Archives for category: National Trends

As I hear about capital projects that have gone bust from overambition and organizational stress rooted in conflicting views about how much it is possible to know in advance, it seems apropos to put this thinker’s conclusion forward, grounded in arts management as a lived experience:

“It is not a matter of saying analytically, ‘what are the requirements, how best they could be organized?’ This will usually bring into existence something tame, conventional, often cold. The science of theatre building must come from studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.“ – Director Peter Brook

The science of theater building sounds like every project worth completing right now. MANY THANKS to John Thackara for including the quote in his excellent 2003 essay, The Post-Spectacular City.

Thackara’s essay is a useful grounding point for heady, interrelated discussions taking place in the emergent design worlds. Whether it’s culture hacking or creative placemaking, any good idea can go awry in a heartbeat of “too busy to care” or “too about-to-be-funded to care” about the internal logic of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. There is also (ahem) what David Ehrenfield called the plain, old “arrogance of humanism” to contend with. It happens.

I attended a memorable speech Toni Morrison gave twenty-odd years ago at a conference in Washington, DC in which she made the point: ”there is no Golden Age.” We cannot with integrity hark back to periods in history which relied on slavery and other forms of oppression to organize the leisure time of its decision-makers to indulge in politics and the arts. That’s what I see today when presented with a set of Greek columns, for instance, in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A false harking back and a collective call towards inauthenticity – in other words, a spectacle. We cannot even hark back to the golden ages of our own respective movements, times when the inside circle of a given scene was very small (we were in it, of course!) and things were cooler.

However, I do believe we can achieve something golden in our work across sectors as we imagine things differently. These glimmers, these clues, are by definition ephemeral and provisional. They multiply out of concern for vivid relationships between people. We must make space for dialogue and co-dreaming. For the invention of new, shared meanings. As we muddle through figuring this stuff out, we must include ourselves. As we take responsibility for prioritizing individuals and interactions over tools and processes (wait, who’s manning the Agile Manifesto?), we supply others with useful models for differentiating the vivid from the bland.

Don’t we all want a taste of the post-spectacular? Something to carry our time spent in cities, theaters, and workplaces beyond the tame, cold and conventional? This is not something that will be delivered to us. It is something we must make.

Companies like Morning Star are figuring out vivid relationships at work AND figuring out how to succeed economically. Let’s study them closely, for inspiration and information rather than exact, cookie-cutter replication.

Meanwhile, we’ll walk across Millennium Park to another sculpture affectionately known by Chicagoans as “The Bean.” Here, a reflective surface views its viewers, reminding us of the absurdity of standing in front of a hunk of metal trying – alongside a bunch of strangers – to see something wondrous. It is simply the act of seeing that is wondrous, the public celebration of NOW, and the unrepeatable experience in the infinite reflections every moment brings.

The DIY ethic that has fueled underground scenes since the 1980s is alive and palpable in artist-run spaces across the country.  Despite much handwringing at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado – – many creative people do still believe it is important to bring people together face-to-face in a physical space to experience art and find ways to make it happen.  Whether evolving incrementally or borne from a conceptual vision, these spaces are an important part of the ecosystem on which innovation depends.  Here are two I visited on my recent Agileseed Tour.  (Please see previous post titled Agileseeding! for more background on this.)

Agileseed Tour Destination: Omaha, NE

Omaha is an unexpectedly quirky city, where the editor of a local weekly put in a mayoral bid as a kind of performance art.  On the main drag of Dodge Street, a handful of painters and scupltors including Dave Jenowe (pictured below with his work) share studio space in a split-level storefront.  After critiquing each other long enough, they decided to invite the public in for periodic Saturday night openings.   Says Jenowe, “It was a simple thing, originally.  It started with just three of us.  We made work, and it needed to be seen.”

Social media brought people in the door, and the venue, called Studio…Gallery, has since built a solid reputation among an alternative downtown crowd.  Step by succinct step, it has added a jazz music series and comedy nights.  The space itself has evolved to accommodate growing programs, now sporting a tiny stage downstairs with superior acoustics.  Meanwhile, a core group of colleagues continue to pursue independent artistic investigations in a shared workspace.

