Emerging Leadership Opportunities in America’s Nonprofit Arts Sector
Theo Edmonds, Culture Futurist™
Theo Edmonds, Culture Futurist™ | © 2023 Theo Edmonds. All Rights Reserved. Please credit the author when using. The views expressed below are specific to the nonprofit arts sector. Forthcoming articles will explore the for-profit side of creative industries. The views expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated.
The arts organization I co-founded with my husband, Josh Miller, and led for its first five years, IDEAS xLab, was launched over a decade ago. Though I didn’t realize it in those early days, a small group — comprised largely of varying combinations of queer, neurodiverse, female, Black, white, intergenerational, and inter-spiritual humans — had launched an artist-led era of radical prototyping that would ultimately become Imaginator Academy / Creativity America (launching 2024) and (Un)Known Project. You can learn more in our full 10-year report.
Over the past decade of my professional life, along with the decades that came before it, I have gained a few personal insights into how arts and culture nonprofit sector leaders might choose to move forward differently to claim sustainable growth opportunities. I offer them here to those who might find them helpful. I offer the following not as a one-size-fits-all recipe. I offer this as an invitation to dialogue.
Super Size It
The strong get smart
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own.
“God Bless the Child” ~ Billie Holiday
Fall is that time of year when a slew of economic studies on the arts and culture sector begin appearing across our nation just in time for a final fundraising push toward the end of the year. All of the studies have value to certain groups of people. However, to benefit from the cumulative impact such studies could have, there will need to be more consistency in definition, measurement, and analysis from one report to the next.
Recently, I dug into three of these studies. Mostly looking for insights in the details below the headlines, I found a blend of encouraging and challenging findings.
From the first study, the impact of the pandemic had a resonating effect on in-person attendance and programming in the arts and culture sector in Chicago, marked by a 59% decline in in-person attendance at performing arts events and nearly two-thirds decline in programs presented compared to 2019 levels. Reducing programming was partly a strategy to sustain operations in the long run amidst financial constraints.
Contrastingly, the second study portrays a robust recovery in the Metro Denver area with record-level economic activity generated by the cultural sector in 2022. It highlighted a significant increase in federal investments, employment, and support for the arts. Importantly, it can’t be overstated how much the greater Denver region of the Front Range benefits from SCFD, a seven-county tax district created within Colorado law, approved by Colorado’s General Assembly, and renewed by voters multiple times over more than 30 years. However, despite all that the Front Range has to boast about, in-person arts and culture attendance data suggest challenging times may lie ahead.
The third study, Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity 6, unfolds a national perspective, emphasizing the substantial economic activity generated by the nation's arts and culture nonprofits. It accentuates the sector's role in job creation, local business engagement, and community wellbeing. However, a notable trend is the increase in event-related spending, while non-local attendance decreased, indicating a shift in audience behavior post-COVID.
Synthesizing the findings from these studies and so many others of similar focus, the following points emerge as common trends that might signal increasing challenges or transformational opportunities depending on how leaders choose to respond:
Reduced In-person Attendance: Despite recovery efforts, in-person attendance has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, affecting revenue and engagement. Read on to understand why the driving reason behind this will likely stay the same.
Financial Constraints: The financial viability of maintaining the status quo in arts organizations will continue to be tested by increased costs and decreased ticket sales, potentially mandating further cuts in programming to sustain operations without diversifying and innovating.
Employment Volatility: Although employment reached new highs in some regions, the nature of the jobs and the broader picture will likely remain volatile, considering greater societal trends and other financial constraints, which I explore in detail below.
Audience Behavior Shift: Post-COVID, audiences spend more but travel less for cultural events, which could affect the geographical spread and reach of these events. This is a big driver signaling a cultural behavior shift across society that is likely permanent to some degree. I outline a few potential reasons (and solutions) throughout this article.
Dependence on External Funding: Federal and other forms of tax-based funding support is a top factor significantly aiding the sector's recovery across the country, indicating a potential vulnerability if such funding dwindles.
