In the words of Raqs Media Collective:
“The best kind of art, like the rain, invokes a re-ordering of the cognitive and the sensory fields. It asks of its actual and potential publics to open doors and windows and let the other worlds in. This re-ordering–subtle slight, sure, sharp or soft as the case may be, whether it is a desultry drizzle across a few frazzled or jaded synapses, or the neurological equivalent of an electrical thunderstorm and sudden downpour — is why we bother with art in the first place. When it rains art, we do not reach for umbrellas. It makes sense to let ourselves soak, as long as we can, like children dancing in the season’s first rain.”
In the same vein, my art practice does not discriminate audiences in the application of art but almost always disrupts a habitual pattern to inspire a personal or social shift. As Creative Director of limeSHIFT, our art interventions have influenced empathy, community and leadership in private companies, universities and neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Many of our working practices are directly informed not just by individual artistic processes, but also by the working modes of artist collectives.
Artist collectives have occurred throughout history, often gathered around central resources, for instance the ancient sculpture workshops at the marble quarries on Milos in Greece and Carrara in Italy. Collectives featured during both the Russian revolution when they were set up by the state in all major communities, and the French Revolution when the Louvre in Paris was occupied as an artist collective.
An artist collective is an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together towards shared aims. These aims can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, ranging from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views or even living and working together as an extended family. Sharing of ownership, risk, benefits, and status is implied, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.
The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. Beyond sharing materials and ideologies, artist collectives have showcased time and again that collaborative processes tend to benefit all of the members of any given community.
If you’ve ever wondered why caring about employee engagement is important, the above intimidating statistics may catch your attention. Yet, the conversation among business leaders is rarely on whether or not employee engagement is important (it is!). The disagreements instead lie in how to improve it. Employee engagement is a tricky problem to diagnose since it depends on an intricate set of drivers from across the organization, including ones outside of the employee’s defined role, such as Work/Life Balance, Physical Work Environment, Play, People, Sense of Accomplishment, Brand Alignment, and more.
Figure 1. Drivers of Employee Engagement
Source: “Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice: Why Should You Care About Employee Engagement?” (2015) Microedge.com. MicroEdge, LLC.
With limited time and resources, what should leaders focus on? Research points to the following as the top four issues to improve engagement: Role Design, Organizational Identity, Career Ladders and Community.
Figure 2. Employee Motivation Ranked by Company Process
Source: McGregor, Lindsay, and Neel Doshi. “How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation.” Harvard Business Review, 20 Apr. 2016.
At limeSHIFT, all of our workshops establish collective intention setting. We help employees connect with their own source of purpose and connect that with the people and environment around them (People, Place and Purpose). Under this lens, we view Role Design as more than the tasks assigned to the employee. Effective Role Design means an individual has a clear purpose within a collective context. It helps to set boundaries, empowers individuals within the collective and creates ownership by building out spheres of influence (see our methodology in Figure 3). Thus, our work also influences both Organizational Identity and Community.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Leinwand and Varya Davidson discuss how Starbucks savvily utilized its culture to promote strategic initiatives. The bottom line:
“Let people bring their own emotional energy to an enterprise where they feel they have a stake… thus leverage the company’s culture to bring its strategic identity to life.”
Two key ideas jump out of this statement: “their own emotional energy” and “stake.” Translating into limeSHIFT terms, we see “individual purpose within a collective context” and “ownership.”
People, Place and Purpose.
Align individual and organizational values and give people a sense of ownership in the company and employee engagement will drastically improve. We know because we’ve seen it. The spark of excitement from a new collaboration. The renewed vigor for work. The pride that tilts an employee’s chin up slightly higher. Those are the clear signs of engagement that we get to see after a limeSHIFT workshop.
Figure 3. limeSHIFT’s Co-Design Methodology
I used to have a full-time art practice – a space where to concentrate on my process and create my own work. While I accomplished a lot, I also had time to deliberately do nothing. When I moved to New York it became too expensive to be an emerging artist and maintain a full-time art practice. Most artists in New York take on jobs and “work on my personal stuff on the weekends.” Though often it is difficult to muster up the energy to do so. In fact, many emerging artists work in jobs associated with the arts but purposefully not in creative positions to avoid being “creatively drained.”
As an idea, I disagree with the premise that there is a cap on creativity. Working in a creative position at limeSHIFT doesn’t hinder my ability to create my artwork. It does take time away from my practice but it doesn’t take away from my inner dialog and thought process. Nothing stops me from thinking about how I create and the materials I use.
The only way to get an idea is knowing you need one. Creative ideas and concepts for artwork don’t happen in the studio alone. The inspiration for your work can come from anywhere and from doing anything – it’s the practice of opening yourself to it and contemplating it. Being trapped in a studio can limit your exposure.
Talking about your work is an important part of the process for an artist – it helps you articulate your thoughts into tangible actions. As the Artistic Director at limeSHIFT, I am exposed to many artists and learn about their processes. Usually guiding them through how their practice could work with limeSHIFT and help execute their vision.
I recently completed a visual artist residency at BRIC and will be heading to MacDowell in September. Throughout this time I am given space to actualize my thoughts and create the artwork that rests in my mind. Luckily, limeSHIFT understands this relationship with my work and allows me to juggle these responsibilities. Before I set foot in these studios I have a clear work plan and the rough idea on what I would want to accomplish. However, the nature of making artwork isn’t that precise and experimenting in the studio is a large part of creating.
