We are delighted to announce that ArtsPond’s Founder, Jessa Agilo, has been chosen as a fellow to the 2019 cohort of Toronto Arts Council’s Leaders Lab. A few of Jessa’s responses to selected questions from the application process follow.
What does strong leadership look like to you and why is it important for you at this point in your life and/or career?
Prior to founding ArtsPond, my leadership efforts had been focused on “keeping heads above water” as I juggled the complicated and often conflicting realities of growing audiences and revenues for multiple small creators on my roster as a freelance producer.
In this world, strong leadership involved counteracting seemingly never-ending scarcities of resources by implementing as many replicable, “lean” solutions as possible. While mitigating burn-out and “surviving to fight another day”, I filled my days developing best practice “recipes” for individual creators with only limited associations to the wider arts community.
While having an immediate, short-term impact on individual artists’ careers, I admit that focusing on best practice “recipes” did very little to mitigate systemic issues that are increasingly challenging artists throughout lifelong careers. Upon reflection, I realize I have been responding to the same complicated problems repeatedly for decades without ever daring to address the complex, root causes that underlie them.
As a result, my thoughts on strong leadership have shifted from recipe-building one-on-one with artists to empowering positive, systemic change for collective impact across the broader community. I am nearing 50 years of age, and this is how I wish to invest my remaining energies. Addressing this will require new ways of thinking, new systems-based (versus operational) revenue models, and new collaborative platforms and technologies that empower radical diversity and inclusivity. By doing so, I hope to instil a positive legacy for the next generation and to transition my contributions to the Toronto arts community from a mid-career to senior leader.
Describe an example of an interaction you have experienced in your work that you would like to see happen more often.
I am not alone in being frustrated by the deep-seated silos that separate the arts community. I would like to see more arts leaders abandon their solitary biases and embrace shared communities of practice involving cross-disciplinary stakeholders.
Initially designed by FSG (and further developed by the Tamarack Institute and others), Collective Impact is a framework for tackling entrenched and complex social problems that I would like to see arts leaders embrace more often. It is a practical, structured approach to making collaboration work across government, business, philanthropy, non-profit organizations and impacted people to achieve significant and lasting change. It is well-suited to address such systemic issues in the arts as the loss of quality arts education for youth, growing income precarity, or loss of affordable workspaces and shelter for arts and culture workers and other vulnerable groups.
I am currently using this framework to structure two cross-sector collaborations to address digital transformation of arts services (DigitalASO) and gentrification (Groundstory). Each of these efforts strive to transcend traditional disciplinary and operational boundaries in favour of a sector- or systems-wide lens.
I hope the arts can take this approach more often for collective benefit.
Describe an example of an interaction you have experienced in your work that you would like to see change.
While evaluating the impact of our work, my colleagues and I have been challenged by a lack of tools and language to demonstrate the power of the arts to instil positive change.
For a generation or two, the traditional practice has been to rally up a bevy of quantitative figures (public attendance, dollars reinvested) as benchmarks for success/change in the arts. While easier to communicate than intangible/qualitative outcomes, quantitative reporting alone is not capturing the evidence we need. It falls short on insight and fails to inspire.
An unbalanced emphasis on quantitative evaluation has in fact fostered a dynamic overvaluing of passive, Canada Arts Data-style accountability-focused understandings of “what is happening programmatically” rather than active, meaningful, learning-focused insights on “why it is happening systemically”. This is a complex, multi-layered observation, but as Mark Cabaj questions, is it not more effective to be “roughly right, directionally correct” than to be accurate every step along the way?
I would like to see the arts become more comfortable capturing/evaluating meaningful intangible/qualitative (over manageable quantitative) outcomes. This will require developing human-centered systems that actively engage stakeholders in evaluation long-term. Perhaps costlier administratively, I believe it’s essential to share our stories with vitality and impact.
Give an example of a collaboration you have had and what you learned from it.
My collaborations with multiple contemporary dance artists in Toronto were the most satisfying and successful of my producing career. I learned so many things about the nature of community-engaged collaborations, including:
Collaborative values are preferably (and most effectually) the starting point, not the exception, for both creative and business activities, i.e., artistic and business practices are two equal, intricately connected sides of the same coin, inseparable from one another.