Balance & Discernment
"Life is a balance of holding on and letting go" - Rumi
At a critical juncture, America's nonprofit arts and culture sector has some important decisions to make. Over the past few decades, the sector’s advocacy leaned heavily into economic research to push for institutional support as the best way to ensure its survival. This approach, focusing on various interpretations of the “field” or “sector,” may have reached its efficacy in revealing true growth opportunities.
Of course, our institutions matter. They matter greatly as keepers of our cultural memory and integrators of ideas into knowledge and collective wisdom. However, sustaining their positioning depends on leaning into full partnership with the rich, expanding, and always surprising boldness brought to bear by our nation’s artists. As we venture into 2024 and beyond, while economic studies retain merit and utility, they may fall short when confronted with the demands and drivers of contemporary growth ranging from generative AI to big swings in generational values.
Context matters. Over the last decade, significant declines in American creativity, business dynamism, workplace social wellbeing, and youth mental health have been recorded (Kim, 2016; Akcigit, 2023; Murthy, 2022; Murthy, 2023). Meanwhile, despair, defined as the loss of hope, has been found by influential policy think tanks like the Brookings Institution to burden the nation's wellbeing (Graham, 2021). These are just a few examples of ongoing cultural shocks and shifts negatively impacting the creative capital of all American labor and its innovation return on investment in every sector, not just the arts.
Technology isn’t immune, either. Culture shift is a significant influencer and an omnipresent concern. For instance, while artificial intelligence offers transformative potential, hyper-focus on technological capabilities risks eclipsing critical parallel investments for developing the human skills that build Social Brain Capital (creativity + social wellbeing) that will guide the cultural use of any technology. Balance, here, is the key.
Perhaps paradoxically to some, America’s AI advantage relies on developing our human skills (WEF, 2023) to fully benefit from AI's promise. For example, human brain skills required for organizational creativity are central developmental investments into any organization’s innovation value chain. Today, tech capabilities and human skills are symbiotic elements of effective problem construction — an often overlooked first step toward solution-finding by the groups working to address the innovation priorities of their organization. Moreover, the future of work demands that every sector find the human-tech balance.
Bolstering the human-centric components essential for creative dynamism is a multi-sectoral, transdisciplinary, field-building endeavor. Everyone is needed, and a direct and explicit focus on up-skilling our collective capacities for transformational creativity is mandatory.
The arts and culture sector can and should play a significant role in shaping such an endeavor. However, it will require an evolved leadership profile that many leaders in the arts may find uncomfortable. Like every other sector in America, the arts are now compelled to seek better alignment with the changing labor needs and economic production models related to top future of work skills like creative thinking, self-awareness, resilience, and curiosity.
Keep reading or download full PDF of this entire text here.
Saṃsāra, in many Eastern philosophies, is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, a continuous flow that a person traverses toward liberation. I believe there is a lesson here for arts and culture leaders.
America is witnessing a real-time revision of economic and social impact ideologies. Factors such as remote work, digital consumption, shifts in generational values, and the ascendance of “family office” wealth are not merely altering fundraising approaches; they are among a slew of drivers reshaping the human behavior of all Americans.
Simultaneously, we are experiencing a triad of ubiquitous environmental, technological, and cultural transformation that affects sectors across the board - from technology to real estate, higher education to entrepreneurial training, logistics, aerospace, and every other sector and sub-sector.
The United States is arguably amidst the most fundamental, large-scale behavioral shift witnessed in a century. America’s innovation value chain is responding, morphing into “what’s next.” Massive jumps in science and technology are rewriting large swathes of the how, what, and why behind our innovation models and the assumptions underpinning them.
At its core, innovation can be considered any novel idea, technology, language, or ritual that alters our human relationship with time and distance. And, in so doing, we experience transformation in how we understand our place in the world and how we behave toward each other.
The ripple effects of the pandemic, the advent of a Zoom-driven culture, and evolving perceptions around work, investment, and focus allocation (where we spend our time) are arguably more influential drivers right now than financial spending.
In the 1980s, the arts and culture sector decided that economic impact was important to our case-making. This ramped up in the 1990s to become a primary focus by the 2000s. Through the 2010s, we added social impact as an important data set alongside wellbeing and wellness. This point is hugely important considering our nation’s healthcare and educational systems — things we chose as a country to commodify — were showing serious strain and even the potential for collapse in some areas.
