On "The Suprise Social Entrepreneur"

By Laura Callanan

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Laura Callanan talking into a head mike.

Laura Callanan giving her talk "The Surprise Social Entrepreneur" at SOCAP13 in San Francisco, California.

My investigation into the connection between the arts and social entrepreneurship started over lunch in the summer of 2010. I was catching up with James Houghton, founding artistic director of Signature Theatre in New York City. I had known Jim for close to 20 years, having been a board member of his nonprofit, Off Broadway theater in its early days.

Jim started Signature Theatre with the mission to honor and celebrate the playwright, providing a season-long retrospective of a single writer’s body of work. Dedicating a full year to explore the plays of anyone other than Shakespeare was not just unheard of, it seemed crazy. But instead it turned out to be what people who read and write business plans would call Signature’s “value proposition.” And the idea proved so successful that since Signature started in 1991, at least three other theaters across the U.S. have copied it. Along the way, Signature grew from a 99-seat borrowed space and a budget of $35,000, to a national leader celebrated in 2014 with the Tony Award for regional theater.

Over lunch, Jim gave me the update of what was in the work—a new three-theater Signature Center designed to create a sense of community and facilitate, in Jim's words, "orchestrated collisions" among artists, audience and visitors; an expanded Ticket Initiative to make $25 tickets available for all seats at all Signature productions in the new facility; and a five-year residency offering mid-career playwrights health insurance, a stipend, and three full productions of their plays. 

Hearing the details of these bold aspirations which were just months away from becoming a reality, I had a moment of recognition:  “You know Jim, you’re a social entrepreneur."  Once I heard myself say those words out loud, I quickly added,  "But no one calls you that, because you work in the arts—and you don’t call yourself that, because you work in the arts.”

Nearly two years after my lunch with Jim, I gave a keynote speech to close the Disruptive Innovation conference hosted by the Fuqua Business School at Duke University. My talk, “The Surprise Social Entrepreneur,” told the story of Jim Houghton, Signature Theatre, and their 20 years of innovation, growth, access, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and community-building.

I started out reminding the audience of the criteria for being a social entrepreneur and told a story of an unnamed person and his company, demonstrating how they met the criteria using a lot of business-y and investment-y sounding language. Halfway through, I revealed I was talking about someone in the arts. My closing point was that if the social innovation world wants to get more creative, it should start engaging with artists. The conversation with the audience that followed revealed that while a few folks challenged the notion that the arts address core human needs, most were stimulated by the chance to engage artists and arts organizations in social change work.

Then I dug into a deeper exploration of what artists and arts organizations were doing, and where it overlapped with the efforts of other social entrepreneurs. What I found surprised even me: at America’s top performing arts conservatories, students are entering business plan competitions; GenXers at fine arts and design schools are developing their social practice with the same enthusiasm they bring to honing their technique; artists working with community developers are bringing life back into boarded-up neighborhoods in a movement newly christened “creative placemaking” (exemplified by NEA’s Our Town initiative); and artists-in-residence programs exist in the most amazing places, including the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, the Center for American Progress, and the San Francisco dump.

As I continue to research and write about the subject, I become more and more convinced that artists are essential to every conversation about social innovation. It seems that the question is no longer “Are artists social entrepreneurs?” but rather, “What next?”  What can artists accomplish with their imagination and flexibility, their balance of technique and passion, through their talent to experiment, their enduring search for their truth, and the natural curiosity which allows them to learn from all their experiences?

I hope during my career in the social sector my work will help communities rebuild and return to normal after natural disasters; turn abandoned buildings into vibrant neighborhood centers; engage their residents  in conversations about diverse topics like obesity, immigration, and our criminal justice system; create jobs, inspire young people, and allow seniors to age in place.

In the short time I have been working with the grantees and partners of the National Endowment for the Arts, I see them make all these things happen every day, and I look forward to helping them continue in this work.