Innovation occurs at improbable intersections; when roles are reversed and diverse disciplines collide. Artists and businesspeople are improbable bedfellows. There is a growing group of intermediaries who are bringing executives and artists together like flint stones in order to spark fresh innovation. Like a Hollywood switcheroo film – say, The Parent Trap or Trading Places – artists are taking residence in industrial locations while business executives and scientists are plunging literally into the realm of the artist.
Brandon Hinman has played at least three roles at the crossroads of art and innovation: artist, chef and innovation alchemist. After years preparing meals for traditional artist-in-residence programs and science research stations, Hinman turned from culinary arts to visual arts and crafted his own artist-in-residence opportunities – for instance, with a 100-year-old pants maker, L.C. King Manufacturing in Bristol, TN. Since 2014, Hinman has been the first Director of AIR Serenbe, the artist in residence program for the visionary ecovillage of Serenbe. He is now experimenting with bringing business executives into the realm of the artist.
Serenbe is within commuting distance of the frenetic Atlanta metropolis but, culturally, it is eons away. Serenbe is a throwback to the imagined days of idyllic communities cultivating their own organic food, crafting products by hand; where words like “bespoke” and “artisanal” are never uttered ironically. Serenbe is planfully sprinkled with quaint homes, farm-to-table restaurants, boutique shops, charming guest quarters and performance spaces and galleries.
The arts are a purposefully planned centerpiece of Serenbe. The community’s non-profit Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and Environment orchestrates art, music, theater and film programs as well as a New Urbanism think tank called Serenbe Fellows. A 1% transfer fee from all home sales and 3% from land sales goes directly to the Institute so that every property owner is stakeholder in the arts at Serenbe.
Set in the community’s pastoral landscape, AIR Serenbe is the organization’s artist-in residence initiative. Hinman views the program as a place of both creative action and thoughtful repose. “However, AIR Serenbe is not a vacation for artists,” said Hinman. “It is about taking the disparate pockets of time and space that an artist might have used to experiment and packing them as tightly as possible into a finite period. These expansions and limitations accelerate the creative process.”
For starters, AIR Serenbe’s Focus Fellowships ensure that each participant is somewhat mission-minded. Donors designate Focus Fellowship awards for artists from specific disciplines who are exploring unique thematic areas. For example, The Walker Evans Focus Fellowship is awarded to an artist photographing the American South while The Chrysalis Focus Fellowship is given to an artist making work that integrates science and the natural world.
“Artists are inspired by contrast of place and by other people around them who are making things,” said Brandon Hinman. “Some of the artists here are responding to the steady flow of building development going on here at Serenbe – like dumpster diving and working with construction’s cast-off materials. There’s also a farm and a theater company and a general sense of aliveness taking place beyond the artist-in-residence spaces. All of this – along with the clear focus of their residency - provides positive stimulation.”
Just in case the active community life within Serenbe’s village doesn’t deliver enough provocation, Hinman has engaged outside organizations to increase creative collisions. Recently, he partnered with The Rural Studio - a renowned design-build undergraduate program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University. Serenbe became the first to work with a local contractor to build and field test two of Rural Studio's experimental $20,000 “20K Houses” – each no more than 550 square feet in size - on their Art Farm property as live:work cottages for AIR Serenbe artists. Hinman had the Director of Rural Studio and his wife spend the night in one of his own 20k homes for the first time ever.
Now, Hinman is asking, “What does it look like to have a business person come out here to work alongside the artists or in the context of a creative residency?” The inspiration struck him when “a dozen computer programmers from the e-mail marketing company, MailChimp, showed up to check out the 20K cottages,” Hinman said. “Their bosses at MailChimp had told them just to go off to Serenbe, stay at the Inn and work on something together.” It was kind of a mini group sabbatical. With that impetus, Hinman put a small test together with two AIR Serenbe program sponsors. “I've invited the architecture and lighting design company, Workstead (they provided lighting for the Rural Studio cottages), for a creative weekend at the cottages. I also invited the graphic design and branding agency, Fuzzco to be here at the same time. Fuzzco and Workstead both are multi-disciplinary designers, both are working on projects for each other, both are the kinds of designer/executive/artist types for whom a residency can have deep impact.”
Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) gave business-hosted artist residencies a jump-start in the 1990s but their program – which paired artists with scientists to explore innovations in multimedia and document-related technologies – ended in 1999. It wasn’t until post-2008-recession that artist-in-residence programs began to sprout shallow roots in a scattering of businesses. It is even more recent that a set of third party organizations – linking artist and business - has begun to nurture and expand the trend.
Professor Ariane Berthoin Antal is the world’s leading researcher of business-hosted creator-in-residence programs – what she calls, “Artistic Interventions in Organizations.” She leads research on artistic interventions in organizations as part of the “Cultural Sources of Newness” program at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Fascinated by the intersections of business and society, Berthoin Antal believes that connecting artistic skills and processes to workplace issues is a powerful way to encourage change and innovation.
In a recent study, “Artistic Intervention Residencies And Their Intermediaries,” Berthoin Antal examined the increasing variety of entities serving as “go betweens” for artists and businesses. “Intermediaries have emerged as a new kind of actor in the landscape to fulfill the often complex and time-consuming functions of bridging between the world of organizations and the world of the arts,” she wrote.
Some of these intermediaries are brand new and created explicitly for mixing art and business. Conexiones Improbables – based in Spain - is one example of a 2010 start-up entity that develops 8 to 10 month artistic interventions for small and mid-sized enterprises. Berthoin Antal profiled this program in her research noting, “It brings not only artists, but also other kinds of “improbable” thinkers (e.g., scientists, philosophers) into organizations in diverse sectors.” It also equips artists and organizations with tools (like a deck of cards with creative prompts) and processes designed specifically to make improbable connections most effective.
Some intermediaries with slightly more longevity – like San Francisco based CODAME or Massachusetts based Boston CyberArts – have artist-in-residency and adopt-an-artist placements as a part of their core mission. Each of these groups inserts artists into the daily flow of businesses hoping to prod new thinking.
Fewer are turning the tables and bringing business executives into the realm of the artist in order to disrupt and innovate. AIR Serenbe is dipping its pinky toe into that trembling deep ocean.
McColl Center for Art + Innovation has waded in ankle deep.
McColl Center for Art + Innovation is a compelling, if under-appreciated, resource to help reverse Charlotte’s innovation laggard position. McColl Center is located in the neogothic shell of the former First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church at the hub of Charlotte’s business district. The Center regularly opens its doors to the public for artist studio tours, gallery shows, poetry readings and jazz concerts. However, McColl’s main activities are its Artist-in-Residence program and its Innovation Institute.
McColl’s Artist-in-Residence initiatives go beyond traditional visual arts, hosting everything from filmmakers and physicists to chefs and Rube Goldberg device designers. Within McColl’s 30,000 square feet, there are nine studios in which artists work over a three-month, five-month or eleven-month stint depending on the nature of their work.
The residency prepares artists to go back into the “real world” with renewed vigor and vision. It also puts them on the short list to help conduct McColl’s Innovation Institute sessions. “The Innovation Institute is an artist-led, hands-on, experiential program that builds the creative capacity of individuals, teams, and organizations,” said Suzanne Fetscher, founding President/CEO of McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Since launching in 2005, the Innovation Institute has graduated over 4000 participants from than 60 companies.
"Before attending our program, most business people don’t realize how artists do their work and how much an artist’s work processes have in common with their own. So, the Innovation Institute artists present their work and describe the arc of their creative process. They describe how they solve problems, deal with deadlines and budgets and how those constraints move them to successful new approaches and outcomes. That presentation blows the executives’ minds,” Fetscher said.