But, while defining the nonprofit arts sector’s activities in industry terms, we needed to remember something. We don’t benefit from the same resource infrastructure that governs the rules of the game in many of these areas. As such, an unintended consequence is that today, as America plunges headlong into the mid-2020s, the arts sector is now asked to grapple with “case making” along the same lines as business or healthcare, except that we have only a tiny fraction of the comparable resources to accomplish the task at hand.
In some ways, the situation we now find ourselves in is due to our successes in these endeavors over the past few decades. However, we have reached a societal time and place where continuing our status quo will cause arts sector institutions to lag behind others perpetually. This time, the contemporary embrace of many innovation tools, management strategies, and emerging approaches is different.
Still, judging by our past successes, this is a moment of radical opportunity if we can find the focus needed to seize it. Can institutional leadership within the sector move beyond the complacency of past successes and challenge the status quo with a forward-thinking ethos? It is an open question at the moment.
At an institutional level, the emerging narrative thus far depicts a scenario where incremental and transactional creativity is preferred over the impending requisite for transformational change. Hyper-focus on short-term institutional sustainability is more than an economic question in the arts sector. Sustainability is also a question of moral beauty. Not making the hard decisions now will kick the reckoning can down the road. It will land at the feet of a phenomenally talented upcoming generation of leaders now gradually ascending to executive suites within national, regional, and local cultural institutions.
What Are We Running Toward?
“If innovation is the goal, a group has to align its skills and intention to pass through the prism of transformational creativity. This means that if you're standing at the edge of a frontier, without one foot stepping over, you might need to assess the unintended consequences of taking up so much space." - Theo Edmonds
There is a marked difference in the boldness with which artists engage the world compared to prevailing models of executive leadership in the arts. Both have value. Both are needed. One might ponder, however, the possibilities of integrating artists with business executives in co-leadership paradigms instead of the conventional model of a single arts and culture executive with strong business and fundraising acumen helming the charge solo.
Many arts and culture organizations operate largely like donor-advised philanthropy, where the donors’ interests set the strategy. This approach has an important place. However, suppose that is the majority of what we do. In that case, it is unlikely to lead to thrilling breakthroughs like those we often see when artists take calculated, experience-informed, bold risks that change the status quo exponentially and bring forth new value in communities, cities, and industries.
What if we flipped the current script? What if artists’ life-long skills development in creative cognition were always the North Star in setting an organization’s vision for business and fundraising to follow?
Across every aspect of our American enterprise, the leadership narrative is evolving, increasingly distributed across networks rather than being centralized in a hierarchy. Arts institutions are not immune. The conventional models of growth, anchored in physical expansion, audience acquisition, and tech-enabled donor fundraising, although relevant, may not be the safest bet without pressure testing the assumptions under these models.
The closer examination of the recent economic studies on arts and culture mentioned at the beginning of this article, plus countless others, reveals that the real growth opportunities are outside the glaring headlines of cumulative big economic totals with billions and trillions after them. The opportunities are in the details where we dissect what isn’t working, owning our role in why it’s not working and understanding why within the broader societal context.
Transcending the uniqueness of the arts, many behavioral drivers pose challenges and opportunities for redefining the sector’s contours over the next decade. For instance, the fast rise of AI is forcing more widespread interest in human creativity than I have ever seen. As all industries begin focusing on developing creativity expertise — on their terms and with or without arts engagement — the urgency for arts adaptation is palpable. The arts do not “own” creativity. We do, however, have deep experiences in certain forms of creativity that other sectors can’t easily replicate.
A window of profound opportunity is now open for the arts and culture to stand up and lead. But, I am hard-pressed to find much energy for “running toward” something by many. The things we are “running from” still occupy the most space in our dialogues. While seeming practical in the moment, it may be dangerous in the long run.
