Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where I've Been, New Avenues, and a Major Discovery

In 2009 I read a paper at a conference at Northwestern University's Department of Communication Studies. In it I sought to build a global model that would describe everything I knew about how images operate in the world, from conception and creation, through editing and distribution, to their impact on far flung audiences throughout the world.

In the end I succeeded in sketching out my understanding of how mass media, business, psychoanalytic theory, aesthetics, and so on interact in ways that define a process. It is a sort of model of how change can be made through media. This model was informed by a broad range of professional experiences from my work at Time Inc in a critical production role at a billion dollar magazine to independent and freelance image making for a wide range of clients, to my own personal work that answers to more personally defined terms of making and audience engagement.

As I was working through this paper, I intuitively sensed that something was happening along the intersection between art making and business. I was hearing about it in a broad range of terms, from evolutions in social media, to user interface design, to changes in audience engagement strategies, to instability in the global economy, to predictions that the US economy itself needs to and is transforming itself into an innovation based economy that will be able to generate profitable innovations in a turbulent world market.

As we passed through the recession and continue to transition into the new economies made possible by computers and the internet, it was becoming increasingly clear that the possibilities for cultural innovation were almost entirely dependent on the funding sources and business models that quite literally define and shape their outcomes.

You cannot innovate outside of the business models and ecosystems in which you operate. They are designed to protect their own success and survival. Your efforts to disrupt them will be defeated unless you can address the business on its own formal terms.

On a deep ontological level this is reminiscent of the problems that painting encountered as it transitioned into abstraction in the early parts of the last century. It, along with all the arts, to evolve out of the avant garde, first faced itself on its own formal terms. Something similar is happening in business.

My conclusion in my paper at Northwestern was that one cannot innovate on a large scale in ways that significantly escape the business models that you are dependent on. I had not yet read Clayton Christensen's book, the Innovator's Dilemma, in which he explores this problem for large corporations that succeed wildly, growing to dominate their industry only to find themselves irrelevant or losing to competitors that are more innovative and nimble. But I had already lived inside or around that cycle of innovation through my decade in publishing in New York City. My intuitive understanding of the problem led me to confront it on stage at Northwestern.

Plain and simple. You cannot innovate beyond the restrictions of your business model. Therefore, you must design new business models if you want to innovate. A simple, logical conclusion.

I chewed on that conclusion for almost a year, looking for ways to work around it. There wasn't any way around it. If you can't work with the finance and the accounting, you can't build innovative organizations.

At this point I quietly enrolled in a Master's of Business Administration program at Western Washington University with the intention of studying accounting and finance. The first year I just put my head down and worked hard on the quantitative skills. As an artist with an MFA, I was an unusual addition to the mix, but I brought significant personal experience and was able to quickly translate concepts into my own real world experiences.

About nine months ago I began an independent study on innovation and the arts. At that point there were 20 or so Master's of Arts Administration programs throughout the United States. I pulled all their curricula and worked through what it was that they were teaching. Almost without exception, they were extremely light on the hard quantitative business skills like accounting, operations and finance.

By now I had worked through substantial portions of all three and could recognize what a loss this was to the entire field. The weakness of the whole field was summed up in the introduction to one of the leading textbooks on arts administration. It a field that is an amalgamation of ideas where no one key differentiating point or strength has emerged. The potential weakness was that you could get light versions of an MFA and an MBA without getting the full strengths of either.

I asked myself the following question--was there something happening at the nexus of art making and business that was uniquely powerful and strong, in which the best of both worlds would come forward and new and valuable models would emerge that would contribute to both fields?

From there began nine months of research that yielded the following answer; Yes, and the possibilities are incredibly exciting. They also are not restricted to non-profit or for-profit equations. And as more and more states in the US start to adopt the formation of social purpose corporations, the possibilities only continue to grow.

I wasn't the only person asking these questions. The entire field of arts education had been shifting towards audience engagement and the recognition that art making is a conversation with the public, with broader implications and consequences. The field of social entrepreneurship emerges out the interactions between art making and current evolutions in development and social innovation. This fall the School of Visual Arts is offering the first MFA in Social Entrepreneurship. There is a clear recognition that art making is not restricted to a material or image making event.

Concurrently the business world is experiencing escalating levels of uncertainty and a need to innovate disruptively as an almost normal condition in the markets.

By combining models of design thinking, emergent strategy and discover driven planning that have been developed at Stanford, Harvard, Wharton and Columbia, and tested at places like IBM, Apple, IDEO, and Ashoka, it is possible to integrate art, accounting, finance and design in powerful ways.

Tomorrow I will post on what this space is starting to look like from my perspective, how it works, and why you need someone who speaks art, design, accounting and finance on your team, no matter what it is you are trying to do in the world.

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