Intersection of Arts and Innovation with Clive Chang, Lincoln Center's Chief Advancement and Innovation Officer

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Clive Chang, Chief Advancement and Innovation Officer at Lincoln Center. Clive and I talk about the intersection of arts and innovation and how people in organizations can embrace new ideas, experiments, and new audiences to create new opportunities and experiences. Let's get started. 

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Interview Transcript with Clive Chang, Chief Advancement and Innovation Officer at Lincoln Center

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Clive Chang. Clive is the Chief Advancement and Innovation Officer at Lincoln Center, which is the world's largest and best-known cultural venue in the world. Housing things like the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, American ballet Theater, and the list goes on and on and on. So, Clive thank you for coming on the show. 

Clive Chang: Thanks so much for having me great to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, I'm so excited to have you on this show because the arts and innovation are not a topic that's often covered. And you've got such an interesting background and, and role when it comes to this space. 

From my understanding your background, you're a musician, you're a composer, you're a businessperson. You used to work at Disney, and now you lead Lincoln Center's innovation efforts. How did you get interested in this innovation space and helping companies and organizations innovate better? 

Clive Chang: Thanks for asking. You know, I am a classically trained musician. I come from a long history of being an artist. And I also come from sort of a multitude of different forces and influences in my life. One of them being strict Asian parents, who forbade me from studying music in college for fear that it would never lead me to a fruitful career. And so, I was also rooted in very practical sort of traditions growing up.

And really serendipitously found this intersection of business and art through pursuing studies in both fields. I will say also that as I was in my formative years and college and shortly thereafter, I was also seeing a lot of arts institutions financially flailing, right? Orchestras going bankrupt, et cetera. So that really piqued my interest. 

And I saw this opportunity that somebody who was trained from the ground up both on the creative side and on the business side could really fill for the world. And that was really helping creative and artistic organizations thrive. And I sort of found that niche quite early on and fueled my further training onward to really pursue that.

And innovation, I think really is something opportunistic that I ran into. Right. And you don't get very many nonprofit art CEOs that say outwardly that innovation is their top priority. Right. And so, coming across Henry Timms, his appointment and his not only external commitment to innovation, but also his track record of having done it in the sector prior to coming to Lincoln Center was just too good to be true. And so, I very happily came on and have been really enjoying working with him to really reimagine some things in the sector. 

Brian Ardinger: It is pretty interesting when you think about artists and creatives, you automatically think of them as innovative type of spirits. Where, you know, they're constantly doing new and interesting kind of things, but oftentimes that doesn't seem to apply to the organizations themselves.

Most arts organizations have been around for, you know, years or even centuries with similar business models and similar ways of displaying the arts and that. Why is it so important for institutions to level up today and think more about innovation as a core competency? 

Clive Chang: Yeah, you are so right. It's almost astounding that organizations that house so many brilliant creative outside of the box talents fail to really make full use of them in an institutional and organizational context.

I would consider organizations like Lincoln Center legacy institutions. And while Lincoln Center is only about 60 years old, a lot of the art that's presented on this campus is centuries old, right? Very much rooted in tradition. And I think that's probably one keyword that ends up being a bit of a fallback or a crutch, that many arts organizations use, especially ones that present classical art.

I always joke that the performing arts are one of the very, very few things in the world that we still as humans experience in the exact same way as we did like 200 years ago. Right. How many things in the world, can you say that about? When you think about it, we still file into a specific venue on a specific date. At a specific time. We sit for two hours, three hours, four hours. I mean, in the case of opera, it could be, you know, eight, 8 million hours. 

We passively watch other humans perform. We clap. We exit. The only difference today is we turn off our cell phones. Right? Because we have cell phones. So, another force I think that makes it important for us to really lean into the idea of innovating is that we're cyclical.

The typical performing arts company operates in this sort of annual seasonal cycle, right? So, you have a typical fall season. You have a spring season. In our case at Lincoln Center, we have a robust summer season, where we take advantage of warm weather and we take advantage of one of our greatest assets, which is outdoor space. Which not everyone in Manhattan has obviously.

So, being able to really take advantage of that, but the problem with the tradition and the annual cycles put together is that if we don't execute with the intention of breaking out of the tradition in the cycles, it just leads to same old, same old, same old, right. And that's the kind of, I think unintended inertia that really takes hold in legacy organizations, especially in the performing arts field like ours, if we don't actively push back against it and continuously challenge it. Right.

