Post image for An Educated Gamble

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

What is innovation? Intelligent persistence. An educated gamble. When the gamble fails, an innovator learns why and gambles smarter the next time.

In 2002, I was between jobs and rebounding from an ACL tear. I wandered into an event at a sidestreet venue on the Upper West Side. The building was eclectic, quirky, full of possibility. I learned that live music filled the venue, but no theater events were held there. A sleek space with lighting grid and soundboard, box office and bar – so why no theater? I asked if I could stage a festival. Management said “Sure,” as long as I required no pay, staff, office or publicity. I was 26 and broke; I’m sure they thought I’d fade away. But I dove in. A cashless “yes” is catnip to a hungry young producer.

Management expected harmless plays by local scribes. I called up Wendy Wasserstein. Didn’t know her, just thought: worst case, she’ll say no. But Wendy volunteered to talk onstage about her craft and Pulitzer-winning career. She saw value in our fledgling festival, in part because we soldiered fearlessly without a budget.

We launched short play marathons, musical theater series, Shakespeare classes. The festival grew into a full-fledged theater program, and other artists we approached neglected to say no: Norman Mailer, Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, Liz Swados, Neil LaBute, Warren Leight, Chazz Palminteri, plus rising playwrights (like Jason Grote and Dmitry Lipkin) who have since achieved success.

Plenty of artists declined our invitations; every time a guest said “no”, I adjusted my approach and my criteria. Conventional wisdom should have dissuaded us from pursuing big-name talent, since we had scarce money or collateral to offer – but the artists were gracious, and excited to have a grassroots outlet for new work and conversation.

At some point, management offered me a salary, and at some point, the quirky venue became part of the 92nd Street Y. Those two changes did not impact my core strategy: pursue top talent, create compelling events, promote aggressively to the press, stretch (but never break) the budget. If the budget is zero, focus on dialogue rather than costumes.

There were plentiful misfires and failed steps along the way, and I often worried that I had taken the wrong path. But the path only makes sense when you look back at it from a higher elevation.

To innovate, you have to learn what doesn’t work, adjust, then try again. Know what your resources (time, sweat, cash, reputation, friendships) can buy you. Stretch your dollar but don’t lose your shirt. Artists and arts managers always lack sufficient resources – we are, by our nature and professions, in a perpetual state of want. But “want” and “lack” are priceless resources that keep us gunning for success.

Some arts institutions spend more resources to propagate their own bureaucracy than to create new art. And yes, the mechanism must survive, the amoeba must continue, art requires infrastructure. But the edgy and experimental spirit that generates compelling new work is fueled by proximity to hunger and risk. Some large arts entities forget the necessary hustle that drives innovation – and the smaller arts entities to which hunger and improvisation come naturally are often most at risk of disappearing. It isn’t easy to maintain conditions that are friendly to innovation. But – for the sake of artists and their audiences – we must try.

DANIEL GALLANT is the Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. He previously served as the Director of Theater and Talk Programming at the 92nd Street Y’s Makor Center and at 92YTribeca. He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Crain’s New York, Time Out New York, the Huffington Post, the Daily News and other periodicals, and has appeared in shows on MTV, NBC, NY1, CBS, the BBC and other networks (including a recent appearance on MTV’s show “Washington Heights”). The New York Post recently published an editorial he wrote about threats to NYC’s arts scene. Daniel has given lectures and led workshops about arts management and social media for the Kennedy Center, BAM, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Google, Chase, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Fourth Arts Block and other entities. He has produced plays, concerts and musicals at venues including the off-Broadway DR2 Theatre, Dixon Place, Center Stage, Theater for the New City, Abingdon Theatre, Brooklyn Museum, Galapagos, the Cornelia Street Cafe, Central Park Summerstage, Mo Pitkins, the 13th Street Rep, Bowery Poetry Club and the Henry Street Settlement.