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The Arts Innovation Challenge

Scott Provancher

Why is it so rare to find successful examples of innovation and entrepreneurism in the arts industry in America? The arts industry, after all, is filled with creative individuals who are working in a country that idolizes the lone entrepreneur business leader (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc…).

After watching this video about Google Art Project and realizing disruptive innovations that could change the way we experience art are not coming from the arts industry, but from for-profit technology companies, I began searching for answers.

Though we often like to believe innovative ideas that turn into successful businesses or products happen from a solitary “eureka” in one person’s head, the fact is that they usually don’t. Organizations and individuals who successfully produce game-changing innovations have very disciplined approaches to nurture creative ideas, assemble the right minds to develop them, put the necessary financial resources behind them, and most importantly are comfortable with taking risks. 

Google Art Project is a perfect example of this. The idea was developed during Google’s 20% time. Google employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time at work on projects or ideas that are not dictated by the company and given the financial resources to make it happen.

The primary reason fewer innovations surface in the arts industry are the lack of dedicated resources (financial and human), risk aversion from arts organizations and funders, and a lack of patience toward developing new ideas.

At the Arts & Science Council (ASC), we did not begin to have success in developing our own innovative ideas until our board of directors agreed to dedicate dollars and manpower to the innovation process. Are we doing the same for the arts organizations we fund in the community? The answer is no.

Until ASC, as a funder, invests financial resources in innovation for the cultural sector and encourages other funders to do the same, how can we expect our financially lean cultural organizations to take the risk necessary to innovate? This is a challenge we are focused on addressing in the coming year.

Let’s not fool ourselves; money is not the only answer. As leaders and funders in the arts, we also need to recalibrate ourselves to accept more risk, keep our eyes open to budding ideas and have patience in allowing these ideas to fully see their potential.

If funders continue to only fund proven programs or artistic ideas that already have a build in audience or revenue model, we are doing a disservice to our sector and will hurt the long term sustainability of the arts in America. I appreciate Google’s innovative contribution to the arts, but let’s collectively work to foster the environment where the next big idea can come from the arts community as well.

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