Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Innovation and Adaptive Change in the Arts

Why is this Work so Important?

For the first 50 years or more of the modern professional arts sector, the field grew from a patchwork of provision in major metropolitan areas to a genuinely national sector that reaches all states and communities, massively increasing the audience for the professional arts, and the human and financial resources available for the work.

During this first phase of field development, we focused on growth and longevity – on building sizeable audiences and sustainable organizations that were in it for the long haul.  The primary emphasis was on maintaining “organizational stability” as our arts companies grew, on defining and pursuing what became “business-as-usual.”  To keep on track with our core businesses and better enable us to realize our goals with limited resources, we developed a wide range of technical competencies in specialist areas (production, marketing, development, operations, governance).  Many organizations received “technical assistance” to strengthen these efforts.  We organized ourselves along a corporate model, with strong staff hierarchies, and command and control cultures evolved that helped sustain the emphasis on excellence of artistry as well as efficiency of delivery systems.  These organizational dynamics were reinforced through widespread strategic planning – a relatively reliable method of rationally projecting futures that were intended to look like the past, only more so.

In the past 10 years, all this has changed. Dramatic shifts in the operating environment have placed radical new demands on our organizations. To remain healthy and resilient, and to maximize the delivery of public impact and value, they now need a very different approach. Changes in patterns of public participation, and in technological access to the arts, generational and demographic shifts, new forms of resource development, and many more factors have revealed that there is a second dimension to the organizational qualities that are critical for the future.  The “muscles” we exercise to promote organizational stability now need to be balanced by equally strong muscles around adaptive capacity.

Yet our adaptive capacities have not generally received the same attention.  We have not in the past given much space to strengthening qualities such as distributed leadership, nor have we equipped ourselves to continuously invest in incubating innovation.  In our staff structures, we have not focused on learning how to effectively use cross-functional, multi-constituent teams; and we have yet to generate organizational cultures that are intrinsically flexible and responsive to fleeting opportunities and changing community dynamics.  Notably absent to date in our field – and urgently needed to foster innovation – is available change capital to underwrite well-designed new initiatives and enable them to reach new markets.  Only if each organization in the field finds its own right new balance between Stability and Adaptability will the public impact and value of professional arts organizations be sustained and increased.

To respond to these urgent needs, and reinforce the remarkable adaptive work underway in some organizations, the New Pathways | Alaska initiative provides support for innovation – the means organizations employ to respond to adaptive challenges.  Instead of the “technical assistance” of the past, the program offers “adaptive assistance” that builds the adaptive muscles of arts organizations, increases community impacts, and helps ensure a vital, engaged field that is ready to seize the future as a leading contributor to the vibrancy of our nation’s communities.

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