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Innovation in the Arts: An Interview with Karina Mangu-Ward

By Nell Edgington

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Karina Mangu-Ward. Karina is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts a social enterprise for innovation and adaptive change across the arts sector. She leads the strategy and development of, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation. Her interest is in bringing adaptive capacity and innovation from the margins of dialogue in the arts sector to the center.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: ArtsFwd is about encouraging and profiling innovation in the arts. But innovation is such a loaded and overused word, what does it mean to ArtsFwd and what do you think is true innovation?

Karina: Innovation is definitely a buzzy word, so we try to be careful about how we use it. ArtsFwd is a project of EmcArts, a non-profit that works with arts organizations across the country to strengthen their adaptive capacities and advance the practice of innovation. So we’re primarily concerned with organizational innovation, which EmcArts has defined as instances of organizational change that: 1) result from a shift in underlying assumptions, 2) are discontinuous from previous practices, and 3) provide new pathways to creating public value.

So we’re not talking about creativity, which is more of an individual pursuit, or inspiration, which is about a momentary spark. The stories we tell on ArtsFwd are about organizations working to build their capacity to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment through the process of innovation, which requires a cross-functional team working together over a sustained period of time to develop, test, and optimize genuinely new approaches.

Nell: Why do you think innovation is particularly important in the arts world and why now?

Karina: In the past 10 years, unprecedented changes in our operating environment have placed radical new demands on our arts organizations. We’re seeing changes in patterns of public participation, technological access to the arts, generational and demographic shifts, new forms of resource development, and many more factors. Now more than ever, it’s apparent that the “muscles” arts leaders exercise to promote organizational stability need to be balanced by equally strong muscles around adaptive capacity. We believe that organizations can build those muscles, and an ultimately an organizational culture that is intrinsically flexible and responsive, by in investing in incubating innovation.

While a few training opportunities exist to support adaptive change, like those offered by EmcArts’ Innovation Labs and New Pathways for the Arts programs, the nonprofit cultural field lacked an arena for timely, field-wide conversation and peer-to-peer learning around these new practices. In order to pick up on the remarkably innovative work underway in some organizations, so that individual examples of success can become new norms in the field, there was an urgent need for a field-wide learning platform. In response to this need, EmcArts created ArtsFwd a place for arts leaders to learn from each other about building adaptive capacity and the power of effective innovation.

Nell: What are some of the most innovative things you’ve seen in the arts?

Karina: I love the story of how the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco transformed their visitor experience from “come, look, leave” to “immersive.” There’s a lot of discussion right now about how the arts sector can move from thinking about audiences as passively receptive to actively engaged, and I think YBCA is at the bleeding edge of this work. They’ve changed the museum’s hours, handed curatorial duties over to junior staff, redesigned their website around big ideas instead of logistics, and started a new personalized arts education program called YBCA:You. Check out our short documentary and written profile about how they did it .

The Wooster Group’s Video Dailies Blog is a great example of putting technology to work to build audiences in a way that is genuine to the artistic core of the organization. I think that’s really hard to do. The Wooster Group had to rethink their assumptions about organizational structure by inviting the entire staff to participate in a lateral way in the creation of a daily short video that truly blurs the line between marketing and art. Check out their profile on ArtsFwd.

One that we haven’t covered on ArtsFwd is the Portland Museum of Art’s Object Stories. With this project, they invited visitors to bring a personally meaningful object with them into a booth at the museum and record a story about it. The booth took a series of pictures and creates an audio slideshow, which became part of an exhibit at the museum and an online gallery. It’s a beautiful example of creating an authentically participatory experience that spans the divide between visitor and creator.

Nell: People often say that when economic times are hard charitable dollars to the arts are the first to go because the arts are more “expendable” than social services and other more basic needs. How do you respond to that idea?

Karina: I’m (obviously) predisposed to think that defunding the arts is a great way to shoot ourselves collectively in the foot. But what I find really exciting right now is that we’re seeing a lot of innovative arts groups partnering with social service and urban development organizations to improve their communities. The arts have always been a part of making our communities (and lives) livable, so it’s inspiring to see the connection between arts and direct services forged more deeply.

For example, on ArtsFwd we’re following what’s happening at Adventure Stage Chicago, a theater organization that was created within the Northwestern University Settlement House (NUSH), a century old social service provider, as they join forces to incorporate the arts into social services delivery. Artful practices are being integrated in NUSH’s Head Start program, summer camps for kids, and adult programs, including their food bank, and senior program. Anyone who receives services was invited to co-create a new theater piece about “home,” which was performed in the Adventure Stage auditorium in Spanish, the native language for most of the community. We have a multimedia profile about their process premiering on ArtsFwd in our Innovation Stories section. Stay tuned!

