5+1 Questions for Karina Mangu-Ward of EMCARTS

March 21, 2016

As the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts,Karina Mangu-Ward ’08 helps arts organizations adapt to the ever-changing media landscape. Fascinated by the possibilities of using media as a tool for field-wide learning, she came to EmcArts in 2011 as a part-time online producer, but soon joined the team full-time to oversee the interactive ArtsFwd platform. Mangu-Ward had also previously worked as the organization’s director of activating innovation, where she shaped an agenda to use media and storytelling to foster field-wide learning around innovation and adaptive change. Drawing on her earlier media experience at HERE and her own work as a documentary filmmaker, Mangu-Ward is dedicated to creating dynamic approaches to community building.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about EmcArts and the kind of work the organization does?

EmcArts is a national non-profit consulting agency, specializing in helping cultural organizations navigate periods of intense change, when old ways of working are no longer useful but the new way forward isn’t clear. The organizations we work alongside are grappling with how to respond to massive changes in their environment: audiences that expect customized cultural experiences, shifting demographics and a growing demand for a diversity, the emergence of new technology, and much, much more.

This is a complex time for the arts sector, where the norms of the last 50 years are no longer holding up—i.e. hierarchical organizations, heroic leadership, passive audiences, subscription models, monocultural storytelling, linear strategic planning, etc. In order to navigate this changing world, arts organizations are having to explore new organizational models and build new partnerships. They are learning to co-create with their audiences and bust silos within their organization and their communities.

This is all difficult and vulnerable work. It requires letting go of old assumptions, experimentation and comfort with ambiguity. Our work at EmcArts is to create safe spaces through our rigorously designed workshops and labs to support organizations as navigate these pressing, complex challenges, and build cultures that embrace change.

While traditional consulting often means consultants coming in with expertise and answers. Our work is about enabling a group of people wrestling with a challenge to find a solution themselves by experimenting their way forward. We serve do this through our Innovation Labs for the Arts, our New Pathways programs, our adaptive leadership program ALACI (Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators) and our services for individual organizations.

2. In what ways have you seen communities benefit from involvement with the arts and your organization?

Right now, arts organizations across America are reimagining their role in their communities. Many are moving beyond seeing themselves as producers of excellent art to seeing themselves as a platform for unleashing the creativity of the communities they serve.

When arts organizations reimagine their role, moving beyond the corner of society the arts have been painted into, incredible things are possible. We see this happening in so many of the organizations that participate in our programs. I’ve seen it at the Levine Museum of the New South and Cleveland Public Theatre, who are both reimagining themselves as Latino-serving organizations through deep listening and co-creation. I’ve seen it at the San Francisco Symphony, the LA Music Center and the Denver Center Theatre Company, who are each reimagining themselves as spaces where local residents can transform from arts consumers to arts makers.

Communities come alive when local arts organization lift up diverse stories and see themselves as a place for residents to tap into their personal creativity. Theatre, museums and orchestras can be spaces of imagination, learning and healing that amplify the spirit of a community.

3. Do you see engaging with communities have an effect on the work of artists and collaborators as well?

In addition to the work we do with cultural organizations, I’m also leading the pilot of a new program called Community Innovation Labs, which integrates artists into large-scale community-change efforts that involve many different sectors and non-arts stakeholders.

The Labs are grounded in the belief that artists, artistic processes and cultural organizations have untapped potential to play a vital role in taking on complex social challenges. The Labs use artistic processes to build trust, explore new possibilities and generate arts-based strategies for social change. Artists play an important role in the creative facilitation of Lab activities, as well as in the development arts-based interventions for systemic change.

Too often, artists aren’t at the table for community development, despite the obvious need for empathy and creative thinking in American communities. The Community Innovation Lab program is trying to answer question: What role can artists play in systemic change efforts in communities? This may not result in artists creating plays or painting murals. It may look more like artists using their creative capacities to foster relationships, provoke and challenge non-artists, and shift the hearts and minds of influential leaders. This program helps solidify artists' roles in their communities, and helps non-artists to think differently about the value of artists and artistic practice.

Through this work, I’ve encountered an incredible group of artists that are already doing remarkable work in this vein to connect artists to non-arts partners and social change, including Michael Rohd of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, Mark Valdez of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, Caron Atlas of Arts & DemocracyUrban Bush Women and many others.

4. How did your degree in Theatre Management & Producing from Columbia help prepare you for this position?

The program did a great job of teaching the fundamentals—best practices in budgeting, contracting, accounting, season planning, collaboration, critique and more. Having all that under my belt at 24 years old accelerated by career by at least five years. After graduation, I worked in Broadway producing shops for a year, and I felt confident (even though I realized Broadway was not the industry for me). When I snagged a GM job at a small, avant-garde nonprofit theatre, I was able to dive quickly into advanced management work and make a real contribution to the team.

It didn’t prepare me, however, for the limits of best practice, for the moments of fear and ambiguity when I had no expertise to fall back on.

Since graduating, I’ve realized that the world is much messier than it appeared during my degree and requires far more improvisation. Also, it didn’t prepare me to ask critical questions about the role of the arts in society, and the role of arts organizations in community. There was an assumption that artists, artistic practice and arts organizations are valued and will continue to be. I don’t find this to be to case in the real world. We have to work a lot harder to listen the demands of a changing America and reimagine the role of theatre and the arts.

5. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work? What do you find the most rewarding? (That's a cheat—two questions in one!)

When I went to grad school fresh out of college, I naively figured I’d finish my program in Theatre Management & Producing, get a job as a General Manager, feel good about myself and settle into a nice stable existence. It turns out that being an expert is boring to me! Learning is what drives me, so I’ve crafted a career where I’m on a huge learning curve every two years, and that’s been tremendously satisfying (if somewhat exhausting!). I’ve had to pick up media production, program design, facilitation, strategy development, team management, organizational development, systems thinking, community development, network theory and more.

The constant learning cycle is what I find both the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of my work.

+1. Is there anything else we didn’t ask that is important to know or keep in mind?

I wish there had more time spent at Columbia explicitly connecting the productive messiness of making art with the productive messiness of making arts organizations. Running organizations requires so many of the same skills as directing—lateral thinking, collaboration, comfort with ambiguity and emergence, humility, facilitation, navigating conflict, etc. We need more producers, managers and administrators in the nonprofit sector that see themselves as creative and see organizations as canvas. I wish I’d accessed by own capacity for creativity and innovation earlier in my career!