— Cultural Sources of Newness

Learning by sharing

I particularly enjoy sharing my research findings in contexts that allow me to learn as well. Last week held two very different opportunities for this:  On Tuesday I spoke at an evening curated by Maria Ptqk  at SAVVY Contemporary  in Berlin, and on Thursday-Friday I was in Hamburg at the annual plenary of the Working Group for Arts Sponsorship of the Kulturkreis der deutschen Wirtschaft (Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy at the Federation of German Industries). In both cases I had been invited to talk about artistic interventions in organizations, but the participants could not have been more different: in Berlin I was surrounded by artists, in Hamburg by managers. Bridging between their worlds with my research about how they can learn from each other required preparing two quite distinct presentations (drawing on the findings for our Creative Clash project report and my case studies on artistic interventions in France, Germany and Spain). Then I was ready to listen and learn.

Mia Mäkela presenting Green Matters at SAVVY Contemporary April 23 2013

Mia Mäkelä presenting Green Matters at SAVVY Contemporary April 23 2013

The focus of the SAVVY Contemporary event in the series ARTension was on the artist as investigator. My co-presenter, the Finnish artist Mia Mäkelä,  explained how she undertook investigations for her project on algae in the dying Baltic Sea. Mia’s presentation included a fascinating documentary (see short preview here) about her process.  Her experience shows how the artist who enters the world of science hears things that the experts will whisper to her as an outsider but will not say out loud in their own fora, and the artist asks questions the experts have not yet posed. We plan to meet again to delve further into the theme of how artists engage not knowing.

ECE Projektmanagement conference room April 25 2013

ECE Projektmanagement conference room April 25 2013

The program in Hamburg was packed with presentations (of which only three were about artistic interventions) but it also allowed plenty of time for conversations over breaks, dinner, and a boat-tour of the city by night, which was led by the lighting artist and playwright Michael Batz. Instead of trying to summarize all the content here, I will just draw out some points that particularly struck me.

 

Michael Batz being introduced by Rando Aust before boat tour April 25 2013

Michael Batz being introduced by Rando Aust before boat tour April 25 2013

Leadership matters! This is not a new discovery, but there are moments when the message comes out especially clearly and takes different forms.

  • When top management includes members of the founding family—as in two of the cases on the program—ECE Projektmanagement and Dornbracht—the commitment to the arts can be quite significant. Rando Aust. the head of corporate citizenship at ECE Projektmanagement, a company in the Otto Group, often mentioned the family’s role in the company and its support for culture in many forms.  Interestingly, the speakers for both these cases mentioned that the personal taste in art of the top manager from the family does not coincide with the art form the company is engaging in.
  • While ECE Projektmanagement’s engagement in culture is rooted in its sense of corporate citizenship, Dornbracht has worked with artists in a strategic search to differentiate itself beyond design in their field of fittings for bath and kitchen. The company launched a 7-year program in which artists were simply asked the open question “what does culture in the bathroom mean to you?” The results were often provocative, so leadership commitment was especially important. The head of brand and corporate communication, Holger Struck, emphasized the value of engaging in artistic interventions without knowing where they will lead. In this case, the artists’ explorations revealed aspects about the bath and people’s experiences there that the company had never been aware of and that led to a new positioning and to new products. I had read about the case some years ago in brand eins   but discovered some additional details from Struck’s presentation.  He explained how difficult it had been at the outset to attract artists to the project in 1995, and how they had learned to overcome the cultural divide between arts and business. There was also scepticism internally at first, but he believes that the project helped the company survive after the huge fire in 2009 that disabled some of its production for 6 months: the brand had become such a leader that customers were willing to keep believing in it. Struck pointed out that translation of ideas from the world of the arts into business concepts is not obvious nor automatic, so they have organized a special process under the name of “Dornbracht Edges.”
  •  A speaker had a tale to tell about the problems he encountered when leadership support is lacking.  Stig Rath presented the case of the Norwegian company, Teknotherm (leading supplier of marine refrigeration), which used the approach to artistic interventions developed by the Swedish intermediary organization, TILLT, in order to address challenges the company was facing in 2007. Stig had become division manager for production and needed to resolve the dramatic delivery problems that had arisen because the demand for their products had suddenly grown. The General Manager gave him free rein to tackle the problem—a leadership decision which appeared to be positive … until the project with the artist became a great success! It was difficult to launch the project in a company with a stable workforce that had not changed its working methods for 35 years. Employees were suspicious of change, although the inability to meet delivery demands made the need for change evident. The dancer Maria Mebius-Schröder had already conducted several TILLT projects, so Stig Rath was confident she would be a good partner. She engaged the employees not only in conversations but also physically, e.g., by asking them to present the current situation at work in body sculptures. It took time to work through the issues and he remembers that “the most difficult period was to convince the organization that we needed ‘something’ without defining what it was. Being able to stay in an uncertain process” was a significant leadership challenge, Stig said. After 3 months the employees from across the organization had developed a plan of action with support from the artist, designed to improve communication and engage everyone in formulating “how can I contribute?” Again, collective body sculptures became powerful modes of expression, this time not just of the problem but of the solution. They created memorable images of how they envisaged working together, and had positive experiences of getting to know each other as people, not just functions in the organization. The employees discovered how they could create a culture of innovation. The measurable results were impressive: within a year they consistently surpassed their targets in improving delivery times and increased profits by 4%. The changes in the culture were significant: there was a new openness and confidence in communication between departments, details were resolved at the lowest possible level in the organization, employees were coming up with suggestions for improvements. So Stig expected his management colleagues to be delighted. But he had created a leadership problem with the success of his artistic intervention project: what was the role of management if employees had learned how to identify and resolve problems? The case shows the importance of getting management to engage in the learning process with the artist as well, rather than delegating the learning downwards and expecting not to have to change themselves. The problem became more acute later and the story ends sadly: the company was acquired and the new leadership showed no interest in or support for the methods that had led to the organization’s success. Stig and many others left. Evidently, the new company has lost value in more ways than one.
  • The topic of leadership also came up in several conversations I had during breaks at the event. The participants were really interested in the projects I had described during my presentation, but they believed that either their top management would not support such an innovative approach to learning with and from the arts in their organization, or middle management would block it.
  •  In light of these quite sobering messages about leadership, it was fascinating to learn from Sebastian Wieser’s presentation that the very successful engagement with music at Audi originated 50 years ago from employees. So leadership does not always have to start at the top, but it does have to be gained there too for innovative organizational projects that need medium-to long-term commitment.

