Whether verbal, visual, dramatic or musical, one of the advantages of being an artist is embracing the freedom to create without limits. Artists express themselves authentically in their work, and, ideally, this resonates with audiences who identify with its message and appreciate its artistry.

While creating art can be a solitary pursuit, thankfully many organizations have emerged to support creators. What if these organizations could find new opportunities to enhance audiences’ experience with art? What if we could improve how organizations tasked with promoting, producing and/or distributing art engage with audiences in our connected age?

“Digital transformation is about becoming more effective in the connected age.”

It’s possible, and proven successful. Arts or cultural organizations can have a stronger impact by adopting the principles of digital transformation, such as human-centered design. The team at MaRS, who are usually focused on technology-oriented startups and “Medical and Related Sciences,” (where the acronym comes from) kindly offered their expertise to this world.

Over three years ago, Executive Director of Opera.ca Christina Loewen observed the powerful result of merging art and innovation: propelling her arts and cultural organization to a new level.

“We came up with a hypothesis that the Lean Start Up program could help arts organizations develop skills for managing high levels of change and uncertainty, while also seizing opportunities for innovation.” ~Christina Loewen

In early discussions, Christina and her team devised a prototype introduction to the Lean Start Up model with the guidance of Nathan Monk of MARS. Monk introduced Lean Start Up techniques to opera company members at one of Opera.ca’s AGMs in Toronto. Mainly, delegates worked with a common tool: the business model canvas. Finding it useful, the delegates focused on this approach, without having the time in a three-hour workshop to explore the full range of “Lean techniques.”

This experiment was the jumping off point for the “Lean Arts” movement.

Lean Arts has now evolved into a five-week experimental pilot, which is designed to support promising performing arts initiatives in Toronto. It introduces local arts initiatives to the tools and methodologies that are often used by technology startups.

The program accepted 10 performing arts teams that had expressed interest after an introduction from Opera.ca. Classes took place at The Working Group (TWG) offices in Toronto. TWG also provided mentors and instructors for the program.

We recently caught up with these teams to discover how Lean Arts transformed their organization.

The Impact of Lean Arts: What We Discovered

Sonia Gemmiti is a set designer in film, television, and the performing arts. Before going on maternity leave, she was co-founder and designer lead for the Rev Rocket Circus, an arts organization known for mounting theatre performances in a circus.

Attending Lean Arts made Sonia aware of the importance of knowing her organization’s audience and how this relates to the location they chose to display their artwork.

Sonia realized that relocating to a location in a targeted neighbourhood would help her organization become more community-based, just as they had hoped. But this led to questions about traffic and engagement for the business.

“That building looks perfect (aesthetics-wise) but will I get enough traffic?” ~Sonia Gemmiti

Sonia confirmed that her team wouldn’t have uncovered such a critical opportunity for change had she not attended Lean Arts.

The Tale of a Town

Charles Ketchabaw is founder of The Tale of a Town, an online theatre and media project developed in collaboration with The National Arts Centre of Canada. The Tale of a Town aims to capture “the collective community memory of Canada’s main streets, one story at a time, while preserving local heritage.”

Prior to Lean Arts, Charles had worked in Toronto agencies. His team had already applied some methodologies that are similar to the Lean Arts curriculum, so discussing business models was familiar to him.

Lean Arts confirmed that the Tale of a Town team was on the right track to problem solving.

“Lean Arts reinforced the fact that we knew what we were doing and our approach was sound from a creative point of view. From a business development point of view, it forced me to go back and streamline the pitch. ” ~Charles Ketchabaw

Ton Beau String Quartet

Alex McLeod, violist and founding member of the Ton Beau String Quartet, realized that what he thought audiences wanted out of a performance was drastically different from reality. In the workshop, he was nudged to reframe his perspective to that of a customer, and leave behind some of his biases as an artist and musician.

Alex admitted that it was difficult balancing his creative desires as an artist with the profitability and scalability needs of his organization.

