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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

#leanarts Tackles Performing Arts Ills with Startup Methods

By Margaret Lam on September 14, 2014

lean

Christina Loewen, Executive Director of Opera.ca, has a front row seat to the changes in the performing arts industry. As a member of Canada’s Performing Arts Alliance, she is a part of a conversation at a national level and across disciplinary boundaries about the realities of dwindling audience numbers, and the sustainability of the performing arts sector.

At the last AGM for Opera.ca a year ago, Christina reached out to Nathan Monk at MaRS to give a presentation about the methodologies used in the startup space—in particular the lean startup approach—and explore how it can help Canada’s Opera Sector.

It was an unexpected request, but Monk was open to the idea, and the 3-hour session was an invigorating discussion at the AGM. What was clear was that this was a great way to shake up the same-old conversations and debates within the opera sector, and that more time was needed to fully explore the potential of blending startup thinking with performing arts practices.

With Loewen as the project lead, Canada’s Performing Arts Alliance received funding from the Canada Arts Council’s Leadership for Change program for developing this initiative in collaboration with digital agency The Working Group.

Lean Performing Arts is a pilot program designed to support performing arts companies that are currently developing new directions or those that are just starting out. It draws from the experiences of Holly Knowlman and Bart van de Kooij of TWG, and their experience in working with startups and facilitating these types of programs and events.

The initiative sits on the boarder between the performing arts and the startup space, one that is potent and creative as both sides struggle with making something great with few resources to start, but with seemingly conflicting values.

From the floor at the information session on Friday, there were already questions of what exactly is this Lean Methodology, and how does it relate to the challenges that the arts sector is facing.

We don’t talk about the scalability of the arts the way we talk about technology, but perhaps a better question to ask is why don’t we?

Common startup tools such as the business model and value proposition canvas uses language such as “customers” and “removing their pain points”, which is very jarring for an industry that is more used to language such as “patrons” and “bringing them joy”, as was poignantly pointed out from the audience.

The Q&A offered a glimpse of what the session at last year’s Opera.ca AGM must have been like: resistance to the language, patience from both sides, until eventually everyone in the room realizes what an invigorating process this can be, even if ends up being just a thought experiment for some.

The best outcome, of course, is for the candidates accepted into this program to take the learning and apply it to their individual and organizational growth. There is no guarantee of success, but it will certainly be a good shakeup of the way we have gotten used to thinking and talking about the arts.

Loewen’s gift of foresight is recognizing that the differences between the two worlds are superficial, and that if both sides dig deeper and learn from each other, we will find startup founders who are artists at heart, and artistic directors who are intrepid innovators at the core.

Application deadline is October 1, 2014, and as a pilot program, there are practically no limits to who can or cannot apply. It’s not about what discipline you fit into, or whether you meet some arbitrary requirement based on their funding partners.

They seek applications that demonstrate a flexibility and adaptability of ideas and the people behind them, and those who are open to being pioneers in a new kind of conversation that can shake up the status quo.

The program starts in January for 5 weeks, with a 3-hour session on Wednesday evenings. Further details of the program will be released once the candidates have been confirmed, as they will tailor the mentors and experts affiliated with the program in response to the needs of the artists and groups who get in.

For a taste of what startup thinking is like, take a look at the video, which was shown during the info session. Maybe we can all ponder this great question: What job is our audience/patron/sponsors/donors hiring us for?

If this sounds like your cup of tea, or you still have questions, Christina and Holly are just a phone call or an email away.

Margaret Lam

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