“I come to bury innovation not to praise it.”
by Todd London
I’m reading Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. It takes place inside a Google-like company by the same name. As the book begins, the Circle’s latest hire, Mae, tours the sparkling, communitarian campus, “400 acres of brushed steel and glass.” “It’s heaven,” she thinks.
The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the red stone. ‘Participate,’ said another.
There are dozens of these word-bricks, but Eggers just names a few: “Find Community.” “Imagine.” “Breathe.” And yes, you guessed it, “Innovate.”
You know where this is going. It’s not heaven at all. It’s Orwellian hell, Steve Jobs meets L. Ron Hubbard. The people are warm, brilliant, and aglow with a perfectly modulated passion, like those shiny charismatics who dominate the Ted Talks. In other words, Eggers novel describes something like the Platonic ideal of a 24/7 “innovation summit.” It’s a nightmare.
I’m a writer and I live and work with writers. The stone steps to the old Midtown Manhattan church that houses New Dramatists don’t have words etched in them. No one needs to be told to imagine or, since they’re with us for seven-year residencies, to find community. The domed window above the wooden entrance doors does have words, painted in gold: Dedicated to the Playwright. That’s all. We dedicate our service to their efforts and, because art leads change and not the other way around, their work cuts a slow path to the new.
Most of us there—writers, staff, board—swing between incredulity and fury at the rampant spread of this innovation obsession in the arts. So I have to confess: I come to bury innovation not to praise it.
Here’s how the siren call of innovation sounds from our church: It signals another incursion on the arts by corporate culture, directive funders, and those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of high-tech hip and devotional entrepreneurism. It announces the rise of a cult of consultancy, already a solid wing of the funding community. One New York foundation, which formerly gave out sizable general operating support, now requires each grantee to send two senior staffers to spend several mornings at the feet of turnaround king Michael Kaiser, as a prerequisite for payment and any future funding. You follow? They hire a high-paid macher to teach us how to fundraise even as they stop funding us.
The world is changing radically and so must we. That’s the agenda underlying the innovation mandate. This change agenda is actually a critique, a presumption that arts organizations are calcified, failed. Of course, most of us share this critique and believe it’s true of every company but our own. More, it implies that our companies, many five or six decades old, don’t know how to adapt.
It’s not that we’ve failed to adapt; we have adapted and adapted, twisting our adaptive muscles into shapes for this funding trend or that initiative, for the new, improved, think it, do it, be it, say it, better believe it world of organizational reorganization until we’re blue in the core values. We have lost sight of the ocean, in which we may be sinking, and keep returning to the mechanism of the boat.
Where innovation thinkers see ill-adaptive organizations, I see decades of unsupported art and artists, energy and money thrown at institutional issues, as if this can make the art relevant. I’d suggest it’s the funding community that needs to take a deep, humble look at its assumptions and, most urgently, at the human relations and power dynamics of money and expertise. Doctor, please innovate thyself.
Change is no measure of success. Do we do what we say we do? Do we do it well? If we don’t, we shouldn’t be funded. If we are worthy of funding, we have proved we’re capable of self-determination.
So why did New Dramatists attend an “innovation summit,” if this is all so wrongheaded, and why did we apply to EmcArts Innovation Lab? It’s simple. Funding and learning, in that order. We’re as desperate for new funding as the next guy. We’ve been known to pretzel our priorities to get some. The Lab came with money; the summit with a roomful of important funders. Can we admit this? Both have brought us new colleagues and new insights. Continue reading