“Our product is a live performance, it’s not comparable to a CD or a book!” ~Alex McLeod

But after weeks of training, Alex discovered that Lean Arts was a pivotal step. It gave Ton Beau clarity in its marketing and sales endeavours.

“We had this idea that we were a scrappy independent group that would connect with people uniquely and specially. Lean Arts helped us realize that we aren’t marketers and salespeople that could attract people at scale.” ~Alex McLeod

Now their team is doubling down its marketing efforts and fine-tuning audiences’ experiences. “Thinking smaller” is part of their plans, meaning the team will develop and refine create more intimate and interactive experiences with their attendees.

Pocket Concerts

In the Lean Arts program, Pocket Concerts’ pianist Emily Rho was faced with the concept of scalability. Her colleagues realized that scaling their offering would impact the quality of the experience they wanted to provide to their audience.

“To a certain extent, scalability is necessary because you want to grow, but for the product we offer, because each and every concert is so personal.” ~Emily Rho

Emily discovered that her organization could enhance their concert experience by implementing creative storytelling elements, which would be effective regardless of audience size.

“Interactivity in storytelling opens up whole new avenues where the work doesn’t have to be defined in the classic sense by the viewer.” ~Emily Rho

Her partner from Pocket Concerts, violist Rory McLeod, enjoyed learning about the ‘lean canvas.’ The lean canvas focuses on the holistic view, the organization’s income and expenses, and how to make the overall business model more effective and sustainable. Pocket Concerts currently uses a business model canvas to apply this new knowledge to creating a reproducible experience in a practical way.

“We can do four concerts in a month and have that balance: time and effort.” ~Rory McLeod

Music in the Barns

For Carol Gimbel, founder and artistic director of Music in the Barns, Lean Arts improved her understanding of how to serve her customers, who are attendees at her barn shows. Now she can quantify time and value in terms of the Music in the Barns experience. This has translated quite positively to all their partners.

“I conserve my energy to work on projects that can break even and pay everyone involved.”
~Carol Gimbel

Taking time to better understand a project’s financial impact and its responsibilities puts leaders into the mindset of defining a project’s value. This perspective encourages organizations to better measure the return on investment for resources – monetary, reputational or otherwise.

While the creative process itself is far removed from the business of mounting a show; the Lean Arts training is a reminder that the business aspect should be a consideration for sustainable organizations.

“There’s a real value with creative thinking in the business world.” ~Carol Gimbel

A different perspective on art and technology

We caught up with Filament Design Director Matt Hryhorsky at FITC’s Spotlight UX/UI event at the University of Toronto last May. His spoke about how digital organizations can extend their physical experiences, and impressed us with a fresh perspective on design. As a digitalist who turns to art organizations for inspiration, he highlights the value of their work for his team:

“When we’re doing our art solutions, there are artistic inspirations that we take or draw from to create things that really going to resonate with people.” ~Matt Hryhorsky

Matt’s team frequently takes field trips. They’ve explored museums, art galleries, and client spaces to better understand what’s out there aside from digital art. For example, a sculpture cab inspire a new data model or website pattern.

Although Matt believes human-centered design and design thinking frameworks are important problem-solving tools, Matt believes designers must take more risks and ask more questions.

“Designers have a tendency to rely on things that have worked in the past. They need to ask more questions, like, ‘what do people really want?’”

Engage your audience creatively and experientially

If you think about an art exhibition, much of the focus is on the work and its environment (e.g. performance hall, gallery, public gardens). The effort of engaging an audience is often hyper-focused on the on-site moment of attendance, which neglects many other chances to build affinity and interest before, after, and outside the designated space.

When considering the experience of ‘attending’ art as an ecosystem, and not just the act of curating or displaying creative, many more opportunities arise to build interest and community. This includes longer term ‘legacies,’ and multiple ‘real life’ and digital channels. When you include the audience in your work, this concept extends further. However, the ecosystem isn’t just about your audience, but the required resources to discover your audience.

Ultimately, artists, curators, and all types of creators must challenge themselves to go expand their creative, connect with audiences directly, and experiment with technology.

Experience design as a foundational skill

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