• John Carnwath & Victoria Plettner-Saunders

Adapting in Crisis: Case Studies of Resilience in the Arts

John Carnwath, WolfBrown

Victoria Plettner-Saunders, WolfBrown

Commissioned by the Knight Foundation

Published March 2021


There perhaps has never been a time when it has been more critical for organizations to have the capacity to adapt in order to survive. In March 2020, when the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulted in stay-at-home orders in cities across America, arts and culture organizations, dependent on in-person programming and live audiences for revenue, experienced collective shock. Notably, however, it wasn’t long before they took action.

What brings an arts organization into existence in the first place is a group of people who share the inherent desire to work together to create, produce and present work that comes from the imagination. In March, when their raison d’être was met with the extremely disruptive challenges imposed by the unanticipated, multifaceted crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were able to draw on that inherent drive to create in order to survive. Arts leaders and managers are resilient, but when confronted with COVID-19, even the most adaptive likely needed to draw on resources they may not have known they had.

Coincidentally, just several months earlier, in fall 2019, 26 arts organizations based in Detroit and Philadelphia took part in adaptive capacity training through the Knight Foundation’s initiative Building the Capacity to Innovate and Adapt. The six half-day workshops developed and facilitated by EmcArts were designed to help the organizations learn how to work together to address their most complex challenges. Part leadership training and part collaborative, experiential learning, the program encouraged out-of-the-box thinking and the letting go of assumptions that can lock organizations into behaviors that no longer provide the productive outcomes they seek.

The workshops were designed to enable participants to identify the type of decision-making challenge they are facing and respond accordingly. Participants learned that different levels of complexity require different tools. For example, a complex challenge is one without a simple, best practice solution. A complex challenge requires probing or experimentation to explore multiple possibilities that may lead to a new and innovative response or the adaptation of an old approach for a new situation. Thousands of organizations faced this type of challenge when cities and communities shut down early last spring.

Participating organizations were asked at the outset of their training to identify a “wicked question” to address during the workshop. A wicked question contains a central paradox –– two seemingly contradictory goals that both need to be addressed in order to move forward. Stating that paradox explicitly can unlock solution-oriented thinking. For example: “How do we present in-person work when we cannot gather in person?” One of the ways participants were taught to explore possible responses to such questions is through the use of Small Experiments with Radical Intent (SERI). These experiments are designed to be inexpensive and unassuming, in order to test ideas without fear of failure. Whether framing them explicitly as SERIs or not, arts and cultural institutions that have spent the last year conducting experiments to address the challenges of the pandemic have developed some of the most imaginative responses, which have enabled them to become more resilient through the process of innovation and adaptation.

Last March, when it was clear the virus was reaching pandemic status, those who participated in the adaptive capacity initiative quickly drew on what they had learned. The following are stories from four of the organizations detailing the lessons each applied to address the unanticipated disruptions related to COVID-19. Philadelphia’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret Company and RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency) tackled a complex challenge and challenging assumptions, respectively. From the Detroit cohort, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit used small experiments to address complex challenges, while Planet Ant posed a wicked question that led them to reframe how they think about their mission.

Read the full report here.