Monday, January 24, 2011

Sustaining Innovation Part 3: Interview With Sarah Schultz of the Walker Art Center

This is the third in a series of posts about Paul Light's book Sustaining Innovation: Creating Nonprofit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally. This post features an interview with Sarah Schultz, a museum staffer at one of the institutions Light profiled in the book (the Walker Art Center). Sarah has worked at the Walker since 1992 and is currently the Director of Education and Community Programs.

As a long-time employee of the Walker, how do you react to Paul Light's observations about what makes an institution innovate?

I honestly wasn’t aware of the book when it first came out. But having just read it, I think it's really accurate. Light’s notion of innovation as an organizational practice that has to be continually nurtured is right on. I've had the benefit of being in an organization that really does practice and value innovation at every level. There's a high tolerance for risk and failure, trust from the top, and a strong sense of mission in everything we do.

In my experience, innovation is about flexibility, capacity, and collaborative relationships. It's the ability for me to work with my CFO to be able to budget and align the right kinds of resources for new projects. A crew that has the capacity to build a sign at the last minute. Guard staff who are willing to let an artist step between two panes of glass to perform. Our collective willingness to be nimble and generous is really the reason I've been able to do any kind of innovative project here.

How does the process of getting an innovation off the ground work at the Walker?

One key idea that Paul Light talks about is the notion of slack. You need the headspace and the free time to think of ideas, and the resources to make them happen--whether that's $30 or $300,000. A good organization will value unstructured time and a good CFO will help you find that financial slack. Every organization has pockets of restricted and unrestricted money. To innovate, you really need those unrestricted dollars. How do you loosen up funds? My CFO has been very proactive and a wonderful partner in figuring out how to create an overall department budget that frees up small pockets of money for new projects.

Can you give me an example?

It's always seemed challenging here to find funds for interpretative materials. It's easier to secure grants for community-based programming or exhibitions, but it's not easy to get funding for some of the core work that museums do. So when we want to innovate with interpretation, we have to budget creatively. For example, Card Catalogue is a project around our permanent collection, an evolving catalog made up of printed cards visitors can collect and keep in a binder. It’s a great project that allows us to keep researching and creating content around our collection, and we need about $10,000 per year to produce it. That is a not a major expense here, but we also don’t have $10,000 just lying around. It's too small to write a grant for, too big to assume we just have the money. Working with the CFO, we went through my budget and found ways to realign funds to find the money to do the project.

You talked earlier about the importance of flexibility and nimbleness on staff--the proclivity for people to be open and say yes to something new rather than throw up barriers. What do you see that makes that possible--or not possible--in different situations?

I can't stress enough the importance of opportunities for staff to gather informally, be collegial, and play together. That's how we build trust. The Walker is also a place where everyone is committed to supporting artists and new work, so every time we bring in an artist, staff are enthusiastic about the idea of coming together to create something. It's inherent in what we do.

That said, the fact that we work with contemporary artists can also create a lot of stress in our institutional systems. Their processes can be really different from ours. We just had a situation with an artist collective that came for a site visit and decided they wanted to build an igloo. Their process was to plan what and how we will work together this coming summer is by actually by doing a project together right away. While everyone supports the energy of working with artists, when it's -10 degrees and you're being asked to help build an igloo on the fly, people can get frustrated. A lot of these partnerships push against our internal ways of working, and while that's a healthy tension, we need to be sensitive to the stress on our organizational systems and each other. This is especially true in today's climate, when everyone is trying to do more with less.

It seems like when that happens, you'd have to ask yourself: should we change the system based on this experience, or did this push us beyond our ability?

Exactly. Every time, we have to ask ourselves that question, balancing innovation with our institutional capacity. Asking those questions and refining your practice is precisely how you continue to stay inventive and responsive.

Can you think of a time when you changed the system in response to an external need or stress point?

In the 1990s, we decided we wanted to engage a teen audience. This would be a major institutional undertaking. We created a teen arts council, invested in staff, and invested in programming. We discovered that teens felt uncomfortable in the galleries because they had to check their backpacks and they felt the guards were watching them. And the guards were watching them; they didn't trust teens. So we had to do a training program with the guards so they could understand teens and change their behavior in the gallery to make people more comfortable. From that one experience, we are now much more sensitive to how different people experience the galleries and the guards. Guards, visitors services, and education staff have become leaders in advocating for visitor experience--and we're much better at staff training and being responsive to issues that arise.

How do you think the current economic climate has affected your ability to innovate?

