— Cultural Sources of Newness

Dancing to whose tune?

Dr. Cho Hyunjae, the 1st Vice Minister for Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea, welcomed the participants to the ARCOM conference at the Olympus Hall in Seoul on November 20 2013 with strong messages: “Art can make business dance and stimulate innovation.” “Organizations need creative kicks” because “corporations need to learn to stimulate the emotions of employees,” so “Korea is seeking ways to bring down barriers between art and business.” (quotations via translation by an  interpreter at the conference)

The ministry had contacted Professor Jeon Suhwan in 2011 to create ARCOM at the Korea National University of Arts to develop activities that would help the world of organizations and the world of the arts learn how to work together in new ways. For Professor Jeon, the experience with ARCOM has shown that, when given the opportunity, “many CEOs are interested in adopting art in their corporate environment” and their projects illustrate how “Korean companies are changing with the arts.” He believes that collaborations between arts and business can enable Korea to become a “creative economy.” And that the time has come for learning together globally.

Prof. Jeon presents ARCOM at Seoul conference

Prof. Jeon presents ARCOM at Seoul conference

Professor Jeon designed this conference to advance ARCOM’s objectives in two ways. Although there have been numerous artistic intervention projects in Korea these past few years, there has not yet been much research on the subject here, so he wanted this conference to present research from Europe, as well as additional cases from Asia. Participating as an invited expert in such an international conference is an opportunity both to give and to learn. My “giving” role was to share findings from the 6 years of research I have been conducting in this area at the WZB, collecting data on many cases of artistic interventions in France, Germany, Spain (produced by conexiones improbables) and Sweden (produced by TILLT), as well as analysing the available evidence in the literature in the context of the Creative Clash project co-funded by the EU.  My “learning” role focused on the experiences with artistic interventions  in China, Korea, and Vietnam, and I share my summaries here. (Of course I also greatly enjoyed listening to my colleagues, Pia Areblad from TILLT, and Aranxta Mendiharat from conexiones improbables, describe and illustrate how their organizations produce artistic interventions, or to Giovanni Schiuma present his concepts on arts and business,  but their work in Europe is not the focus of this post.)

China: Professor Gu Jiang, from Nanjing University described the transformation of Gaochun Ceramics with the arts. I must admit that I had such difficulties to understand the speaker that my notes are of little use, but I captured some slides with my camera.

Functions of the arts in Gaochun Ceramics (slide: Prof Gu Jiang)

Functions of the arts in Gaochun Ceramics (slide: Prof Gu Jiang)

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Arts in Gaochun Ceramics: Blending, adaptation, innovation (slide Prof. Gu Jiang)

Arts in Gaochun Ceramics: Blending, adaptation, innovation (slide Prof. Gu Jiang)

Korea: Dr. Han Ji yeon presented several cases supported by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. Created in 2004, the foundation started by offering space for artists to work and to create synergies with local communities. Since 2012 the foundation has added a program in which it operates as a kind of intermediary to match artists with businesses.  The foundation sees this activity as a form of corporate social responsibility.

Dr. Han described an example in which the foundation facilitated the residency of artists in markets. At first the shop-owners resented the presence of the artists in their space, but things changed when the artists started engaging with them. The artists collected 100 stories, identified key words, then created artwork with calligraphy. Resident artists began training shop-owners in art. Dr. Han reported that the projects have changed the space, undertaken by shop owners, who were inspired by the artists. They staged a festival with content created by shopowners, and as a result of the experience in the project, the shop-owners began to collaborate with one another. “The artists changed their life! Art can truly make an organization and members of the organization happy.”

Calligraphy in the marketplace (slide: Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

Calligraphy in the marketplace (slide: Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

The Foundation undertook another project with the train company, Korail. The company suffered from a negative reputation and realized it needed to change its image. Classical musicians worked with employees to create the Korail ensemble, which was then expanded by inviting citizens to join and become the Koral Symphony orchestra. The orchestra travels with the train and performs in stations around the country. “This project has changed the mindsets of many employees and the reputation of Korail. … Employees have grown in confidence and pride in the orchestra, and feel they are providing a service to community through art.”

A third project Dr. Han described as “guerrilla dancing.” The foundation invited people “who are willing to change their life through dance” and has already created 39 dancing communities. For example, there is the Seoul metro dance group, where maintenance workers in a very hierarchical organization agreed to try a new approach to change their work environment. At first the dancers had difficulties getting the men to relax and move, but participating in the weekly classes over 8 weeks enabled the men to get to know each other at a new level. They saw “huge changes” as they became increasingly active. “We realized that art can truly change an organization through an experience in which everybody participates.  It becomes more dynamic, flexible, with enhanced comradeship. And, the men’s wives were truly impressed by how husbands had changed, they were full of energy.” Dr Han is persuaded that “Healthy and sincere experience of beauty can create energy for the organization.

