrights was such that no one could really get a fair hearing anyway. “When the submission policy was open, writers and agents had the impression they were getting their plays to me by putting them in the mail,” Dower explains. “But they weren’t. They were getting plays to a corps of non-staff readers with no real avenue to impact planning decisions.”

So how does an aspiring playwright, someone with a radically new and wonderful approach to narrative that deserves a fair hearing, get the attention of Arena Stage without an open admissions process? According to Dower:

The answer to that one is by being in motion in the world as a playwright. [Emphasis mine—IDM] If you’re participating in development labs and conferences, if your plays are somewhere in production …you have a much better chance of coming to our attention than if you are mailing a script to a theater that assigns it to a non-staff reader. 

Dower goes on to explain that Arena Stage pursues partnerships with new play development labs so as to effectively outsource the curation process to them. The point?

Even a huge, highly influential entity such as Arena Stage that is committed to the performance of new plays doesn’t have the capacity to evaluate everyone’s work. If the curation process were only up to them, a lot of people would get lost through the cracks. The only way for new playwrights to get to that level is to first succeed among a network of organizations and individuals who are “closer to the ground” – who perhaps offer less in the way of access to immediate fame, but who are in a position to offer more of their undivided attention.

I’ve spent a lot of time just now talking about new plays, and you might wonder what any of that has to do with new models for arts administration. But the truth is that they are hardly different at all.

Either way, someone with an idea, whether an artist or an entrepreneur or both, can rarely bring that idea to life on her own. She needs the help of those with resources and connections to realize its potential.

Yet the catch-22 is that those with resources and connections need help too: they need help distinguishing her great idea from the hundreds or thousands of pretty good, mediocre, and terrible ideas competing for their attention.

That’s where curators, in whatever form they take, play such an important role. They are the ones who invest their invaluable time, expertise, and attention in sifting through the unfamiliar names, the aspirational efforts, and the half-baked notions. They are the ones who make it possible for the unconnected to become connected, and for the rest of the world to benefit from that connection.

The ones who pursue this task with vigor, perseverance, and integrity are the unsung heroes of our field, for without them we would not be very innovative at all.

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