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Making Room for Artistic Risk-Taking and Innovation

How can arts organizations innovate while managing risk? Barr's senior program officer for Arts & Culture, San San Wong, reflects on an "electrifying panel" held earlier this fall at MIT's Media Lab—part of our Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building Initiative.

Earlier this fall, grantees of the Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building Initiative had an electrifying discussion on risk-taking and innovation at the MIT Media Lab. The event featured three audacious art leaders, assembled under the thesis that artistic innovation, risk-taking, failure, and renewal are critical components of a vibrant cultural ecology. To explore the driving question—how do we innovate while managing risk?—ArtsEmerson Director of Artistic Programs David Dower led a panel featuring:

The panelists kicked off the conversation by tackling the issue of risk itself: how does it inform art? To hear Paulus tell it, "We're in arts because we want to transcend our limitations." Fascinating personal stories—including Machover's early experimentations with the synthesizer while composing "crazy" music at Juilliard—immediately engaged the audience. I was particularly struck by the panelists' proclivity for taking bold chances. Joseph, who recalled his background in youth education and activism, described this fixation as an impetus for change, leaving the audience with a lasting question: "Are you leaving the world a better place?"

Dower steered the discussion towards some of the panelists' riskiest yet most celebrated artistic endeavors. Paulus led the exchange with an eye-opening account of staging her lauded Macbeth adaptation, Sleep No More, and acknowledged the understandable skepticism that preceded her ambitious vision: staging the play throughout multiple rooms in the old Lincoln Elementary School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ultimately, Paulus argued, it was the Brookline community and its "barn-raising mentality" that helped the show producers settle upon a location, build an interested audience, and settle organizational concerns about the production.

"Artists see before others do," Joseph chimed in, drawing upon his years of teaching youth poetry courses that prioritized creativity above strict rules of form. "The challenge, for many of us, is to trust an artist before we can see their vision."

Arguably this ethos of trusting the artist is what the MIT Media Lab took to heart in 1991, when Machover got the green light to build the world's first computer-programmed "Hypercello" for Yo-Yo Ma. It was an unlikely marriage of classical instrument and emergent technology, and, as Machover put it, the empowering nature of MIT compelled him to remain a prolific and productive force within the university.

As the conversation came to a close, the room was full of a palpable sense of shared learning and purpose, both of which are integral to this partnership between Barr and the Klarman Family Foundation to support local arts organizations—including allowing their artists to take greater risks. "Artists who cut through generate communities," Joseph remarked to an audience member who asked how organizations could diversify their audiences. "The show is the midpoint, not the endpoint."

To watch this fascinating discussion, check out the video below:

Conversation on risk-taking and innovation in the arts

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