Creativity and Value: How A NonProfit Art Foundation Can Use Complex Systems Theory

August 2010

Adelphi University
Conference on Social Entrepreneurship
Lecture by Victoria N. Alexander, Director, Dactyl Foundation

The question everyone is interested in and the one I would like to be able to answer, at least in part, is the question of how a non-profit organization can avail itself of complex systems theory to make its complex system work in a complex world.

For 12 years, I have been a director of a non-profit arts organization in Manhattan called the Dactyl Foundation.

I studied at the Santa Fe Institute and have used complex systems theory to try to understand how artists come up with new ideas.

I think I have a pretty good understanding of the creative process and I think I have made some advances in the theory of creativity. The Foundation’s mission is partly based on these theories.

At the moment I have no idea how to apply what I know about complex systems to the task of making my Foundation more financially successful. It’s not as if I haven’t given this a lot of thought. It’s just a really though problem.

We currently get about 3000-4000 visitors to our website per month.  Our art openings attract 200-300 people.  We don’t profit by this. The more people come, the more we spend for wine and staff.  We don’t charge admission and we couldn’t. This is not done. Sometimes we help the artist sell artwork and get donations from art collectors. But art is expensive and only available to a few wealthy people.  Books, by the writers we feature at readings, just don’t sell and even if they did sell out, the income would be so small it wouldn’t matter.

If it weren’t for a very few wealthy people, Hollywood actors and supermodels, who keep the Foundation alive, we would disappear. This is not the complex system model of success.

Here’s the problem, the problem most art foundations share. I do not have a commercially viable product. Fine art and quality literature do not have commercial value because they appeal to a very small portion of the population.  That’s sort of the point of a Foundation, to present work that is not commercially viable.

A marketing person looking at this situation might say that I do have a viable product, but it is a niche market product. I just need to make use of the Internet, grass roots approaches, social media and etc to reach my niche audience.   And this is what I try to do.  After years of not knowing what to do, about the literature part of our program, for example, recently I had an idea. We’ve launched a Web 2.0 literary review website that is linked to a literary award and is designed to be developed by literary public themselves.  It’s a perfectly designed site in every way, according to the professionals whom I have asked to evaluate it.  The website is valuable to literary writers. They can use it to promote their own work and active participants might possibly win a substantial monetary prize. There is lots of motivation to use the site.

The purpose of the website is to nurture the literary fiction community.  Currently, there is no dedicated literary fiction review publication. There is no peer system of review.  And  for readers of literary fiction, it is very difficult to find the type or style of writing one is interested in because literary fiction is such amorphous category.  The website addresses all these issues. I think it’s great. I came up with the idea because it’s the sort of thing I need as a reader looking for something to read.

Few visit the site.  It hasn’t gotten off the ground.  Conceptually, it’s a great complex system approach insofar as it is designed to help a community self-organize. I probably just need to spend more time and effort.

The Foundation’s visual art project has a different kind of problem.  Whereas there is quality literary fiction out there and it’s just hard to find, the kind of artwork that the foundation is interested in promoting doesn’t exist.  Much.  Our task here is to try to promote a new aesthetic in art that values skill, training, and knowledge of the science of image-making and yet still looks cool.  We not interested in promoting old school boring stuff or trendy stuff. For ten or more years, we have been out of step with the artworld. But more lately our aesthetic is becoming more acceptable and we have found a handful of artists to support.  I have also worked hard to publish articles on aesthetic theory explaining and defending our perspective.

Our Foundation, like many art foundations, exists to oppose the anti-intellectualism so prominent in the US.  Literary fiction is often described as “affected” because the language is poetic, the reader is sometimes sent to the dictionary, and it often concerns weighty subjects. The author is often obviously learned. Regarding art, the artworld isn’t anti-intellectual so much as pseudo- intellectual and uses rhetoric to promote its values.  This is actually anti-intellectualism in disguise (I almost said “in drag,” which works too).

So that’s my quandary.  I don’t have a product a lot of people can buy.  What I’m doing is not popular.  I have something that is valuable:  an appreciation of art and literature is valuable to human beings, intellectually, morally etc., etc. in all sorts of ways that I won’t attempt to explain here and now.  Trust me, art is really important to the well-being of individuals and society.

Our programs are great.  They are small but they are working.  They should be small; small is better for the arts. We don’t want to support a lot of artists, only the best. Being elitist is sort of the point of having non-profits, as we do in the U.S —unheard of in European countries. Centralized, government supported art is too formulaic to foster creativity.  Allowing numerous, sometimes eccentric, individuals and groups to form non-profit foundations for the arts helps promote diversity and creativity.  You need lots of diverse, niche foundations for overall diversity.

We want more of an audience, not more artists. Ultimately, we want to help but the audiences by giving them something meaningful. This approach also incidentally helps more artists find support, but it’s the audience, not the artist, that is our priority.

So what do I know about creativity and complex systems?  I know that innovation turns upon luck.  Individuals can make themselves lucky—that is adaptable—by gathering and incorporating a lot of information from their environments.  You could say a complex system grows by turning the world into itself.  Artists are creative because they are somewhat narcissistic. They obsess over their own projects and interpret everything in terms of what they are interested in. They translate and transform the world into their own terms. This is what, I argue, individuals or organizations must do to come up with that new wonderful idea that will make them blossom and survive.

Narcissistic communication and interaction obviously has its problems. Openness to others’ ideas is usually seen as the healthier approach. But a complex system has to preserve its identity. That’s key. My Foundation cannot start delivering what everybody understands and wants. We wouldn’t be who we are and we would have anything of value to offer. And, since our product, our view, isn’t the popular one, we can’t come right out and say to the artworld, for instance, the kinds of things I’ve said here today.

So, in the past years we have worked on getting the pieces in place. We have found a few really talented artists who exemplify our mission and can educate audiences. We have made some progress developing a vocabulary and locating our niche.  So now with more discussion, more interaction we might get somewhere.  I have a new book coming out, The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature, targeted at “popular” audiences, about the Foundation’s history, and about the topic of emergence and creativity. Although the subject is weighty, it’s written in a conversational tone.  Although the expense of interaction –advertising and PR—remains a challenge, we may be poised, after a dozen years of labor, to be the next “overnight success.”

As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.”  There is a limit to what an organization can actively do to make itself successful.  We can only make our selves ready, and, like a Hopeful Monster, we can come up with a great mutation, but we must wait for the world to recognize our value in our interactions with it. The survival of the fittest notion does not work for ideas (that’s our product) because we can’t reproduce on our own. Our reproduction and dissemination requires meaningful recognition, which depends on the public’s ability to understand at least as much as on our own ability to communicate.  Our task is not just to flourish in an environment, but to help create that environment first.  Unlike a for-profit company, we do not answer a demand; we must create a demand.