I do think the combined intensity of institutional ambition, public expectation and constrained resources is stressing people out. It's harder to find that slack money and free time now. We are culturally in a time of serious recalibration and that's a bumpy ride. There are moments when we get through it very gracefully, and there are times when we don't.

I don't think this is specific to the Walker. Museums are in the business of the public good and the people who work in them are very committed and creatively ambitious. We tend to be generative and generous people and we want to make things happen. We want to deliver on our promise and try to provide something for everyone. Strategy is hard because strategy is about sacrifice. It's hard in this line of work to say no.

My favorite part of Paul Light's book was his discussion of "why to say yes and how to say no."

Everything we've been through economically in the last two years could help us learn how to say no and how to focus and prioritize. This is actually my personal struggle--how to do less better. I'm hungry and my staff is hungry and we want to do everything and we can't. And so we have to focus and find the most effective work we can do. It’s finding some optimism in that saying, “never let a good crisis go to waste." Ironically, this can lead to greater innovation.

How does the need to say "no" affect your approach to innovation in lean times?

We have an inclination to innovate becuase we're constantly asking ourselves how we could a do better job. At the same time, we're dealing with this question: what happens when you do something innovative and it becomes the status quo - internally and externally? In the 1990s, we were an innovative leader in teen programs. Now the teen arts council model is no longer considered innovative. Do we focus on implementing the programs we know are successful, or should we be pushing out in a new direction?

You could spend all your time doing what you now know works, and spend no time on new creative challenges. On the other hand, innovation for its own sake isn't productive. I get frustrated when a client asks for something no one has done before. That shouldn't be the reason we try something. But I know that funding and media often demand it.

If a funder is saying they will fund something new, or if the media attention is for something new, or even if innovation is part of the narrative of your institution, it is sometimes going to drive some of your decisions in a way it probably shouldn't. That is part of the challenge and lesson in learning to say no.

If you start with the right question and a real desire to create something of public value, it can lead you interesting places. We didn't start our teen initiative to do something new; we did it because we believed there was a real need and opportunity to serve teenagers in a way that no one was doing at the time. It drove us in a direction that turned out to be very innovative. But we don't always have to be the ones with the new idea. You know, MOMA did a really great project with visitors with Alzheimer's. When we were researching this idea (which is now our Contemporary Journeys program), we consulted with them. We shouldn't redesign that wheel but maybe just adapt it. The goal is to do great work, not to be innovative.

Have you ever done a project that was innovative but didn't hit your goals in terms of serving your community?

We are committed to serving a broad audience and to supporting artists who are pushing at the boundaries of artistic practice. That's a really interesting tension, and it's allowed us to do a lot. It also means we're sometimes out of step in one direction or the other.

Back in 2004, just before we opened the building, we undertook a project to conduct some local research about art and civic engagement. Our metaphor for the new building was a "town square," and the research project was intended to help us figure out what that would look like and feel like. We talked to 30 audience representatives--artists, activists, local leaders--and we dove into the work that Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza had done through Animating Democracy. We created a framework for how this would look in the institution. We made a full color poster, a spectrum of civic engagement, lots of materials, and we were going to give this to the curators to use. This would be a model for the new way we were going to work with artists and audiences.

The research was sound, the model was pretty good, and it basically went nowhere. It just went into people's file cabinets. I think there are two reasons this happened. Our internal team, including myself, was not yet the most skilled at the internal advocacy needed to move the project forward. So the institution couldn't seem to wrap its head around how to put this research into action.

What I'm now finding 5 years later, is that a lot of these ideas are manifest in Open Field--a current project to explore how an institution, artists, and a community can come together to co-create a place for creative exchange. I don't even think I was conscious of the connection between the research and Open Field. The research turned out to be a seed we were planting. It just took awhile to find its ground. I think Open Field would have been almost impossible without that map, but it was not a linear journey.

You need to be open to the purposelessness of innovation. Some things move at different paces. This is why informal staff discussions and time together is so important. When we invested in a new outdoor grill and some large communal picnic tables last summer as part of Open Field, suddenly a lot of ideas were generated between staff at lunches and casual time together. You can't go to a meeting and be innovative. Innovative thinking is a balance between structured collaboration, happy accidents, and serendipitous conversations. You can't really say I'll be innovative at 2pm on Fridays. You need a balance between structure and openness to make all of this possible.

Thanks to Sarah and the Walker for providing such powerful, honest, realistic stories of innovation in action. Sarah will check in with the blog to respond to comments or questions you might have for her.
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