Brian Ardinger: One of the interesting things that may have happened, obviously over the last couple years with the pandemic, it's forced a lot of these organizations to rethink not only in the arts, but everywhere. But so, talk a little bit about how the pandemic and made Lincoln Center adapt or think differently about what they do.

Clive Chang: Right. Sometimes it does take an inciting incident, right? Or like this moment of crisis, like COVID 19 to rattle us and create that urgency to really approach things differently. In our case, I would actually frame it as to encourage us to accelerate the change. And I say that because Henry Timms, who took the reins in 2019, the year before the pandemic, you know, was very clear about innovation and institutional change as key priorities when he set his vision coming in. 

But you're right. What drew me back to Lincoln Center, I rejoined. I was here a decade ago and came back a month into the lockdown. And like, it's kind of an odd time to jump right back into an institution where theoretically all the venues and the stages have just shuttered. Right. But it was really, to have that opportunity to capitalize on this moment, where we essentially were freed from all the shackles of tradition or the annual cycle you couldn't perform anyway. 

Nobody knew how things would play out. There were no rules anymore. You could sort of wipe it clean. And so, the opportunity to jump back in to help reimagine is really, really powerful. And when I say reimagine, I think about things like reimagine whose voices we present on our stages. Whether they're physical stages of digital stages, right? What audiences we'd like to reach and on through what channels and what platforms. 

I do think I would dare say if our sector had to been more innovative and imaginative in the years leading up, we might have found ourselves in a better fortified state for the moment when COVID 19 hit. Right. But for the most part, performing arts organizations kind of shut down, hunkered down and waited out the storm. 

And one of the things we did was really take advantage of that time and try to build some new things and invest in some experimentation. And I fear that not enough organizations in our sector actually took advantage of that time and space to reflect and reset and reimagine.

Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk about some of those initiatives that were reimagined coming out of the pandemic. I know you have some interesting things around The Green, and can you talk about that? And some of the other initiatives that came place. 

Clive Chang: I might even start with one that's sort of less obvious and less sort of visible on our campus. One real marquee initiative that we're very proud of in the pandemic era, is one that you might not immediately think about when you think about arts and innovation, right. I think a lot of people's minds go to technology and how technology helps fuel the arts. 

But one shared challenge that we all have in the nonprofit arts industry, and maybe not just arts industry, just nonprofits in general is that we are all looking for younger, more diverse board members. And we spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact that very few such people actually ever come our way. And you know, our boards will never be diverse. We'll never get young people.

And for us, we just sort of flipped it around and said, okay. So, if they're not coming to us, how do we go out and look for these young diverse people? Right. And that's what led to this wonderful program called Lincoln Center Leadership Fellows. And in that program, we just go out and actively seek out the next generation of civic leaders and philanthropists.

Our internal frame for this is they are stars today and they're superstars tomorrow. These are the folks that in three to five years, every board in town will be knocking on their doors. Right? Right. But we went out. We found them first. We brought them in. We created a supercharged two-year program that gives them an accelerated bootcamp of what it means to serve as an active and engaged and contributing board member of a major cultural institution.

And at the end of these two years, they quote unquote, graduate onto one of the boards on the Lincoln Center Campus or better yet they go off and they join another cultural and nonprofit board in New York City or beyond. And create impact there. It's so funny because the innovation here, I don't think of as so much of as the program itself or even of the execution of the program, but it's actually the longstanding impact that we hope this program creates right. 

Over time, if you imagine multiple cycles of this program going on, we're talking about radically changing the critical mass of who serves on the governing bodies. The most significant mission driven organizations of our country. And ultimately hoping that that governing body also trickles down into a way, into how executive leadership manifests and how then staff level will manifest. And then ultimately how everyone who's working on the programs and the delivery of those programs will change over time. And it becomes this wonderful cycle. 

Brian Ardinger: So as a person in the midst, trying to make these changes within an organization, what are some of the, either roadblocks or challenges that you hit and then what are some of the things that you did to kind of overcome the traditional things that you were talking about?

Clive Chang: I've been reflecting on like how we actually do this and how you create the conditions to actually help it thrive. You know, at the risk of overly simplifying it. I actually don't think it's that complicated. I think that in general, most organizations, and leaders I think, would like to think of themselves as very open to the possibility of re-imagination.

And that's about where it ends. And the difference I think here is we are actively searching for opportunities and we're actively trying to connect to those opportunities to our existing work. And potentially also newfound work, instead of just passively sitting back and waiting for it to happen.

