January 30, 2011

Innovation starts with self-critique (which is why it’s so rare)

A line in a recent New Yorker article caught my eye. Tim Armstrong, the head of AOL, is bravely retooling the company, starting with a redesign of its homepage. He told a roomful of senior execs that the current homepage feels “like an Internet company designed it.” But isn’t AOL an…internet company? Shouldn’t they be proud of that?

The answer is no, not if they want to move ahead of the pack of “internet companies.” Leading means being different than: you can’t be better without doing something different than the other institutions in your category. Armstrong’s dissatisfaction tells us something about the spirit of innovation, the restlessness that drives it and separates it from just any old kind of change.

Think of the parallel critique in your world. An exhibition that “feels like an art museum designed it.” A concert format that “feels like a symphony orchestra designed it.” A conservation program that feels “like a science center designed it.” I can see the incredulity on the faces in that staff meeting.

And yet it makes all the sense in the world for cultural organizations to challenge themselves in just that way. In an era when building new audiences and staying relevant in a changing society are the rallying cries, it’s not enough for an art museum to look and act like an art museum, and the same goes for a dance company or a chamber music festival or a natural history museum.

Which turns out to be my litmus test for the innovations going on around the cultural sector. (I didn’t realize this until I read the AOL article.) When someone tells me about a cool new arts experience or new museum program, or better yet when I can check it out first hand, I ask myself whether it feels like it was designed by that kind of institution, within its traditions, values, and personality — its comfort zone.

If it does, it’s usually not that exciting, at least to me. And I’d bet it won’t feel very fresh and appealing to people who aren’t already into that category (say, opera, history museums, whatever the case may be). So it probably won’t do much to change the audience mix, which requires changing the image of that category in the minds of people who don’t attend it very often. ...

If it doesn’t — if it feels unexpected, like something you don’t expect to run into in such an institution — then it can be electrifying. Luckily, there are enough of these examples around the field to keep even a skeptic like me optimistic. (For museum examples, read Nina Simon’s invaluable blog, where, not incidentally, there’s a discussion unfolding about Paul Licht’s book, Sustaining Innovation. For classical music cases in point, keep an eye on Greg Sandow’s blog.)

In fact, I’m in several conversations right now with museums whose leaders and senior teams get that spirit of self-critique and aren’t afraid of it. And that’s not even with my Culture Kettle hat on: these are Slover Linett conversations, and the work that flows from them is audience research of a particularly exploratory kind — the research side of a larger R&D process that these organizations are beginning.

Of course it’s not just the cultural sector. Innovation is on everyone’s lips, most notably Obama in his state of the union speech last week, in which he exhorted us to “out innovate” our competitors and used the word three times. Putting its money where its mouth is, the Obama administration is starting its own R&D center to develop new pharmaceuticals, concerned at the drug industry’s declining research investments.

And I have it on good authority that the NEA (assuming it survives the latest round of Republican target practice) plans to make innovation one of its key priorities in the Landesman era, and will be expanding its grantmaking activities with that in mind. This impulse is coming from the top down and the bottom up at the same time. The best of it is driven by that spirit of impatience with our own practices, organizations, sectors. The skill of the future may be creativity, as everyone’s saying. And creativity is sometimes fueled by self-critique.

Photo above: The Machine Project's creative interventions at LACMA. Not your grandmother's museology.

Caroline — January 31, 2011

Intriguing post! I agree that it's time for a lot of museums to move outside of our comfort zones. That makes us vulnerable, which requires us to be brave, but it just also might help us build up that public relevance we so desperately seek. As a museum professional, I am keen to be part of this movement of inovation.

Erika — January 31, 2011

This is intriguing - if it seems like a an art museum did it than it is probably not that interesting....... I both agree and disagree with that. Food for thought. Thanks Peter!

Erin Blasco — January 31, 2011

I often think of this "seems like" question when people ask if the Postal Museum is a Smithsonian or assume it isn't. "Wait, is that a good thing?" I feel like asking. Weirder still is when they assume we're run by USPS, which we're not. I wonder what Postal Service connotations exist in visitors' minds when they ask that. Cozy, friendly local post office or "waiting in lines just to mail something?" Lots of people have no idea what a Postal Museum even is. Just stamps? Letters? Airmail planes?! Working at a museum that has a complex identity in the first place, I appreciate this post. But I sometimes wish people DID know what a Smithsonian National Postal Museum was!

Jasper Visser — February 03, 2011

I've had this post starred in Google Reader for a while, merely because of the title, which is so true.

Repeatedly I've heard about some of the innovative things some museums do that they are impossible if you're not the MoMA, Louvre or Guggenheim. "If one museum had to do it, it was them. And they were brave." And of course there're enough people happy to point out everything that went wrong along the way

Innovation starts with self-critique, and it's killed by the critique of the conformists. What is it again, "The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."

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