Aided by the immense resources many industries have access to, the arts could find itself increasingly left on the sidelines even as creativity rises to the top of workforce demand. It’s not a far-fetched idea; advances in brain science and the industrial sector know-how for dominating “creative fields” already have a playbook to dust off and follow from engineering’s championing design-thinking over the past 30+ years. If you want to run your own little experiment on this, just take five minutes to do a web search and look at how many MBA programs across the U.S. are now promoting learning creativity as one of their main draws.
Three Futurist Trends: Setting Attention & Intention for Arts Leaders
Artists today are charting their own course towards transformation with or without the conventional support of arts institutions. The most successful institutional executives will be those who innovate alongside the creatives leading the navigation of emerging trends.
Here are three multidimensional trends that could form an outline— a narrative of imminent metamorphosis— for savvy arts executives with the humility, vulnerability, and curiosity needed to bring them to life.
Futurist Trend One: Digital Integration as Innovation Catalyst
As our digital lives expand, art's geography extends beyond the physical to a boundless digital community. Leaders in the arts sector can find new opportunities by pivoting from gatekeepers of tradition to architects of IRL-Virtual ecosystems, enabling access, engagement, and co-creation across radically diverse audiences. The requisite executive will harness digital tools not as a means to an end but as the groundwork for cultivating an expansive arts-loving community, proving that art’s true home is not just a place but a shared experience. Remote work and massive generational shifts make this imperative a top priority trend for which to plan.
Futurist Trend 2: Economic Agility Meets Creative Entrepreneurship
The volatile economic landscape necessitates arts leaders to adopt a hybrid approach, combining traditional funding acumen with innovative monetization methods. Leaders who balance economic pragmatism, venture philanthropy, and digital culture can drive financial sustainability through entrepreneurial, creative channels. Entrepreneurship goes well beyond the traditional notions of an MBA-type entrepreneur. Based on the 2015-2019 ACS PUMS data, nearly 34 percent of U.S. artists were self-employed entrepreneurs, compared with just over 9% of all workers. New signals suggest that this is only increasing for artists.
Meanwhile, the largest global data set on entrepreneurship from the World Bank shows startups' with a statistically significant positive effect on GDP per capita, exports per GDP, patents per population, and job creation. Based on 2022 data from the Census Bureau’s Business Dynamic Statistics, while older large firms employ most workers, U.S. startups create jobs at higher rates. Importantly, entrepreneurship is not homogenous. The average age of entrepreneurs in the U.S. is 42 years. When coupled with the Graying of America, this will likely increase, raising an entirely new set of challenges and opportunities at the nexus of brain health and entrepreneurship and, potentially, marking a massive opportunity for the arts and culture sector.
Other demographic shifts present opportunities as well. For instance, Brookings recently reported on the surging growth of Black entrepreneurs outpacing the business growth rate in other demographics. Given the fast-changing demographics of the US, focusing on brain health strategies that support the highly valued future of work skills of creativity, arts institutions could become a critical part of our national entrepreneurial ecosystem development infrastructure focused on the human flourishing of growth groups. The endeavor would likely yield significant opportunities for transformational economic vitality.
NOTE: You can explore more on this in our 7 Steps Igniting Brain Capital Industrial Strategy policy paper published by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Futurist Trend 3: Artistic Leadership as a Force for Mental Wellbeing
No matter the sector within which an entrepreneur resides, they must operate in optimum emotional and relational health. While there is the potential for noise in the data due to self-selection into the condition of entrepreneurship, a Forbes article on a study by the National Institute of Mental Health reported that 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to just 48% of non-entrepreneurs. A futurist-oriented arts executive must embody a social wellbeing infrastructure developer role, aligning artistic expression with the urgencies of human flourishing for mental wellbeing.
Emergence of Co-leadership Models
While these trends hold the promise of a reinvigorated, more accessible, and resilient arts sector, they equally pose the threat of unintended negative repercussions if met with a superficial or resistant stance. Outdated modes of engagement could impede the potential to positively harness these trends.
To move beyond mere surface engagement and embody a spirit of bold adaptation, ensuring the arts remain a vibrant, relevant, and impactful part of the American narrative, all arts and culture leaders know that it is the artists with whom they work who are the experts in making bold choices and taking risks in their lives, works, and performances. To my way of thinking, a clear call exists for arts and culture leaders to level up their leadership and collaboration to match the boldness of the artists upon which their organizations depend.