Another challenge I think is really making space and resource and safety for experimentation. Which I do think potentially nonprofit organizations have a bit of an aversion to, because of the way our operating model works. Right. Your in a nonprofit. You work very hard every year to just balance your budget, which means you have to raise enough revenue to cover all of your operating expenses.

It's just so much harder to prove out the impact metrics of experiments with unknown outcomes, right than pure program deployment, where you can say, and this will lead to X many more diverse young students being able to learn math or whatever. It's for both organizations and for funders who fund nonprofits. I think it's also about making room for such experiments and embracing the spirit of experimentation. In a smart way. Right? As long as it, these don't have catastrophic implications to the organization, if they require 2, 3 versions of, of iteration. 

Brian Ardinger: Do you have any experience with having these conversations on the donor side and getting donors more open to this concept of experimentation and not knowing exactly the outcomes of the work that the foundation or the organization is doing? Do you have any examples or ways to bring a donor class, I guess, along this journey? 

Clive Chang: Absolutely. I have been so pleasantly surprised at how receptive and inspired donors are to the idea of creating R and D capacity in a field like the performing arts. You know, I think you do have to approach it with a level of rigor and research.

We scan to the field when the pandemic took hold and really got a lot of data points of validation, right. That one thing that consistently is lacking in the performing arts field is any space for R and D. Like, it just doesn't exist. We're all busy planning the next season. And nobody has time or energy or money to think about creating space for experiments.

And so, I think carefully crafting, you know, the case for, for what, what wide ranging and long term impact, not only for the organization, but for the field at large. And that is a role we take very seriously at Lincoln Center, as sort of the self-professed leader in this field, right. It's on us to help create some new models that ultimately can be scaled and can sort of help the sector at large to grow.

And so, especially the big foundations out there right now, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation are really, really supportive and enthusiastic about this kind of work in particular. Especially against the backdrop of the pandemic and what the havoc that it reeked on the performing arts sector. And so, thinking about it as investments in fortifying for the future, you know, funders have more imagination than you would think.

Brian Ardinger: And that's great to hear because, you know, again, oftentimes you think about the creative class and, and what's going on from that perspective. And you like to think that the organizations around that could keep up as well. You mentioned technology as one of the things that people think of when they think about innovation. What are some of maybe the resources or tools or technologies that you've seen or used that have changed the game in this space? 

Clive Chang: Yeah, surprisingly, it's actually not as much technology. I think technology will always be a part of the conversation in some ways I think of it as maybe even less of a tool and more of a lubricant, right.

The innovation comes in the conceptual ideas. And then, you know, much like celery is the delivery mechanism for peanut butter, like technology, you know, is that sort of the instrument of delivery. It's always at play, but I think too often we think about arts and innovation and technology always being the answer. Well, that's just the delivery mechanism, right. Like, well, what's the idea. 

One tool that has proven surprisingly helpful is really convening. And we did a lot of that in, in the couple of years of the pandemic. Not that the pandemic is over or anything, but we invested quite a bit in bringing together creators and perspectives and that otherwise may not have the opportunity to intersect, right.

So, this is actually a perfect moment to sort of go to how The Green actually came to be. Right. So, if we rewind to the beginning of 2021. So, this is pre-vaccine. It's like cold and dark out. Everyone's like, oh my god, give us the warm weather again. We took a hard look and said, what does the world really need right now?

And then of course you map that against one of our greatest assets, which is 16 acres of space. A lot of which is usable outdoor space. That was the moment where we really doubled down on our role as a civic pillar of New York City and opened up that space to the city and to the community. And that's what gave birth to Restart Stages, which was our huge outdoor performing arts center that we built 10 different venues, performance spaces, rehearsal spaces, studio spaces.

We had this wonderful outdoor reading room. We cast a call out across the five boroughs of New York city, asking all community partners who didn't have space to come and perform. Curate a night, present a night, just come use this infrastructure. And one of the key things to solve in that equation was if you know Lincoln Center, you probably know the iconic center piece that is the main plaza. It's called Josie Robertson Plaza with a gorgeous fountain at the center. 

It is absolutely beautiful, but it's also generally a pretty transient space. You know, you come, you take a selfie with the fountain, then you go off inside to your performance, wherever you're going. So, the exercise here was how do we find a way to create a whole radical welcome, right?