Jenowe continues, “We are always tweaking, but we continue to have a good time.  It’s great to see new people discover the space and be surprised by the quality and diversity, to have it surpass their expectations for what they might find here.  Jamming with musicians from New York and mixing with local artists, it just makes you feel glad and inspired to keep going, to keep making new work.”

Agileseed Tour Destination: Twin Cities, MN

The Bindery Projects, named after its location above a longrunning book bindery in St. Paul, is the brainchild of Caroline Kent and Nate Young (pictured below).  Their mission is “…to show dope work and validate practice through dialiectic democratic social disourse.”  The pair has a curatorial calendar booked through spring of 2013.

When I visited in early August, Nate and Caroline were prepping to hang 47 drawings by Nyeema Morgan, whom Young met at the Skowhegan Center in Maine.  The Dubious Sum of Vaguely Discernable Parts, closing Sept. 2, 2012, uses textual variations on cake recipe instructions along with abstract photographs of individual baking ingredients to explore the search for a perfect system.

Says Young, “We might not have a ton of people coming through, the space isn’t that big.  But the ones who do are key people, influencers.  They’re paying attention.”  In fact this is true, as I heard about The Bindery Projects long before arriving in the Twin Cities area, from the Director of ArtSpace in New Haven, CT –

Art galleries conduct their business in an inherently networked and iterative manner, releasing work to the public in regularly scheduled increments.  Exhibitions take place over and over in the same space, and as they do, a body of knowledge develops around how to succeed and improve.   Artists intuitively seek to assemble the most viable chunks of work for release, even at small scale or in-progress stages, because it makes good sense.  What they may not know is that, in Scrum circles, this is known as the vertical slice.

Running a gallery on a DIY basis should be recognized as one of the most authentically agile ways of working.  People and interactions are reliably more important than tools and processes.  Those who run such spaces deserve credit and support as incubators for creativity and innovation, nimbly adaptive yet true to what they represent.

The Agile teams forming in today’s workplaces are essentially trying to function like artists.  Those leading the charge towards Agile business transformation should seek out these creative and highly productive scene-makers, talk to them regularly, and make it a point to visit the exhibitions and other programs that artists have developed and released in their communities.

At the height of its fame in Detroit, Motown was an agile co-work environment.  This made the company’s culture conducive to high-productivity and greatness beyond individual talent.

PROXIMITY: Berry Gordy purchased nine houses on the same downtown block to ensure collaborators could be physically close.

SPRINTS: While records were being made, artists had 24/7 access to the studio.   No sleeping on a good idea – artists were encouraged to get in there and work in out no matter what time of day.  This led to a high-energy intensity that comes across in the finished product.

CUSTOMER FEEDBACK: Kids from the neighborhood were regularly invited in for beta testing of new tunes, and to play around with rhythm and help compose  by doing what they loved.  This was part of the local culture of Detroit: if they weren’t in school or dating, kids were usually making music together.  Motown tapped into this natural, ongoing dialogue as a force guiding its development.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT:  Talent came in raw and got developed.  Healthy competition ensued as styles were refined and acts tightened.  Artists were constantly checking out each other’s work and using these observations to strive to best themselves.

COLLABORATION:  After recording the first mix of  a new song, all the artists would come in and have a listen.  The QA criterion was this – “if you were down to your last dollar, woud you want to spend it on a sandwich or this record?”  If long pauses were evident as people thought this through, then it was worth spending some time on it remixing.  If people were considering which type of bread they would order while the music was still playing, a tune was scrapped.  After much time working together, these opinions were mostly unanimous.

SAFETY:  A bad decision, a bad day or a bad record would not break the label’s trust in an artist.  The label nurtured talent over time and was relationship-focused.

RETROSPECTIVES: Time was regularly  set aside to discuss what worked and what didn’t work about a given project.  Opinions were invited from across the board.

LEADERSHIP: At the end of the day, Berry Gordy was accountable to his team and for his team of artists and managers.  The family-style structure of the organization meant that high levels of personal commitment were at stake.

In today’s co-work spaces – cities like New Haven (The Grove), Toronto (The Centre for Social Innovation) and Minneapolis (Coco) – welcome start-ups, creatives and nonprofits to co-exist and learn from one another.  Agilists can be encouraged by the example of Motown and its innovations in co-branding of place, company and industry that still make Detroit worth visiting.