Guerilla dancing, Seoul (slide: Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

Guerilla dancing, Seoul (slide: Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)

Vietnam: Le Ahn Tuan, Director at the FPT School of Business. FPT is the largest information and communication company in Vietnam, and has expanded globally since 1999. Working with the youth union, the company launched numerous initiatives with diverse art forms:

Multiple artforms in FPT, Vietnam (slide: FPT School of Business)

Multiple artforms in FPT, Vietnam (slide: FPT School of Business)

Dance appears to be one of the most popular art forms among employees at all levels of the organization:

FPT has developed its own mischievous dance movements (slide: FPT School of Business)

FPT has developed its own mischievous dance movements (slide: FPT School of Business)

FPT Business School recently conducted surveys to find out how employees evaluated the experiences, and Mr. Tuan reported the following results:

1. “I see that artistic events help me better understand the company and people.” 88% agree.

2. “Attending artistic events and activities release me from stress and tension at work.”  72% agree.

3. “Joining artistic events and activities, I feel proud of being a member of FPT and want to work for FPT for a long time.” 81% agree.

Mr Tuan shared his analysis about the conditions that have made the arts-based activities successful in FPT.

  • A leader and top management who cares about culture and arts. He quoted the CEO: “FPT culture is the connecting glue to bind each FPT people, encouraging them to work passionately and devote more to the company’s development”
  • Core value “FPT: “people respect individuality, innovation and teamwork spirit. This is the source of power that guides FPT from success to success.”
  • Consistent implementation: “Homogenous structure from mother company to its member companies, from top level to low level, from this unit to another one. All sing with the same voice.”
  • Dedication: “A group of people dedicated for culture and arts.”
  • Budget: “Company should have an appropriate budget for artistic events and activities. In FPT leaders and senior managers often support and sponsor such events.
  • “Seeking and building a key team, led by a key person who have passion and enthusiasm in cultural and artistic activities.”
  • Continuity: “Company should keep the artistic events and activities regular and continuous. Events can be divided by different types of frequency: daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.”
  • The company should use a “carrot and stick” policy in order to promote the artistic events. (Here I must admit that I was shocked by the concept of a “stick” but I did not have the opportunity to clarify what was meant.)

In summary, Mr. Tuan quoted the CEO of FPT as saying that “The company’s regular cultural and artistic events not only conserve and promote traditional values but also meet the entertainment requirements of the employees, releasing them from the stress and tension at work.”

FPT: Everyone is dancing and laughing after stressful day (Slide: FPT Business School)

FPT: Everyone is dancing and laughing after stressful day (Slide: FPT Business School)

Reflecting back on the multitude of examples presented at the conference, added to those we had the pleasure of discovering with our hosts in the Korean companies (Daum, Nexon, and Nexus Community) before the conference, I am struck by the great variety of experiments with bringing the arts into organizations. Every case is unique. Listening to the speakers, my sense is that they are all driven by a sincere personal interest in developing something new and special for and with employees in work contexts that are extremely demanding and exhausting. I heard more signals in the Korean cases about interest in the implications for the artists of engaging in such activities than in the Chinese and Vietnamese cases, but this impression may be due to gaps in communication at the conference.

The Korean cases are benefitting from the support of an intermediary (ARCOM and the Seoul Foundation for the Arts and Culture), whereas the companies in China and Vietnam are pioneering alone. The Korean intermediaries do not yet have a methodology comparable to those developed by TILLT and conexiones improbables. But, if given more time by the ministry, I think that ARCOM will be able to formulate a methodology that is appropriate for the Korean context, drawing on its own experiences from the past two years and on what it has collected from our experiences in Europe.

My sense is that the various actors (intermediaries, managers, artists, and policymakers) in Korea have reached an important threshold. Their learning process has been rapid: the evidence we have since the creation of ARCOM is that once these organizations decide to undertake a project, they move fast. And their approach of trying out and reflecting on numerous artistic interventions in parallel is also a good learning strategy. Returning to the formulation of the 1st vice minister at the beginning of the conference, “Art can make business dance”, they now need to decide whose tune they will dance to? How will they deal with the needs and expectations of the diverse stakeholders?

Several of these managers emphasized how working with the arts had changed their own lives, and they wanted to create opportunities for their employees as well. They spoke about the huge stress of the long work hours in Korean companies and believed that the arts could help create “joy” and “happiness” at the workplace. At the same time, these managers are highly aware of the pressures of the market and the impatience of shareholders. How will shareholders who have not yet experienced the value of working with the arts in their organizations understand their potential? Will the managers who have experienced artistic interventions be able to communicate their stories to others, so that  appropriate criteria for assessing the multiple kinds of value of an organization’s activities are developed?

The danger that exists in the discourse of some Western academics and consultants who position the arts as a fast track to instrumentalizing employees even more intensely may be heightened in the fast moving and stressed Korean market setting. Alternatively, ARCOM could  really innovate with artistic interventions in organizations in sustainable and responsible ways: in other words help them dance to their own tunes.

It was heartening to hear in Professor Jeon’s opening statement at the conference that our WZB and Creative Clash  multi-stakeholder research had given him “the confidence that Korea should find its own framework for evaluation” rather than imposing instruments designed to satisfy the needs of just one stakeholder group. Undertaking participatory action evaluation research with artists, managers, employees, intermediaries and researchers involved in artistic interventions in organizations of different sizes and in diverse industries with the global network of partners we have started to build together at this conference would be a great next step.