Also, there’s a lot of talk about placemaking happening right now, and I’m encouraged to see the arts taking a vital role in that conversation. For example, Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis is working on a project called Irrigate, which is an artist-led creative placemaking initiative that will help turn the six miles surrounding a new light rail under construction in an underdeveloped and undervalued part of Saint Paul into a welcoming place. The project brings together infrastructure development, a diverse community, and artists in a cross-sector collaboration.

Nell: Arts organizations in particular have struggled because of increasing competition for an audience’s time. How do you think the arts can overcome those trends? And are some areas of the arts better positioned to overcome it?

Karina: What I’m seeing in the arts sector right now is a shift from thinking about the abundance of new technologies and channels for entertainments as competition, to thinking about them as opportunities for cooperation. After all, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts indicated that 74% of Americans are engaging with arts, yet only 35% are doing so through professional “benchmark” arts organizations. There’s a huge territory of interest to cultivate, if we can find ways of connecting and engaging.

Nina Simon is doing great work in this area right now and writing about it with refreshing openness on her blog Museum 2.0. For example, she experimented with having a puzzle, unrelated to the artistic work, in the galleries to engage visitors for a long period of time, though not directly with the art. She was testing the idea that by bringing potentially “competing” activities into the gallery you increase the length of time someone is in a artful environment and therefore the chances that they will have a meaningful experience with the art. There was some interesting push back on that experiment from artists, which you can read about here.

This in the same vein, City Lights Theater Company in San Jose is experimenting with Tweet Seats, or seats where audience members are encouraged to tweet, which defuses the competition for attention while also generating publicity for the show. If you can’t fight ‘em, make ‘em work for you, right?

Nell: The Nonprofit Finance Fund is in the process of a pretty interesting “Change Capital for the Arts” project where they are helping arts organizations raise capital to revamp their organizations. What do you think about the concept of change capital and do you see more arts organizations going after it?

Karina: We’re encouraged by this move from old capitalization, i.e big endowment campaigns, to more frequent injections of smaller amounts of capital to bridge the inevitable gap between prototyping and the sustainability of a new strategy.

We certainly see a hunger for this kind of “risk” or “change” capital in the organizations applying to our Innovation Labs, which is why we provide a $40,000 grant for prototyping during the program. This kind of seed money helps managers resist the pressure to monetize or fossilize new programs too soon, giving them the breathing space for innovations to grow and embrace a culture of adaptive capacity. Note: the deadline for Round 2 of the Innovation Lab for Museums is May 15th.

I was encouraged to hear Ken Foster, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts talk eloquently in this ArtsFwd podcast about setting up a $200,000 fund within the organization’s annual budget to encourage innovation and risk. Throughout the year, any staff member can apply to the fund with an innovative idea. All they need a champion from senior staff (not necessarily from their own department) and to fill out a short application. Small grants are awarded in a rolling basis.

This kind of change capital is the money we need a lot of right now. The failure of funders to provide it is one of the reasons why innovation has not had a larger impact on the field.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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4 Comments to Innovation in the Arts: An Interview with Karina Mangu-Ward

[…] always enjoy Nell Edgington’s social innovation interviews, but her recent interview with Mangu-Ward struck a cord and is particularly informative and enlightening to […]

Randall Pope
May 15, 2012

I really enjoyed reading this interview with Karina. Unfortunately, most of the new technology in social media has been inaccessible for the people who are DeafBlind. At the same time, the technology that are accessible, the Internet has made it possible for the these people to reach out with each others, which greatly reduce the feeling of isolation. I for one is very thankful for the Internet.

May 16, 2012

Great article. I am wondering how Karina would see the role of non profit educational connections with the arts. Public schools are losing the arts, while Charter and Independent schools are maintaining (and in many areas expanding) the visual and performing arts. But the role in education is murky at many levels. Traditional presentations and parental disinterest in the visual arts are calling for a clear new interactive approach for art education in schools. I am researching this and want to create a venue opportunity for community connections and schools where the arts are celebrated.

Karina Mangu-Ward
May 17, 2012

Barbara – That’s a great question and one that I wish I knew more about. I did just come back from visiting with the groups participating in EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for Museums and one of the groups, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is working on rethinking the role of youth arts education as central to their organization. (Their program was developed in response to the lack of arts education in San Francisco schools.) To help them expand their thinking about art education, they are working with an expert in Visual Thinking Strategies. VTS seems like a fascinating, open, interactive tool that researchers are finding has use beyond arts education. It seems to be getting a lot of traction right now. As I mentioned in the interview, we also work with Adventure Stage Chicago, which is taking arts ed in to their own hands by integrating artful practice into their direct services delivery. It seems to be a trend for arts orgs to be working around the school system to fill the gaps.

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