Artists as Innovators: Part I

By Megan Monafu, Artist-in-Residence

In these first few months of Impact Hub’s Artist-in-Residence Pilot Project, I’ve had some queries, some side-long glances, some unsure consultations, that underneath have the same question: what exactly are you doing here?

This is a completely fair question, and isn’t said with any hostility. Hubbers really want to know: how CAN we use the arts in this space? So let’s clarify this, and talk about what we mean when we talk about the arts in innovation spaces.

When we say ‘the arts’, we do mean the traditional disciplines of art, such as painting, theatre, music, dance, and sculpture. But in addressing the arts in the innovative Hub space, we also mean the skills that artists have that can contribute to the work of other Hubbers. Skills like creative thinking, design thinking, experimentation and rapid prototyping –though in the arts world we may use different lingo. We mean the role that artists have in questioning the status quo, and the change-making that begins from that posture. These are similarities that artists have across artistic media, and qualities that they share with social innovators.

Artists have the same way of thinking as scientists, as explorers. We go to the edge of our understanding, make educated guesses, and reach for the ‘what if?’ We know that the only way to find out if something works or not is to try it, with a spirit of playfulness, and to learn from failure. And though not all artists see their work as a way to change the world, social activism is a powerful product of art. Even art that isn’t consciously socially active is trying to provoke some kind of reaction, trying to add something to the world, and trying to connect with an audience.

There’s an excellent blog called What Innovators Can Learn From Artists by Tim Leberecht, which outlines 12 qualities that artists have that contribute to innovation. To this list, I humbly add 3 qualities.


1. Artists are Bootstrappers:

Once there’s a will, there’s always a way. One of the things I most admire about my fellow artists is how incredibly resourceful they are. We create new worlds, we work odd jobs, we forge in-kind agreements, we work with businesses, we work with not-for-profits, we create prototypes out of dollar store junk, we create beauty out of stuff we find in the trash, and sometimes we even get some money thrown our way and we can make a dollar stretch like nobody else.

Now, I’m not making a case for not paying artists –if we want to work for free, we can do our own work. But as bootstrappers, we’re among the finest.

2. Artists are Disruptors: 

We cultivate an ability to see the world differently. Instead of taking the everyday for granted, we try to look at it as if we’ve never seen it before. This outlook is what allows us to make good art, and is the same outlook that allows us to see what is wrong with the current state of affairs and how we might become a part of changing it. It is also the celebrated (and sometimes persecuted) job of the artist to stand out and bravely point a finger at the powers that be, to draw back the veil, to poke fun at our leaders and highlight the marginalized. Artists are designated outsiders, wild cards. We might not be taken seriously, or we might be taken too seriously; we might be joking or we might be dead serious. Either way, we’ll question the status quo.

3. Artists are Builders:

We don’t just disrupt, we create and re-create. If we can’t find someone else who has tried the same thing before, all the better: we’ll build it ourselves. Art is an inherently constructive act. Artists are contrarians, as Leberecht’s blog suggests, but we aren’t at the sidelines yelling negative feedback. We’re expressing our contrary views by creating something new.

It’s a growing trend in social innovation circles to include artists, and I think it’s a healthy one. Social innovation folks believe that it takes different types of people with different backgrounds and education in order to create true innovation, and artists are a real asset in this thinking.


So, what does this mean at Impact Hub Ottawa? I’d love to hear your thoughts, online or in person. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this blog, highlighting the work that has started at Hub as a part of this pilot project, and where we can go from here.

Lisa Burbidge