On the Agileseed Tour, I appreciated Motown’s legacy of creative placemaking tied to aggressively focused development of collective talent.  MANY THANKS to the Motown Historical Museum for its rich interpretation, and to Paul Eley who encouraged me to stop in and consider these connections.

While I was musing aloud about transforming our city’s dingy old water tank into highway-visible public art to announce the opening of its first fine arts center next year, my son asked a very practical question:  how are you planning to get the paint up there?  Details, details, she says, waving her hands around in vague circles…then: enter a team of experts.

Among the latest round of Rockefeller Innovation Fund winners just announced, this one focuses on water as a resource:

THEY must know how to get the paint up there!  Right on time, so I can submit the idea as part of a collaborative proposal led by my neighbor and focused on the nexus of sustainability, aesthetics and civic pride to solve urban blight in West Haven, CT.   The big picture includes rain barrels for all – citizens, city parks and City Hall – and drought-resistant native plants on our classic New England Green.  Connecting these dots and others, we are responding to the Mayor’s Challenge, an exciting way to focus those rambling, summertime philosophical discussions over crushed ice, mint and lime:

Don’t creative people have a duty to respond to such challenges?  Oh my, did “creative” and “duty” just pop up in the same sentence?  Yeah, they did.  Still a few days to go before the deadline, and even if we don’t win, we can improve our capacity for big ideas and learn from each other along the way.

Meanwhile, after all these years I only just discovered the secret to a great water balloon fight, revealed by an eight-year-old:  fill the bucket with water first so the balloons don’t break.   DUH! to him, an innovation to me…

Here’s to the rest of a summer filled with ideas that refresh and inspire.

With provisional space, repurposing and the growing popularity of the “charm bracelet” approach (diverse cultural groups branded together as one district or neighborhood), how do we think and talk about, much less pay for, the iconic showcase-spaces that drive civic PR and tourism?  Here are two relevant and thought-provoking articles:

A sobering piece in the New York Times about building expansions, cultural capacity, and Board members with misplaced enthusiasm:

Best read alongside this, for a pick-me-up afterwards:

20 Most Beautiful  Museums in the World, from Flavorwire.

In my opinion, they should have listed 21, with MASSMoCA added to make blackjack!


A former Sprague Electric Company plant, the flat-out droolworthy contemporary art museum in the Berkshires ( in North Adams, MA) is thriving, and might offer a few clues to arts groups looking apply others’ lessons and avoid some of the pitfalls:

  • hybridize – old plus new; visual plus performing; art plus technology; science plus humanities.  Creativity is less about invention and more about recombining, so should its containers be!   This is the big limitation of feasibility studies – the holy grail of capital campaigns.  If several others have already done something successfully, chances are you’ll need to put a new twist on it to succeed.  It’s hard to quantify vision, but there’s also no substitute for it and no single discipline, art form or perspective that’s going to compel its narrative forward in isolation.  Build and/or expand accordingly.
  • generalize – niches are nice, but don’t make yours too narrow.  Propose eclectic contents for your container so people will wonder what happens next!  Make sure more purposes are possible in a given space than you ever even imagined at the start.
  • localize – if your proposed architectural project could be somewhere else in the world other than where you’re putting it and still make sense, don’t do it!  Buildings should be indigenous to their surroundings, reinforce their places, and story their communities.

Above all, let’s consider and embrace the notion than everyone is allowed to have an opinion about what makes space important, appealing and interesting, and what spatial alterations and innovations their communities actually need to express cultural vibrancy.   Models, maps and prototypes – tents, carts and flashmobs – might just be the kinds of shrines and palaces that fit these times the best.

Meanwhile City Wide Open Studios is coming up in October 2012 in New Haven, CT – three weekends of feasting on an eclectic free range of art spaces turned inside-out, all invitational-like.  This year is the first to have a theme – Crystal for the event’s 15th Anniversary – making the entire urban area a kind of composite, crowdsourced glittering art palace.




Generally speaking, and safe bet this is true in your neighborhood, the pretty flippingest cool stuff happens in garages.