While creating this work and working at limeSHIFT – I learned that being a practicing artist and employee in a company takes a lot of planning. But if it is something you want to pursue, it is important to work for a company that is willing to foster that relationship.
For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts has convened an annual convention for arts and community leaders to network and discuss strategies for building stronger towns, counties, and cities through the arts. As this professional field has grown, so has the gathering. What started as a small group of 45 people in 1955 has now grown to nearly 1,000 each year.
I was invited to speak as part of the ‘Embedded Artists and the Power of Residencies’ session. Like any good insurgency, artist residencies–inside schools, governments, businesses, and more–can quickly move from “why” to “how did we do without?” In the session, we dived deeply into examples of successful residency programs and gather ideas for how to replicate them in any community.
This session addressed issues of arts education, community development, diversity/equity, engagement, leadership, private sector engagement, public art, and public value. I was honored to be on the panel with Lisa Temple (The Community Engagement Manager at Adobe), Shaw Pong Liu (one of the Artists-in-Residence for Boston Creates), Charles Tracy (Director of Arts Partnerships for the National Park Service), Elizabeth Segarn (Staff Writer for Fast Company Magazine), and it was moderated by Myran Parker-Bass (The Executive Director of the Arts for Boston Public Schools).
I had the opportunity to share work from Monday Morning Kabul, Beware of Colour, and Colour in Faith as predecessors to limeSHIFT. I connected many of the artistic practices that we have developed over the past decade in public space to the ways in which corporations can activate the imaginations of their employees and in the process elevate the company’s culture.
The president of Americans for the Arts (AFTA), Robert Lynch, addressed the convention and begun with: “Risk. Controversy. Action. Vision. Vibrancy. Equity. Accessibility. Power. Innovation. Failure. Design. Community. Leadership. These are the concepts you’re grappling with now…” As a startup, we are dealing with all of these things on a daily basis. The conference was filled with ideas that inform the way that we think about our company’s challenges.
“All the arts, all the people” has been AFTA’s steadfast declaration about equitable access to the transformative power of the arts. It is an aspirational phrase—and one that limeSHIFT strives to meet.
We founded our company because we believe that access to a full creative life is essential to a healthy and democratic society. Lynch concluded his speech by stating, “Our core belief that all people should have equal access to the arts has never wavered, but the political, social, and economic circumstances in which we carry out our mission are constantly evolving. We all must evolve, too.”
limeSHIFT exists to support this evolution.
The first client. The first project. The first co-created corporate art installation.
How meaningful is a startup’s first engagement? For limeSHIFT, it was everything.
Last month, limeSHIFT finished its first engagement with a corporate client. An idea that originated in an MIT classroom became a reality at Life is Good’s Boston headquarters. limeSHIFT, as a concept, has been evolving for years; it’s the culmination of work started by Yazmany Arboleda and Nabila Alibhai with their 2013 orchestration of Monday Mornings in Kabul, where the mission was to use the insertion of art and beauty to transform a community and change public narrative.
By moving this practice into a corporate setting, limeSHIFT was testing a new idea, using public art methodologies in a private community. As noted in limeSHIFT’s first blog post, I wrote, “our job was to create art that would inspire Life is Good’s employees to spread optimism externally.”
Through a process of quantitative and qualitative research and workshops, Yazmany and I dug into the culture, ethos and inspiration at Life is Good. The result was two art installations, #electricJOY and #helloSUNSHINE, located in the stairwell and lobby entrance, respectively.
Employee feedback was overwhelmingly positive. On #electricJOY, Christine Kwitchoff, Director of Global Sourcing, noted that “this mural has sparked so much conversation and really sets the tone for our interaction with others.” Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People stated, “it’s a beautiful representation of the people at Life is Good and the reality and the authenticity of the moments they go through in any given day.”
The inspiration for #helloSUNSHINE came from a workshop where Emily Saul, Director of Programming at Life is Good Kids Foundation, wrote the following as the intended message for those entering the space: “Hello, I see you. You matter. Your time matters. What you do here is valuable. Be inspired to be here and help make Life Good for the world.”
We unveiled the artwork during a Boston Artweek Panel where Bert Jacobs, CEO of Life is Good said:
In the end, our first project with the help and support of the Life is Good community inspired us to continue with our work. It encouraged us that there is, in fact, a place in the world for more social practice art. For that, we are eternally grateful. The first truly is everything.
“What they did was open up a curiosity in all of us that I think makes us better decision makers and better community members.” – Colleen Clark, Director of Optimistic People at Life is Good
Curiosity is a critical trait of people who bring about innovation in our world. From Thomas Edison to Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, we have seen humans shift the narrative of our collective existence by allowing their curiosity to transport them from awareness to action. Some of the most celebrated artists of all time have created masterpieces by using their curiosity to experiment on canvas (Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, and Jean-Michel Basquiat) and more recently on everything from smartphones (Miranda July) to building facades (Jenny Holzer) to plates (Vik Muniz). In her latest book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” Elizabeth Gilbert makes the case that allowing ourselves to use curiosity as a tool for everyday living could not only bring about a more fruitful life, but a more pleasurable one, too.
The way that Gilbert sees it:
“The trick is to just follow your small moments of curiosity. It doesn’t take a massive effort. Just turn your head an inch. Pause for a instant. Respond to what has caught your attention. Look into it a bit. Is there something there for you? A piece of information? For me, a lifetime devoted to creativity is nothing but a scavenger hunt — where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity. Pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.”