Something that's very different. Some mechanism to welcome people to this campus in any way. And that's when we convened and we thought, you know what, let's not try to solve this ourselves. So, we brought together a group of just thinkers, right? Urban planners, architects, community, activists, designers, et cetera, to help us reimagine what the space would be.

And one really simple idea that a set designer came up with, ended up being the game changer, right? She literally, she just said, what if we laid grass out. We just laid grass out on Plaza. And from there, this beautiful artistic installation called The Green was born. 

And of course, this just not just any old designer. This is the genius that is Mimi Lien. She is a MacArthur Genius. She's a Tony award-winning set designer. Right? So, you know, no schmuck, right. So of course, she ended up creating the most beautiful and also sustainable artistic installation that became the centerpiece of our Plaza. 

It was biodegradable, soy based artificial turf. And she created this just beautiful grassy oasis. And over the summer, a quarter million people came, with their dogs. With their kids. And they experienced Lincoln Center in a brand-new way. Talk about impact metrics. We did exit polling on The Green. Nearly a quarter of the people who visited The Green were first time visitors at the Lincoln Center.

And there's the proof is in the pudding, right? Like you talk about attracting new audiences. You create a radically new context for them to do it. And here you go, through that serendipity, you end up getting a beautiful idea, like The Green, that really changed the game. And so that's just one example of how we've used convening, across a variety of context, to help stoke new energy and ideas.

If you sort of lift out from that a little bit. Mimi Lien is actually part of a collective. So, talk about R and D. One of the things that we stealth mode did during the pandemic was launch the pilot of a lab, an R and D lab. So, it was premised on this concept of bringing together interdisciplinary minds without real definition of what they were meant to create.

It was come and collide with each other. And that's this lab is actually called the Collider. Collide and make some beautiful magic happen. And so, you have in this pilot program, you have a Mimi Lien the set designer colliding with an opera singer, with a science educator, with a disabilities advocate. And the list kind of goes on. And this is a program that we're continuing to refine, but we really actually believe in the power of that R and D infrastructure to ultimately help answer some of the trickiest questions that we're asking ourselves now. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, I love that concept because it allows for the ability to create these steppingstones to whatever that next thing is. And you don't know exactly. You can't say it, we want to go to this spot out there in the future. We generally want to go in that direction, but we don't know how to get there. 

So, putting the, like you said, the smart artists, people things to have those conversations and create new stepping stones that could be built off of and, and move forward. Quite interesting and quite fascinating. So, I'm excited to see where it goes. The last question I want to ask you is where do you go for new ideas and inspiration? 

Clive Chang: Oh, what a great question. I turn to others really. Right. I do think it's one of those misconception that innovation and new ideas sort of come from a little corner of an organization where the people who are supposed to be doing it, come up with brilliant new ideas.

The magic actually lies in casting a wide enough radar, right. To be able to have a multiplicity of perspectives and ideas come in. I do think having a little bit of a sorting mechanism and a prioritization mechanism probably is important, especially in organizational context, like this one. But look, many of my greatest inspirations sort of come in the middle of doing something completely unrelated.

Right. It's, you know, I'm a composer and pianist. So, I spend a lot of time sitting at my piano and sometimes it's deep in concentration reading a score for a first time. But it's sort of in the periphery that something will strike. Right. A lot of people say they find their best ideas when they run. Right. When they're out for a job, right. You know, I spend a lot of time active and so, having sort of a decompressing time to really not be in full on thinking mode and relaxing oneself of that pressure is often when those greatest inspirations come. 

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Brian Ardinger: That's quite helpful. I think a lot of people think that they can manifest innovation or manifest the next thing by thinking harder. And that's not always the. I really want to thank you for coming on the show. It's been fantastic and a fascinating discussion about some of the new things that you're seeing and that. If people want to find out more about yourself or about Lincoln Center, what's the best way to do that? 

Clive Chang: Yes, please go on LincolnCenter.org. Please follow us on all the socials. And of course, if you have the chance to be in New York City, please come visit us on campus. Especially during the summer. This summer we have over 300 performances events all happening as part of our Summer for the City Initiative. There is a giant 1300-pound disco ball currently suspended above the fountain. It's on a dance floor that we're calling The Oasis. So please, if you are within proximity, we would love to have you dancing and celebrating with us. 

Brian Ardinger: That's awesome. Well, Clive thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Look forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.

Clive Chang: Thank you so much, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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