One Innovation Institute graduate is Jennifer Appleby, President, Chief Creative Officer, Owner at Wray Ward – Charlotte’s largest marketing communications firm. A respected community leader, Appleby participated in McColl’s Innovation Institute and, since, has had several of her firm’s senior management team attend the program. Appleby remembered, “Suzanne Fetscher kept pushing me to participate but I thought, I run a creative agency. Why should I participate? This is what I do for a living.” Appleby relented. “It was fantastic. We worked with different artists, getting our hands dirty with print and clay and paint. It is really set up to unleash creativity in business leaders,” she said.
So, when Appleby decided that – after 21 years at the marketing firm – it was time for a sabbatical, she wondered whether the Innovation Institute could be an option. It seemed like a good sabbatical opportunity but also a logical next step for the Innovation Institute. She asked Suzanne Fetscher, “What if there was a business innovator-in-residence?” It could bridge the gap between McColl Center’s Artist-in-Residence program and the Innovation Institute, she thought. “Suzanne felt it would be worth piloting the idea but made me apply for the opportunity like any other artist who might apply for residency. That made me really think through what I wanted to accomplish personally, professionally and from a community standpoint.” Appleby completed the application and was accepted for McColl’s residency class of Fall 2014. “I literally walked out of my office on September 14 and didn’t walk back in for 6.5 weeks,” Appleby said. Thus marked the beginning of what was (as far as I can tell) the first and, so far, only case of an Artist-in-Residence program admitting a business executive to innovate alongside a group of artists in their arena.
Appleby had three main residency goals. The first was personal: “To have the focused, non-interrupted, sacred time just to think about what is important to me and how I can happily and creatively spend my remaining working years.” The second was professional: “To fearlessly explore and think about the next evolution of my agency.” The third was community-oriented: “To reignite a city initiative called Charlotte Creates, which was designed to elevate the importance of creativity and innovation in Charlotte.”
Appleby’s studio at McColl had a giant blank wall on which she started collecting and posting ideas and artifacts. She spent her days moving between meetings with the City’s business and community leadership. “Everyone wanted to know what I was doing so I had lots of visitors at the Center. I did lots of online research. I took trips to Austin and Asheville – cities that have done a great job sparking their creative communities. And, I spent time walking through Charlotte to absorb the public art, visit its museums and to gather inspiration and take advantage of the freedom this time and space provided. There are great benefits to wandering.”
Her fellow residents included two painters from North Carolina, a social activist/performance artist from Canada, a quilter from Alaska and a trio of ceramic artists from Mexico. “McColl basically put us in a bowl and mixed us up,” said Appleby. “I spent time with several of the artists in discussion about community. They offered comments about the idea wall I was building.”
Part of what resulted from Appleby’s Innovator-in-Residence experience was purely personal rejuvenation. Part of what emerged was a detailed plan for the redesign of Wray Ward’s office space to better align with evolving services and the way creatives like to work. Another part was identifying the next generation of agency leaders. And, Appleby also shaped a new Charlotte Creative Alliance concept during her residency. Diving into the realm of the artist, it turned out, proved exceptionally productive for Jennifer Appleby. “That time away to rejuvenate is still paying dividends,” she said, over a year after the residency ended.
Suzanne Fetscher hoped that Appleby’s business Innovator-in-Residence stint would be the first of many among Charlotte’s executive community. A year and a half later, though, Appleby’s stay remains the one and only. “We wanted the next Innovator-in-Residence to be from a big company to show buy in for Charlotte’s creative renewal,” said Fetscher. “We have invited some large Charlotte-based corporations to participate but we haven’t been able to get their companies on board. Part of the challenge is that we wanted them to commit an executive to the program for a two-month period. We might have been able to get approval for a week or two weeks but two months was too much time to give up a key executive to this process. The other challenge was that the big companies already have their own talent development teams and plans in place so we’re out there being compared to traditional third party leadership development programs as well as these companies’ own internal ones.”