Deep listening and empowering all stakeholders to craft a personal stake in the scope and direction of community-engaged collaborations is essential, i.e., collaborative learning is perpetual and greatly strengthened by contributions from artists, administrators, audiences, and advocates.
The values and language of dance are well-equipped to foster community-engaged collaborations with artists and audiences from intergenerational, intercultural, and interdisciplinary backgrounds, i.e. non-verbal, embodied approaches to communication foster the open and flexible grounds essential to establish both individual and collective agency among collaborators.
All collaborations require artistic and administrative plans, but plans should not be too fast or rigid, i.e., genuine human connections and ingenuity takes time, adaptive artistic practices like structured improvisation offer positive inspiration/instruction for administrators, et al.
What are three challenges you face and what would support positive action to address these challenges?
As I approach my fiftieth year, my core systemic challenges have been professional burnout and precarity of income leading to precarity in housing.
As referred to above, my solutions have been multifaceted. I have become a socially-engaged entrepreneur utilizing the practices of social innovation and the rapidly-evolving potential of cloud technology to launch next-generation arts services for the benefit of the whole sector. Two interventions through my founding role at ArtsPond include:
Artse United is an emerging platform cooperative providing affordable+accessible (open source) arts management and business intelligence digital tools. Artse’s objectives are to encourage collaboration and reduce the duplication of effort producing innovative works across all disciplines. By reducing the administrative load for creators/producers, Artse will help users better utilize their time to generate income. As a cooperative, all users have a say in (and benefit from) the platform’s evolution long-term. I have requested $1.5 million in funding for Artse over the past two years.
Groundstory is a ten-year effort to uproot the systemic drivers of gentrification, increasing income inequality and precarity, and social-spatial displacement on arts and culture workers and other vulnerable communities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. To date, more than 150 cross-sectoral partners have joined this effort including the arts, non-profit, business, all three levels of government, funders, and impacted people. Major objectives in the first year include cultivating a common agenda and shared theory of change based on broad evidence collected through community outreach and applied research. The desired budget is $10million over 10 years.
What are three opportunities you see in the larger Toronto arts context and what would support positive action to take advantage of these opportunities?
First, there is an ever-expanding community of new arts management graduates (UofT, Sheridan, Humber) that could help to address gaps in administrative human resources (and gradually replace an aging population of senior managers) if only granted the opportunity to apply their academic training in real-world situations. While limited budgets restrict the capacity of smaller arts organizations to hire and train much-needed additional staff, new internship funding (i.e., OAC Compass) serves as a model for positive action.
Second, engaging technology specialists drawn to the vitality of Toronto’s “Silicon North” can help the sector become a global leader in developing new, purpose-built digital arts services utilizing the latest technologies. The Digital Arts Services Symposium responds by inviting arts services and technology leaders to explore collaborations in response to Canada Council’s Digital Strategy Fund.
Third, deeper collaboration and shared learning between artists and social innovation entrepreneurs should prove mutually beneficial, and has not been fully explored. For example, Centre for Social Innovation’s Community Bonds or growth in Community Land Trusts offers an alternative to capital financing that to my knowledge has yet to be explored in the arts. It may help reduce the sector’s reliance on public funding for new capital projects.
About TAC Leaders Lab
This exciting program has been created by Toronto Arts Council and The Banff Centre to enhance leadership capacity in Toronto’s arts and culture sectors. The program is designed for mid- to senior-level arts professionals who have demonstrated the potential to lead change in their organizations, communities or arts sectors.
From the Toronto Arts Council:
“The goal of the program is to build a network of open-minded, creative problem-solvers and innovative thinkers from across arts disciplines, who will explore concepts and practices of relational leadership. The program focuses on power/influence, resilience/self-care, systems/networks, and community/civic engagement. Our aim is to strengthen leadership capacity in the arts sector, by creating bridges, networks, tools and the space for exchanging different perspectives and approaches. The TAC Leaders Lab aims to support individual leaders as they develop collaborative solutions to complex challenges. Finally, the program is designed to invigorate and inspire one of Toronto’s most vital assets – our arts leaders – and to ensure their future capacity to drive the health and success of the sector and the city as a whole.”