Natulis ArtTemporary invites us to recap this historical cultural trend as they put out an open call for free studio space this August in a former car repair shop in Berlin, Germany:

  • Bands from The Clash to Iggy Pop and Mc5
  • Bill’s early Microsoft experiments
  • Chelsea district art galleries

True, the liminal space of a garage is irresistable.  You can try things out in the garage that you could never get away with in the house, even in the basement.   It is space that feels set apart, where one can experiment and suspend cultural notions about what is safe, what is allowed and what people do.   Everywhere, there are local, national and international heroes garaging it old school while keeping it innovative.   Samples from my personal ‘chive? – Ta-DA:

S.L.A.M  (Streb’s Lab for Action Mechanics) 5,000 squ. ft at 51 N. 1st St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Biopunk scientists hacking genomes around MIT (ever hear of glow-in-the-dark squid?)

And of course there’s West Haven, Connecticut.   In a backyard garage on Savin Avenue, a horse and carriage are kept in circulation, you see them cruising around town.  And in a more industrial setting, 14 Gilbert St. hosts  a long-term affair between sculptor and sculptures in the studio of Guggenheim award-winner Robert Taplin.

Do you know what interesting ideas are taking shape in some of the garages near you?  Believe me, it’s worth investigating.   Welcome these incubators into your midst, even or especially if it is unclear what’s being spawned.  And on August 30, if you’re anywhere near Berlin, enjoy the party at  Scharnhorststraße 32 celebrating nine artists who have made “ephemeral, time sensitive art at tremendous growth rate” in their provisioned spaces for  Garage Art 2012.

Creative minds coalescing around city halls nationally to solve urban problems with public data:

Because, in the words of founder Jen Pahika, “You can care about your city in a way that’s hard to care about the bigger levels of government. And cities everywhere are going through this enormous financial crisis…It’s in your face, and this crisis is creating the political will to push through new approaches.”  I will be checking out city halls while playing Johnny Agile-seed on tour this August.

MANY THANKS to Emily Wolfe for making me aware of Jen’s great work.   It’s not all about code, there’s a real human aspect to it as well.   Lots of face-to-face, lots of nuance…good to see, and let’s see more!

Cronote is an application that inserts a remind button onto a website so that visitors can schedule their own calls to action.  Perhaps they prefer to purchase a ticket closer to an event, say, or get in touch with someone else who may be interested.  The start-up is offering the service free to nonprofits.

The Cronote system, elegantly enough, is based on a single line of code.  One of the benefits to an organization is that it helps predict future demand.  This is aided by an analytics feature.

Cronote only stores data  long enough to send the reminder, after which it is automatically deleted.  Contact info is not kept anywhere indefinitely, or shared.   In fact, it is blind to the organizations that have events.

A nifty way to encourage  layers of enthusiasm and engagement, Cronote was selected for participation in the summer 2012 Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.   I found out about it through the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, now using their Remind Button at

Check it out.  Experiment.  Enjoy!

I wanted to provide a quick way to reference “The Artistic Dividend: The Arts’ Hidden Contributions to Regional Development”  By Ann Markusen and David King out of the University of Minnesota.  In section eight (Artists’ View of Themselves as Economic Actors), the researchers took an “occupational approach, centered on understanding the economic aspirations and experiences of individual artists through interviews, [which] uncovered a significant number of cases where artists are successfully generating a satisfactory income by working entrepreneurially, often aided by an extensive network of advice and contacts with others in the region. Many do so without sacrificing quality and creative integrity. ”

However, many artists, even successful grant-winning artists, still do not think of what they do as economic activity!  The report finds that they might do well to engage in entrepreneurial skill-building and overcome tendencies to think negatively about marketing their work.

Agile (which can be summed up as a team-based technology for approaching high-value business projects at high velocity in climates of dynamic uncertainty) is such an effective way to prioritize administrative tasks and achieve business objectives – I recommend it to any artist seeking to leverage time spent on “the business end of things.”   Training and coaching discourses around Agile are still very much grounded in the world of software development, now spreading to other, related domains – see  I am working on translating the essence of Agile into an arts-friendly language…collaborators WELCOME!  I hope that this will unlock new partnerships between the arts and start-up worlds and re-interest / reinvest nonprofit arts supporters in  the core administrative operations of organizations, which can be creative and innovative in their own right.

Planning to visit Minneapolis/St. Paul in August.  Please contact me ( about other arts organizations and/or start-up companies I should visit on my northern trip cross-country.    Special thanks to arts reporter Judith H. Dobrzynski.

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