Barry C. Hessenius ~ Arts and Business Working Together? Small Steps Toward that Goal

The National Arts Policy Roundtable is a project of Americans for the Arts and Robert Redford’s The Sundance Preserve. It is an annual meeting of an ‘A’ list group of people from various sectors – arts, business, government, civic, academia, etc., to talk in relatively general terms about very big issues. This year’s focus was on creativity in business, specifically, “The Role of the Arts in Building the 21st Century American Workforce.” The Roundtable made a number of generalized recommendations on conducting research, facilitating a dialogue, developing a vocabulary, increasing awareness and fostering more alliances.

Whereas once our sector’s focus was on the general economic impact of our sector, and creativity as an economic engine, there is now a shift to creativity’s impact on business, innovation, job preparedness and other factors critical to America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. This is still an economic argument, but it is targeted towards the arts’ value to business and industry.

Most certainly for all of the dozen years I have been involved in the arts & culture field, the idea of having a more solid, meaningful relationship with the business community has been high on our wish list. Of course what we really mean is that we want business to support us more, more vocally to the media and elected officials, and with more money. Perhaps it’s all too apparent to corporations that we are much clearer on what we want from them, then what we can offer in return. Progress on this front has been painfully slow, but we’ve finally begun to focus on what we have to offer.

With government officials (and the media and wider public too), our economic arguments were that the more the arts grow, the better it is for local, state and national economies. We pump money into the system, create jobs, add to tax coffers, support key industries and blah blah blah. Now , however, we’re arguing that involvement in the arts is good for business people with bottom lines.  Employees trained in arts make better workers; workers that produce more ideas, deal better with problems, work better as team players, are more comfortable with risk taking, and generally have more of the skills companies are looking for.

Businesses are beginning to wake up to the idea that creativity — creative thinking and idea generation – are good for their companies. And so, we need to capitalize on that opening and move the arts agenda along by zeroing in on what the arts do to help foster, nourish, and support creativity in the business sector.  We need more research, more concrete ideas, more specificity on our value to industry, more conversation and dialogue with business about what they need and want — and how we can respond to those needs and desires.

Like our claims about our economic value, we will have to explain not only what we do that works, but how the arts accomplishes the objectives important to business. While unquestionably we have made progress, nonetheless things have been moving pretty darn slow on this track. There have been untold numbers of initiatives and forays into this area in the past decade – some very small, initiated by a single organization or even by a single person, some larger but still local, some on state levels, and some national, but we are still some ways away from any benchmark success to which we can point. It’s hard to remember that things take a long time to accomplish some times. This is one of them.

Not surprising, business executives favor creativity. The see it not only as valuable but crucial. But that’s a lot like waving the flag and championing motherhood. Who’s against creativity? There’s been enough made of creativity in the last five years (kudos to our team for being party responsible for that), enough written about it or enough said about it in the media, that every CEO is going to be “for” creativity. That’s a long way from them and us being on the same page.

One result of the survey by the Conference Board was most telling. When CEOs and School Superintendents were asked to rank which skill best demonstrates creativity – the school superintendents choose “problem solving” (and we in the arts have long pushed problem solving as a skill we can teach and impart). But the CEOs choose “problem identification” or “articulation”, and that is something altogether different. The CEO’s ranked problem identification ‘number one,’ the superintendents ranked it ‘number nine.’ And the CEOs ranked problem solving ‘number eight,’ while the superintendents ranked it ‘number one.’ There was some discussion of how companies believe that once a problem is identified, then resolving it in their favor is more of a technical exercise. Creativity is in the identification process to them. From their point of view, that makes a lot of sense, because the sooner a company can identify problems, the quicker it can address them and the less potential downside there will be. Business is still not all about taking risks, it’s about minimizing them. It’s not that they fail to realize risk taking is part of the competitive process, it’s that to survive they must have the capacity to minimize the costs of the risk process.

When we talk about creativity, we mean “the arts” and how it fosters and promotes creativity. When business talks about creativity, they are primarily talking about “innovation” and “entrepreneurialism.” When GE changed their slogan to: “Imagination at work” – they didn’t necessarily mean what we in the arts take that to mean. Yes they definitely mean the generation of new ideas, for that is the lifeblood of any business enterprise, but they also mean advanced thinking in the execution of those ideas. In the process of moving ideas to reality, that process must be managed effectively and efficiently – and that management needs to be creative too.

The point is that our community and the business community are yet to agree on the basic vocabulary for creativity. We must now make as our next priority arriving at a consensus with business and industry on what we mean when we talk to each other, and to define what values we are looking to expand. Both them and us, not just us. Otherwise we aren’t going to get anywhere.

We need to begin to approach our interaction with business and industry not just from the point of them ultimately supporting us, but also from the point of what can we specifically do for them. And second, the best way to begin to figure out what we can do for them, is to first agree on our vocabulary. In short, we have to demonstrate to them that we understand what they want when they talk about the value of creativity, and we can talk with them about how the arts can help them get it. Now in the long run we can hopefully expand what they think of as creativity and our role in its creation, sustainability, application, function and the like, but first we need them to understand that we understand what they are talking about, because we aren’t there yet, folks. I think it’s time to move from the smart and strategic recommendations that we’ve come up with over the last few years, to specific, albeit small action steps.

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