The National Creativity Network

Building a Creative Nation with a “Yes, and” Approach

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 23, No 2 (Summer 2012)

Wendy Liscow

He sat less than two feet away, with just the bare table between us. Everything seemed to be going well. We were talking about the value of creativity and innovation in education, commerce, and culture, and how incorporating creativity principles into curriculum development would improve school culture across his district. There were fervent nods of agreement, as we seemed unified in our conviction of the importance of creativity in developing twenty-first-century learning skills. Then, out of nowhere, things turned and he bluntly said, “This is really all about the arts, isn’t it!?” When I stated that I do indeed believe the arts provide a major pathway to unleashing one’s creativity, he threw out the classic challenge: “What about mathematicians, engineers, researchers, and scientists? Aren’t they just as creative as artists? You say that creativity and innovation are not the sole purview of any one discipline, but you’re really an unabashed advocate for the arts, aren’t you?”

So before I get “called out” by the entire Grantmakers in the Arts readership, I will make my confession. Yes, after thirty-five years of either studying, practicing, or funding the arts, I believe that if we had more arts in schools and also infused the arts into how we teach history, reading, math, and science, we would have a more creative, innovative, and critically thinking workforce and society. I also believe that we need to engage all our citizens (not just artists) to successfully spark national and local movements that demand and demonstrate how imagination, creativity, and innovation can transform our education, culture, and commerce sectors to achieve greater success. If farmers, scientists, business leaders, environmentalists, faith-based leaders, and others acknowledged their own creative potential and understood how it relates to the work of artists who dedicate their lives to mastering their art, there would be greater appreciation of the creative process and the arts. This effort should not replace our more traditional arts advocacy efforts. It must be a “Yes, and” approach to maximize impact.

Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted insight that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” speaks to the need for this movement and the challenge for philanthropy. Foundations have a long history of encouraging and supporting innovation and out-of-the-box ideas. Now, more than ever, as our nation falls behind in multiple success factors in which we previously excelled, foundations must not only continue to find and fund innovative approaches and solutions, we must also look for ways to reinvigorate our nation’s creative spirit.

Many thought leaders echo this belief and are bringing recognition to the dire need for our nation to find a new approach to education and economic practices. Sir Ken Robinson, one of the leading proponents of revamping our education system to incorporate creative thinking, writes in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything: “Our best hope for the future is to develop a new paradigm of human capacity to meet a new era of human existence. We need to evolve a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent along with an understanding of how human talent expresses itself differently in every individual. We need to create environments — in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our public offices — where every person is inspired to grow creatively . . . because as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.”

A National Umbrella for Creativity Work

In 2008, Sir Ken’s vision, combined with critical leadership and seed funding from Susan McCalmont (then executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation and now president of Creative Oklahoma), gave birth to a new national organization. The National Creativity Network (NCN) was established on the premise that by fostering creativity in our society as a whole, and specifically with future generations, North America can remain a leader in innovation and free enterprise. The very future of our communities and institutions depends on our ability to nurture and harness imagination to creatively solve problems. If creativity is to be cultivated, systems, institutions, and networks must be transformed, and the degree to which this transformation can occur depends on the degree to which we are connected to each other. This connection is vital to enhancing the flow of relevant information, as well as access to the best thinking, best questions, and best practices.

The National Creativity Network was publicly launched in November 2010 at Creative Oklahoma’s international Creativity World Forum. NCN convened creativity leaders from across the United States and Canada to officially kick off the grassroots network to facilitate the exchange of ideas between localized efforts. One of the outgrowths of this initial convening was the monthly NCN webinar series, which provides an opportunity for leaders across the continent to share details of their work and to learn from each other’s successes and challenges. Topics have covered creative placemaking, cultivating the creative learner, and growing the creative economy, and have featured creativity experts working across the United States and Canada as well as best-selling authors such as Jonah Lehrer speaking about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. NCN also hosted a constituent meeting as part of the Lincoln Center Institute’s America’s Imagination Summit in July 2011 and will host an in-person gathering in Oklahoma this November. (To get on the mailing list for the webinar series or to learn more about this national effort, go to www.NationalCreativityNetwork.org or visit the National Creativity Network Facebook page.)

Creating a Movement in New Jersey

There have been local creativity movements cropping up across the United States in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Ohio; Vermont’s state government has recently inaugurated the Office of the Creative Economy. Our Canadian neighbors have launched efforts in Edmonton, Alberta, and Ottawa, Ontario. I have had the pleasure of learning from the aforementioned efforts through my role as a National Creativity Network board member. As a program officer at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, I have also experienced firsthand the birth of New Jersey’s creativity initiative.

In 2009, the Dodge Foundation began exploring how to leverage creativity and sustainability to increase the impact of its arts, education, and environmental giving and offer a more integrated approach to grantmaking. Over the past three years, the foundation made several grants to key organizations to develop programs that demonstrate how to use the arts to spark more creativity in schools and in communities. These grantees decided to collaborate to maximize their impact, and after a year of learning from each other, Creative New Jersey was born. The group of thought leaders at the table continued to expand, and with the addition of each new participant, the group realized the transformative power present in cross-sector deliberation.

Last summer, the Dodge Foundation funded a statewide, two-day Call to Collaboration that assembled a diverse group of 170 stakeholders from culture, commerce, education, environment, sustainability, government, and philanthropy sectors. The event utilized an open space format and addressed the question, “How can creativity and innovation revitalize New Jersey?” There were no keynote speakers, expert panels, or planned workshops; the participants were the only experts required. Those in attendance created the agenda together in the first half hour of the event and then proceeded to discuss fifty-five different topics in breakout sessions over two days. The issues ranged from “What can municipalities do to encourage creativity and become innovation incubators?” to “How can we integrate the arts into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education practices?” to “If you have all the political support and money you need, what would be your BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) to encourage creativity and innovation in New Jersey?” There was no shortage of ideas and meaningful conversations, and they have all been captured in the 114-page Book of Proceedings that can be downloaded at www.CreativeNJ.org.

The success of this inaugural event was a clear indicator that this is indeed the right moment for this movement, and it has spawned a statewide series of Creative Communities: Calls to Collaboration. Over the next year, Creative New Jersey will partner with twelve to fifteen communities in producing cross-sector and multigenerational open space convenings under the central theme, “How Can Creativity and Innovation Revitalize and Sustain a Thriving Future for Our Community?” The series will culminate with a statewide Call to Action in 2013 at which all community participants will be invited to share their plans to move “from words to action” and develop an appropriate agenda for the entire state.

Movement Building Requires Great Collaboration

The Creativity Movement is vast, with a diverse group of players each making tremendous headway in their individual communities, states, and provinces. In a short period of time, the National Creativity Network has been able to connect these creativity “bright spots” across North America. However, to increase efficacy, the NCN organizational infrastructure must be expanded. While many states are actively involved in their own fundraising efforts, funders and individual supporters who are committed to seeing this movement bolstered at a national level must also be cultivated. There is much unrealized potential with foundations to effect community and institutional change through proactive community engagement strategies. Unfortunately, foundations often find themselves in a more reactive position in this current economy. We hope this introduction to this effort, with a glimpse at the impact of two foundations’ support (Kirkpatrick’s launch of the national and Oklahoma efforts and Dodge’s work in New Jersey), will encourage you to reach out to connect your own innovative ideas with the National Creativity Network. Individually we are strong, but as a united group we might just have the ability to change the culture of our schools, businesses, and communities, and ultimately improve our collective future. It is possible, with a “Yes, and” approach.

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