The leadership paradigm within arts and culture institutions is evolving into a model that recognizes the multifaceted challenges and opportunities of the contemporary landscape. A composite leadership structure emerges as the most viable approach to integrate digital engagement, economic innovation, and societal well-being within the arts.
This composite leadership approach unites two distinct but complementary roles into a co-leader model: a visionary artist-executive and a business-savvy financial strategist executive working together. Different in function from currently existing roles of artistic directors, chief curators, and the like, the envisioned artist-executive brings the creative process into organizational strategy. They expand the executive suite’s foresight capabilities in cultural analytics and public sentiment trajectory. This role would set a compelling vision that resonates with the arts community and the broader public, ensuring the institution's artists’ support, development, and engagement are relevant, forward-thinking, and culturally impactful.
In tandem, the business executive co-leader embodies the strategic prowess required to actualize the artist-executive’s vision. This business role demands a leader adept at navigating the complexities of funding models, philanthropy, and partnerships beyond the traditional scope of the arts. They must translate artistic innovation into sustainable organizational strategies, securing the resources and partnerships required to push boundaries and forge new alliances. This includes reaching out to unconventional private sector partners and leveraging their expertise and resources to catalyze the institution's advancement of their artist-stakeholders, exponentially expanding their options and possibilities across their professional lifespan. By doing so, we transition arts and culture institutional leadership to one more like an entrepreneurial accelerator or incubator. This does not mean every artist or project should be considered a “startup in waiting.” No. That’s not the point.
Artists do something different than the typical MBA entrepreneur. We should preserve what is exceptional with an artistic approach and learn new ways to nurture it through the human flourishing of the artist. As data shows, startups will, indeed, emerge. But mirroring the exact model of entrepreneurial ecosystem development should not be our goal. After all, 9 of 10 startups fail. But, if you dig into the details of “why” they do, a transformational opportunity exists for arts and culture. The opportunity goes beyond being an “add-on” for what is already standard in developing American entrepreneurs. The opportunity exists for us to be the catalyst that pioneers new territory by leaning into artists' unique cultural positioning.
Beyond the Frontier
The arts and culture sector is on a diminishing window of opportunity to adapt, as the digital tide, economic imperatives, technological infusion, sustainable consumption ethos, remote work culture, and mental health resilience each beckon a strategic foresight to reimagine development, funding, sustainability, and growth paradigms.
The journey towards transformative innovation commences with embracing the timeless essence of our human experiences as we navigate the world. This timeless appeal ignites a sense of WONDER— the foundation for fostering deeper connections within and between artistic and scientific communities.
As we venture deeper into the digital age, rethinking our strategy is imperative for navigating the ever-evolving landscape of arts in America. Historically, we have largely framed the arts and culture sector as a homogenous set of institutions promoting the arts. However, institutions are only one piece of what the sector includes. A wide range of artists are working in community and private sector efforts and a kaleidoscopic array of all other aspects held within our society. Most of these happen in ways that still need to be accounted for within our historical economic framework for measuring arts activity.
Artists are not homogenous. Artists are people with a myriad of motivations, mindsets, desires, skills, and visions for what their future might entail.
Much like any other professionals in our society, artists, too, stand at a crossroads of necessity and evolution. In this era of remarkable cultural, environmental, and technological transformation, artists who are inclined to do so now have opportunities to push harder, explore farther, and demand more than ever before.
Artists embody many of the same needs, challenges, and opportunity-seeking as other industries and sectors. However, though artists are workers, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all kinds, we navigate differently toward emerging horizons, balancing unique creative impulses. We see things that others miss. As America ventures further into an age marked by artificial intelligence, the gig economy, remote workspaces, and so much more, artists are vital to this transition. Within the future of work, here are three areas that all artists will need to successfully navigate — making these innovation opportunity areas for institutional arts leaders to consider.