For Appleby, too, some dividends have taken longer to pay off than others. “I’m still pushing the community piece uphill. “Since McColl, I’ve been asked to speak about the Charlotte Creative Alliance concept to several different groups of business, arts, education and civic leaders,” said Appleby. But progress was just talk until recently. “There is a collaborative research project happening that will reach beyond Charlotte into surrounding counties to get a sense of the size, scope and impact of the region’s creative sector.” So, her residency-honed idea has emerged again but – like passing legislation through Congress – requires rigorous campaigning and politicking amongst the City’s power elite in order to crawl forward.
This begs the question: How important is it for civic power brokers and big company leaders to buy into innovative approaches to innovation and to championing creativity?
Perhaps “big business” isn’t the best target for McColl’s brand of artistic intervention? McColl’s Innovation Institute actually gets a larger percentage of its participants from small and midsize companies than from larger ones. “Smaller and midsize company leadership may be in a position to make bolder decisions and may have more confidence in their authority to do something experimental,” Fetscher suggests. McColl is more likely to find its next Innovator-in-Residence from the Inc. 500 rather than the Fortune 500.
Or, perhaps, a different question is in order? Instead of company size as a determinant of the “uptake” of creative interventions for business, is the more crucial variable whether such programs are driven top-down through traditional, institutional channels or whether they arise through grass-roots momentum?
CreativeMornings is a monthly breakfast lecture series that brings together artists, makers, entrepreneurs and innovators from across the local communities in which they are hosted. Launched in Brooklyn in 2008, the free event series has grown organically and is now hosted in over 100 cities around the globe…including Charlotte, NC. Matt Olin and Tim Miner, founders of CreativeMornings/Charlotte, are childhood friends who both work among Charlotte’s “Creative Class” of professionals. “We launched CreativeMornings/Charlotte last November and have been blown away by how warmly and quickly it has been embraced. We are getting 250 to 300 people at our events with another 150 on the waiting list. Our emails to the invitation list are getting 45% to 75% open rates,” Matt Olin said.
CreativeMornings/Charlotte attracts an eclectic group of attendees varying from artists, musicians, graphic designers, and copywriters to lawyers, non-profit leaders, stay-at-home moms, newly minted grads, entrepreneurs and retired executives. “Suzanne Fetscher has been at the majority of our CreativeMorning events. Jennifer Appleby has been a huge cheerleader of ours. Manoj Kesavan, an architect who has been an affiliate artist-in-residence at McColl, is a champion. We also love that so many Charlotte companies allow their employees to attend our breakfast events instead of heading straight for their desks on those mornings,” Tim Miner said.
Still the growth of CreativeMornings/Charlotte has been primarily organic – some of the larger local companies may permit their workers to attend these breakfasts but it is the employees and others who are actively craving this creative community engagement. It is a grass roots phenomenon. “In their way, the larger companies by working with the Arts & Science Council, by supporting legislation for public art and funding for arts venues – they’ve been important artistic patrons for a long time in Charlotte. But, they are focused on more conventional and accepted venues of creativity. If you want to engage in more out-of-the-box or fringe creative pursuits, having conventional institution lead the way may lead to diminishing returns,” Miner added. “One of the reasons that Creative Mornings has caught on is that our agenda has been so simple: We want to create a place that excites and empowers creativity in all forms; everyone is creative and everyone is welcome.”
Making It Happen
Around the same time that Jennifer Appleby was feeling the urge to refuel her innovative tank, Steve Potter, PhD – a Biomedical Engineering Professor, inventor and researcher with The Georgia Institute of Technology – was struggling to find outlet for his pent-up creative capacity. His eponymous neuroscience laboratory, the Potter Lab, was developing new technologies for studying learning and memory in vitro by growing networks of brain cells and creating a two-way interface between those brain cell networks and a computer. Potter had just won a grant providing another five years of funds and he had half-a-dozen graduate students operating his lab like clockwork. On top of that, he had recently been recognized with a highly prestigious teaching prize issued by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. To most, it would seem that Potter was doing an exceptional job of expressing his creative potential. Still, something was missing.