Developing new funding models for cultural sponsoring was another topic that was addressed in Hamburg. Two very different approaches were presented:

  • Public-private partnerships in a region: On Thursday Dr. Maria Diekmann explained how she and her colleagues at the Wirtschaftsforum der Region Passau  had slowly but surely managed to build bridges between public and private actors in the region to launch cultural projects. The region’s businesses are mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, so cooperation is essential for developing new initiatives. She reported how they had had to overcome barriers between the worlds and fears that her organization would try to compete with them. The Wirtschaftsforum has positioned itself as a platform where ideas can be developed, partners found, public-private funding arrangements developed, and projects communicated.
Dennis Bartelt explains Startnext Crowdfunding, April 26 2013

Dennis Bartelt explains Startnext Crowdfunding, April 26 2013

  •  Crowdfunding: On Friday Julia Wießner provided an overview of the development of crowdfunding in Germany, then participants could choose between two workshops led by the directors of German crowdfunding platforms, Startnext  for cultural projects and betterplace Solutions for social projects. The purpose of these sessions was not just to introduce the concept of crowdfunding to the participants, but to explore how companies can become involved. I asked how many of the participants had already contributed to a project on one of these sites, or on Kickstarter (the platform I have enjoyed following and using to support artistic projects). I had assumed that as culturally engaged citizens who work in the field of sponsoring the arts, so have contacts with projects seeking funding, they would have some years of experience with such platforms. To my surprise, only one person raise her hand. Of course, corporate engagement in crowdfunding raises very different issues, but my guess is that if the individuals do not discover how these crowdfunding processes work and develop a taste for them, they are unlikely to be able to get their companies to engage in them.

Corporate art collections came up in several conversations I had with participants in Hamburg. I would so love to have the opportunity to find out whether the presence (and absence) of artworks in the working environment makes a difference in how and what people think, feel, do … But no conversations opened opportunities for such a project yet. In some cases the responsible managers are very busy simply tracking down and properly cataloguing all the art the company has lent out in offices over the years. And in one case, the art collection is in storage because the office space is not suitable for exhibiting it.

So my idea for a study on the effects of artworks will have to wait a bit longer, which is actually just fine because the data I am collecting from artists, managers and employees who are responding to my ongoing web-based surveys on artistic interventions produced by conexiones improbables in Spain is so rich that I could spend the next 6 months just working with that material… But first, a weekend break away from research, conferences, and the crowds–just outside of Hamburg at Timmendorfer Strand.

Alone in Timmendorfer Strand April 27 2013

Alone in Timmendorfer Strand April 27 2013