Area 1: Engagement with Technology, Future of Work, and Scientific Discovery
This facet of our strategy would facilitate a significant enhancement in fundraising efforts and resonance with a more expansive group of stakeholders. A broad understanding of and participation in domains such as technology, business innovation, and scientific discovery opens up exponential opportunities for artists to grow and thrive within the confines of the arts sector and across various domains. This approach seeks to lay the foundation for an economic growth model built on human flourishing.
Area 2: Embracing the Future of Work through Workplace Strategies
A massively important pillar of the future of work is its focus on skills development, prioritizing that which keeps a workforce viable and thriving during times of change. Artists' residency models have been making an impact for decades. By adapting these and other well-known arts strategies, like creative placemaking, different industries' workforce development approaches can get a serious boost. (I think of this as a form of “ArtPlace for the Workplace”). After all, work has become a “transient community” where most Americans will spend more of their waking life than anywhere else. Different regions across the country are brimming with talent that can showcase the potential of this approach. The resulting impact would likely be a fascinating array of “arts+” partnerships supporting cities' and industries' unique, place-based economic and cultural variables while building the language and evidence upon which business leaders rely.
Area 3: Cultivating a Robust Data-Informed Support Infrastructure
Our portfolio's third component, perhaps the most important and challenging, calls for an intensified focus on building data-informed decision support infrastructure. This will enable the successful implementation of Areas 1 and 2. Without it, we would be navigating without a compass. In the age of Big Data, such infrastructure is paramount to fostering growth in advocacy efforts and satisfying the needs of various stakeholders in the present and the long term as we onboard new partners to build capacity for renewal, growth, and sustainability.
A robust, data-informed decision-making system underpinned by quality data intelligence is necessary to implement a portfolio approach effectively. The problem-solving power of such a system is invaluable, as it sheds light on the cultural and technological changes shaping society and guides strategic goals that enable human brilliance to shine through.
Navigating a Rapidly Changing Interplay of Art, Business, and Science
While every person has creative abilities, the arts only exist with artists. Our goal should be to broaden the opportunities available to all artists, helping them navigate the ever-changing work landscape. From a policy perspective, it’s important to recognize the role that critical issues like basic income and healthcare affordability play in artists, small businesses, and independent workers’ lives. While long-term policy initiatives like those mentioned are necessary and important, they are mostly political decisions.
During this time of a deeply divided political landscape, bipartisan agreement around many of these ideas seems unlikely without years of hard work by a multisectoral group of actors successfully engaging political decision-makers open to receiving and acting upon the ideas. This doesn’t mean we should not be working in this direction. It’s simply a recognition that a substantial amount of time, talent, and treasure will be required. Even with success, seeing the impact of such policies on our national data will likely take years.
Between here and there, what else exists?
Here's a hard truth: Our current arts leadership models were invented. They served a specific need for a specific group at a specific time and place. Nothing about them is predestined, unchangeable, or inherently right or wrong. They are evidence of past decisions about what was most valuable to a certain group at the time.
For those artists motivated to move beyond the traditional realm of arts and culture to partner with other sectors – and I’m not suggesting that all do or should – what opportunities and support systems do we have in place for them? Artist support organizations and talent developers seeing value in such endeavors can not go it alone. High-capacity partnerships with science and business must be substantively included in the algorithmic thinking driving the opportunity portfolio forward.
Arts and culture leaders are responsible for being decisive and actively participating in the American enterprise as it exists today. Today, meaningful participation requires curiosity, vulnerability, humility, and a healthy sense of wonder. Like we see Fortune magazine reporting in business, meaningful participation may also include recognizing when it is time to sunset outmoded structures and shifting resources to emerging models with creative leaders already working in new and exciting ways. A data-informed decision-making system is pivotal in this endeavor. With the help of such a system, we can identify opportunities, align our strategies, and chart the path to success.
Artists are representatives of every aspect of American life. They are found not just in community centers and neighborhood studios but also on a massive scale across the public and private sectors. Artists have never included only one version of the word. Artists contribute to the rich tapestry of our society, bringing their unique perspectives and talents to bear on various domains.