“I always loved making and building things but my job increasingly became management and administrative committee meetings. Being a research professor, I had many opportunities to come up with ideas but the graduate students were the ones doing the making,” Potter said. “I wanted to do more and realized that I had to step away for that to happen.” So, Potter fabricated his own “Maker” sabbatical.
The Maker Movement marks the resurgence and convergence of do-it-yourself inventors, designers, artisans, and craftsmen who are transforming from basement workshop tinkerers into micro-manufacturers. After spending more than a year developing a wooden computer keyboard using Scrabble tiles for the letters, Potter exhibited his creation at the 2012 Georgia Tech Mini Maker Faire. The other attendees gave him glowing feedback. “I felt that these were my kin. I wanted to really immerse myself in the Maker Movement. That became the focus of my sabbatical,” said Potter.
Potter expected his unpaid sabbatical to last twelve months – beginning in February 2014 – with an itinerary taking him from Atlanta to Seattle, Washington to Belfast, Ireland and San Mateo, California before returning to his Georgia Tech gig. His first stop was Makerhaus: a “makerspace” community center in Seattle for do-it-yourselfers equipped with light manufacturing equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, electronic components, craft supplies and hardware tools. “My first project was building a portable Level 2 charger for electric cars,” Potter recalled.
From there, Potter traveled to Ireland – where his wife, Mairead Reid, had grown up. He visited thirteen different maker spaces - from Cork to Belfast to Dublin - and taught CoderDojo classes along the way (CoderDojos are volunteer-led free programming clubs for kids and teens). “I learned that makerspaces are as diverse and different from each other as the people who frequent each one – from artsy to techie; from subversive to more mainstream. In general though, they are very inclusive places where everyone feels they belong no matter how weird or nerdy they may be,” he said. Meanwhile, he was making things. In Dublin, Potter crafted a solar alarm clock with two kilowatts of heat lamp power that comes on gradually like the Sun rising. He named the product, SunRisa.
Potter took his Maker journey next to the Silicon Valley town of San Mateo where product innovators like GoPro and Sony’s PlayStation division are headquartered. In San Mateo, his Maker interests intersected with the activities of fellow neuroscientists and entrepreneurs who are pioneering Neurogaming – where players control digital game action by means of brain activity instead of a handheld device. “Neurogaming turns out to include the study of brain signals to deal with health issues like ADHD, anxiety and recovery after stroke,” said Potter.
Given Potter’s professional expertise, exploring what happens when the maker movement intersects with advances in brain science was a natural course for his sabbatical. In fact, I would have expected Potter to return to his Georgia Tech lab and begin 3D-printing brains. Instead, gave Georgia Tech his resignation and stayed in the Bay area for another six months. His one-year sabbatical had stretched to nearly two years.
“As a result of having been in all of those makerspaces, I realized that was much more fun than life in academia. My sabbatical was so successful that I decided to continue working in the maker movement for the rest of my life. So, I retired from my professor job,” Potter said. “We had already visited Georgia Tech in October 2015 to tie up loose ends with closing my lab and packing up my office. That was a bittersweet occasion, because it made real to me the decision that I was ending my research career and on to something completely different. I looked at my publications in the rack on the wall and was happy to leave them.”
My money is still on Potter to extrude the first fully functional artificial brain from a 3D printer. He just won’t be doing it in the U.S. He and his wife are relocating to Ireland in June 2016 where he will re-immerse himself in the maker community. He’s not sure quite where on The Emerald Isle they will settle. “I think we will wander around until we find the right place,” he said.
Accidentally On Purpose
Innovation may occur at improbable intersections but those collisions don’t have to be accidental ones. Artistic interventions are intentional ways to help art and business positively blend. Purposefully trading places – inviting artists into traditional business environments and sending executives or scientists into the creator’s space – has the potential to radically reshape an organization’s (and individual’s) innovation efforts. The real creative potential of these collisions may have to wait, though, until the budding practice of temporarily swapping art and business mindsets moves more fully towards synthesizing the two.