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Art and Business Connect at a “Pop-Up Think Tank”

Posted by Jon Spayde

I like to call them “pop-up think tanks” – informal gatherings to discuss serious topics in innovative ways and from unstodgy new perspectives.  They’re all over the Twin Cities, from the lively gatherings organized by our friends at Works Progress and the Ignite Minneapolis talks to Tane Danger’s Theater of Public Policy and the new Twin Cities branch of the international House of Genius project.  They’re inspired, I think, by a widespread sense that meeting and talking in the same old ways to the same old folks is getting us nowhere in an era of proliferating problems and sclerotic institutions.


I had the pleasure of taking part in a new one just last week.


A year and a half ago I wrote a short piece for The Line about my visit to a remarkable institution in Omaha, Nebraska, called KANEKO. Named for its founder, Japanese-born and Omaha-based sculptor and international art-star Jun Kaneko, it’s a space where artists, creativity consultants, businesspeople, performers, and scientists come together to explore creativity across the boundaries of disciplines via talks, performances, and free-form discussions.


After the piece ran, I got a call out of the blue from a dynamic woman named Katy Gaynor, a fundraiser, development consultant, and arts advocate here in the Twin Cities who had read the piece. Among the many things Katy and I discovered we had in common was an interest in fostering creativity and helping artists bring their skill-sets to bear on other areas of life, like business. Katy told me that she wished the Twin Cities had its own version of KANEKO.


Plans for a Dialogue

In the months since that conversation, Katy has been busy making her hopes real by putting together a team of sharp colleagues to organize what the group dubbed the “Art and Business Dialogue X-Change,” a large invited gathering of some of our community’s most prominent artists, business people, and artist-businesspeople to talk about how the arts and business could break down barriers that separate them.


It took place last Thursday, July 25, in the beautiful conference room of the McKnight Foundation, and it attracted local A-listers like Gülgün Kayim, Director of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy for the City of Minneapolis; public artist Ta-Coumba Aiken; and actor and Jeune Lune alumnus Steve Epp, to name just three of the fifty or so distinguished attendees.


I showed up too, eager to take part in the cross-sector conversations. The team that organized the event was, of course, notably cross-disciplinary as well. The first person Katy had contacted to get the ball rolling was Dylan Skybrook, a dancer/choreographer turned sustainability educator and consultant who’s on the leadership team of The Social Innovation Lab. Dylan brought aboard writer, performance artist, and Social Innovation Lab colleague Miré Regulus. Katy added her longtime friend, actor and depth psychologist Kirsten Frantzich, as well as public artist and life coach Laurie Phillips, who works at the boundaries of art and physical/emotional healing (and to whom—full disclosure–I am married), and Herman J. Milligan, Jr., Managing Partner with The Fulton Group, a marketing consulting firm. (Milligan is also a musician and a sociology PhD with years of experience nurturing corporate creativity.)


Tables for Sharing Ideas

We attendees sat at tables accommodating seven or eight, so we were able to have relatively intimate conversations within the larger gathering. The organizers encouraged us to look at the skills and mind-sets we had developed in our major life commitments and consider how we might benefit from sharing those skills and attitudes across the art-business divide.


What struck me first of all was how many of the businesspeople I talked to had serious artistic commitments in their lives, whether as active artists, collectors, or board members. This was probably partly a function of the invitee list, which was skewed  a bit toward the art side; but it forcefully reminded me at the very outset that the art-business divide is often totally blurred in individual lives.


We discussed how artists do business naturally (they often have to “read the room” like sharp salespeople in order to sell art-ideas to skeptical potential backers), and how businesspeople are being called on more and more to innovate, “disrupt,” and move boldly in uncertain directions (all things the best artists are used to doing). How can artists learn to define success more clearly (a certain amount of money, measurable notoriety, etc.) the way businesspeople are always called upon to do? How do artistic and business communications differ, and how do they resemble one another?


There were more intriguing questions than final answers, but as the afternoon ended, I felt that the business and art “silos” (the organizers’ term) had become more permeable in both directions.  Discussions had been sparked about how artists could contribute to social betterment even beyond the business sphere, by sitting on the boards of directors of many kinds of institutions and contributing in other ways beyond the art world.


A Wider Role for Artists


Katy Gaynor summed up this wider perspective for me a few days later when I caught up with her. “I think by building bridges between the arts and the business world,” she said, “we can start a larger conversation about the role of artists in solving some of our society’s most critical problems. I’d like to see artists at the table in corporate life, government, education, and the nonprofit sector—everywhere.”


Last Thursday’s gathering was, as the organizers put it, a “lab” and a “pilot project,” a gesture toward this sort of ambitious goal. Gaynor and company are sifting responses to the event prior to planning a followup; meanwhile Katy tells me that she is surprised and delighted as she discovers how many different people and groups here in town are exploring this very territory. Stay tuned for much more silo-busting.


For more on what Katy Gaynor and Dylan Skybrook are planning, contact them via e mail: and


The Line is an online magazine based in Minneapolis/Saint Paul that covers entrepreneurship, urban and community development, the arts, and sustainability.


(This post, originally published in The Line is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage.)

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