America is changing unprecedentedly. For the arts sector to meet the moment, it needs a wide-eyed rigor. We are responsible for those coming behind us that we may never know. While many of the seeds we plant now may not bear fruit within our lifetimes, they are critical for future generations. If we trust their foresight and organize around their phenomenal diversity, arts sector leaders will benefit from renewing an intentional focus on our nation’s artists.
Wonder Out Loud Is a Powerful Thing
America is fortunate as our nation’s nonprofit arts sector considers its next moves. We have options, talent, and resources. The one thing we lack in abundance, unfortunately, is time. This realization should propel us to act with measured urgency in bringing about “what’s next.” For example, what would it look like if every arts organization nationwide had the capacity to devote just 10% of its effort toward an ever-green exploration of the ideas outlined above? Think about the massive impact that would likely emerge.
The journey ahead promises to be challenging, but it's also filled with potential. Ancient spiritual traditions (and science) tell us our bodies are wired to guide us through creative growth, death, and rebirth cycles. Only with the intention to willingly engage in this dance, the embodied cognition of locating the infinite in the present, can we fully understand the difference between where we are and where we think we want to be.
This is the edge of awareness — where logical and creative thinking begins its grind to shape evolution in our consciousness. It’s where new things become visible, possible, and valuable.
When edges begin dancing with each other, a feeling of creative tension signals that something familiar is about to reshape itself. We feel discovery brewing. Edges are dynamic crucibles where friction ignites and where innovation first appears. Many people and organizations often lose sight of the horizon when this happens. They freeze up while attempting to navigate the myriad of cultural landmines surfacing under their walk. They begin reaching for the false security of the status quo. In these moments of mid-step, it’s easy to lose the way.
However, there is one thing that acts as an ever-sure compass. One thing that, when followed, guides without fail. The one thing that Nikky Finney put so profoundly in her 2011 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Poetry. Namely, "the will of the human heart to speak its mind." This is where wonder resides.
People prone to wonder can be transformative in those spaces and places where we work, heal, live, learn, play, and pray. They're adaptable, creative, and always looking for the "fresh glitch" to explore. As a result, they ask questions that, at first, can seem odd. However, their questions don't seem odd if you're with them long enough to understand their context and lived experiences. Instead, they seem revelatory and weirdly hyper-practical. The most powerful of these questions are always rooted in love.
Love, in its essence, can be a powerful tool for an organization's journey of discovery and understanding. It is not a static state of being but a dynamic process of becoming. As such, love acts more like a question than an answer. It invites exploration, stirs curiosity, and prompts introspection. Wonder and imagination are fueled more by love than by fear. Love opens doors to transformative outcomes, unleashing the full potential of creative exploration.
Everything first begins as a story in our minds. All of my life, both personally and professionally, my story has always centered upon a singular north star. In all its parts—from corporate boardrooms and research labs to rural schoolrooms and entrepreneur incubators—I believe America is better equipped to navigate the future when artists are a valued part of a collective process.
Wonder Calling Us Home
As I wrote in the introduction, Fall 2023 was a milestone in my life. A decade ago, the arts organization I co-founded with my husband and led for its first five years, IDEAS xLab, was launched. I’ll close with an excerpt of what I shared with those who gathered around a table recently to reflect on this shared, collective milestone:
There’s a quote from the poet John O'Donohue that always resonates with me, especially in moments of reflection like this. He says, "One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence..." That really hits home, doesn't it?
I remember a night years ago, in this very room, when Hannah (Drake) put the same idea this way in her poem “Power,”she said…
Power - that thing that is in you - rumbling deep in your guts flowing through your veins, making your heartbeat…
… today is the day that I declare that I will no longer live defeated
I will not dim my light in order for you to feel brighter
Because, baby, I was born to shine.
Hannah, I love you. Josh (Miller), I love you.
The years that we have traveled together— alongside beloved others who aren’t with us here tonight but we feel them just the same— taught me that belonging is something we carry inside of us…. But, mattering is something that we humans create together.
From the beginning – we have been a wonder-prone group of humans – seeking new ways to unapologetically claim our voice in the world – wonder out loud is a powerful thing!
Reflecting on all of the wonder fingerprints that shaped xLab over the past decade, this is what I know to be true: a journey toward new horizons begins today as it did millennia ago, in our shared, collective sense of wonder- a space that can only be found one heartbeat, one place, and, one poem at a time.
We are a diverse nation grappling with complex challenges. Our nation’s map is a metaphorical hand marked in hatching lines of interwoven lives, cultures, and histories. We are a hand that bears the scars of past struggles yet also holds the unfathomable future possibilities found in our collective wisdom.
America's hand holds logic and emotion with wonder and wickedness. America’s hand is a poem. Poetry is our vessel. Poetry is our solace in adversity and the spark of the revolution. Poetry, like wonder, transcends limitations.
This is how I think of our organization – as a living poem - never finished, always unfolding, always causing surprising ripples, always in the process of becoming what it needs to be.
Science and business profoundly shape America. But, experience has taught me that only poetry is capable of holding the weight of our nation’s complex challenges without being crushed under their enormity.
A poem is a compass – guiding the voyage to the quiet spaces in between words – where the wisdom of all our choices not made still waits patiently for us.
A poem invites us into the immense possibilities ahead… beyond the obvious… A poem guides us through deep woods and into the wilderness of unopened life.
In the deep woods,
You must give things away
to become large enough,
to become light enough
to make fierce decisions
Fierce decisions are those where
you feel your instinctual courage.
connects the instincts of our head, heart, and hands
into the vocation of vision.
(In the wilderness,
far-off places are not silent
they just cannot be heard with yesterday’s eyes.)
Horizons require more from us.
More than was required in old, settled houses.
When more is required,
Deepness is dependable.
When fiery stardust is pulling you an uncomfortable step beyond,
Even though you may be scared or uncertain,
When, against all logic, you begin to forge into the wilderness of unopened life,
It is wonder calling you home.
Should you choose to answer,
to snatch back your stardust from the cold zone of those ransomed things,
the wilderness skill of poetry will be needed.
Poetry has purpose.
(Excerpt Adapted from Theo’s Poem “Wilderness Skills”)
We all have a purpose to being here. We depend on each other to commit to the hard work of knowing who they are. To discern what they are here to contribute to the greater whole of “us.”
I can’t give you me if I am trying to be you. This is, perhaps, the biggest threat from artificial intelligence… the sameness it may encourage… it could move all of us further from the wonder blessing of knowing, connecting, and transforming the world by transforming the questions we ask of ourselves.
At a time where there is a tinderbox of difference, mixing with our digital removal, physically, from comprehending callousness in our actions… we can lose discernment. A flame that illuminates can quickly become a fire that burns and injures.
Many of our nation’s most prevalent “status quo” narratives pit —- work against life, passion against stability, art against science, and us against each other.
But that's not the whole story, is it? There's a creative tension there in all these things – a more complex truth.
Over the past ten years… navigating this creative tension with you wonder-prone group of good troublemakers... is where I have found some of my most profound lessons about what it means to be human.
This is what we're here to celebrate tonight and carry forward—our spirit of courageous imagination that brought a little more wonder into the world, a little more cultural oxygen for us all to breathe just a little more freely.
I'll close with another thought from O'Donohue – "May you have the courage today, To live the life that you would love, To postpone your dream no longer, But do at last what you came here for, And waste your heart on fear no more."
With grateful hearts for where we have been. And, hope for horizons yet to be explored. Here's to THIS moment, – to the wonder – the work — and the poetry found across a vast cosmos, that, against unfathomable odds, conspired to bring us here, together. In this place and at this time. It’s an extraordinary thing that defies all logic.
Tonight, let’s celebrate the beauty we have found in each other. Then tomorrow, let’s rise again to answer the call of wonder… as we step across the frontier … moving closer to our next extraordinary thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theo Edmonds is a Culture Futurist™ & Analytics Innovator | Bridging Creative Industries, Social Brain Capital, and the Future of Wonder. A lifelong artist and poet, they are the Co-Founder of Imaginator Academy, IDEAS xLab, and lead the global Creativity Infrastructure Working Group for the Brain Capital Alliance.
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