Innovation in the Arts: What the Olympics and Happy Hour Can Teach Us About Audience Development

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How could the Olympics and Happy Hour possibly help lead to a solution on how to attract more audiences to classical music?

This was the topic of a fascinating workshop that I led last weekend at the Juilliard School Leadership Retreat on The 21st Century Artist as Entrepreneur and Innovator.

My goal?  To tap into the creativity of today’s bright young artists and come up with fresh ideas on how to expand the place of the arts in our culture. 

For starters, we discussed how arts entrepreneurship involves coming up with innovative ideas that create value to society and actualizing those ideas. Thus,  innovation is at the heart of being a successful entrepreneur. Yet how does one innovate? While the students were excited about the notion, they were unsure of how to go about innovating!

Taking a page from the world of design, I “borrowed” the design-thinking process used by Ideo, one of the world’s leading innovation companies, to get us out of the usual way of thinking and approach the problem from a different perspective. (You can download their nifty toolkit for educators here).

Moreover, the goal was to use a collaborative process and benefit from the wisdom of the group to generate better solutions.

Creative problem solving does not happen simply by magic. There are processes to follow and tools to help you innovate.
The way to innovate is to use a process that will help you think differently about the problem. Go for the wild, unconventional and untried ideas. And then figure out how to apply them to our problem.

To see the process in action, you can watch a feature on ABC’s Nightline of how Ideo designed a shopping cart in just 5 days using a variety of innovation tools.

If you are curious about what we can learn from the Olympics and Happy Hour, here is the process we used and the conclusions we drew from a fascinating hour of brainstorming, small group work and high-quality creative collaborative problem-solving.

Define The Problem

The creative process starts with defining your problem:

How to attract more audiences to artistic events.

We divided the large group into 2 groups of 4 students to encourage small group discussion.

My role as the leader was to run the process fairly and smoothly, interject where I saw the need and keep things moving. Their role was to come up with the ideas.

Have playful rules of brainstorming

To do so, we need to set the stage and come up with some playful rules to encourage generating ideas in a way that encourages creativity:

  1. Come up with wild ideas and use your imagination
  2. Defer judgment and do not criticize other people’s idea
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on the problem at hand
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Use visuals so that everyone can see each other’s ideas

To honor the rule on visuals, we had flip charts all over the room, starting with a list of the rules, so that everyone could see what the ideas were.

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Conceptual Blending of Attributes from Unrelated Fields

One great tool of innovation is conceptual blending where you examine unrelated services and identify their different characteritstics. Then, evaluate the attributes and see how they apply to your particular problem.

We first brainstormed about activities unrelated to the arts that people in our culture enjoyed.

The students came up with:

  • The Olympics
  • Street Fairs
  • South by Southwest
  • The Oscars
  • Presidential Elections
  • A town hall meeting

I offered the following:

  • Happy Hour
  • Rolling Stones Concert
  • Community Thanksgiving Dinner
  • Playground

Group 1 picked Happy Hour.
Group 2 picked The Olympics.

Brainstorming the Attributes and Ascribing Value

We then broke up into the small groups and each group was asked to come up with a list of what made the particular event successful.

The students first worked on their own to generate a list so that no one would be shut down by a dominant voice. They then shared their lists and wrote up the attributes on a flip chart. Once they created a master list, they had to ascribe a value to each of the attributes and why it was important to the success of the event.

Each group made a presentation of its findings, with additional attributes and values added by the other group (and sometimes by me).

Here is what we came up with, after distilling down to the best traits:

Happy Hour:

  • 1 hour so that it is contained.
  • It is a good time niche because it is the limbo period between work and the rest of the evening.
  • It is social; it provides an excuse to go out and it is easy because you do not have to make reservations.
  • It’s an opportunity to see your friends even if you are busy
  • You can try it out without making a big monetary commitment.
  • It’s comfortable.
  • The name implies a good time.
  • It is fun and cool and is cultural phenomenon.

Here is what our flip chart looked like after listing the attributes and figuring out the value of each attribute:

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The Olympics:

  • Excellence in action: it is inspiring!
  • Glory/national pride/national unity also contributes to togetherness, peace and community.
  • It is a big milestone for the athletes.
  • It takes place every 4 years so spectators anticipate the event.
  • Freudian violence: it is a way to be physical and it put great feats on display. We the viewers get a sense of catharsis by watching.
  • It is easy to relate to.
  • There is a lot of variety in the events so that people can pick and choose what they want to watch.
  • There is narrative that people can easily follow and that draws us into the story of the athletes.

Our flipchart:

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Voting on the Best Ideas

The students then went around the room and put check-marks next to the 2 top attributes of success. This too was a visual so that we could all see which were the top traits.

Convergence on the Solution to Attracting More Audiences to the Arts

Once all of the ideas were presented and voted on, we then proceeded to apply the learning to our problem of how to attract more audiences to arts events.

I asked the group to observe the different attributes, consider their value and apply that to our problem. As the discussion continued, we added more elements, even if they had not been voted as the best attributes. 

Here is what we converged on to solve our problem of how to attract more audiences to the arts:

  1. Title of Concerts: make the titles more creative and evocative (a la Happy Hour).
  2. Provide choices: pay more to attend the live performance or watch for free via streaming.
  3. Make the events accessible so that there is no fear or stigma that you do not have previous experiences or that you are out of your social class or educational background.
  4. Provide food and drink.
  5. Have different types and categories of performances. Like Happy Hour, you can have a shorter performance or a performance by lesser known players at a niche time and charge less money than for a longer or more established performance.
  6. Ensure media coverage and more marketing to build excitement and make the event visible.
  7. Provide performances of different lengths and price them accordingly (shorter performances, less money)
  8. Make sure that there is variety in the programming and blend genres in one program to have, for example, a solo piano recital, a dance performance and an orchestra work on the same program.
  9. Provide pre-show or mid-show commentary to engage the audiences.
  10. Have a narrative element and tell a story that you introduce through a great title.
  11. Programs have to be more captivating, more relatable to more people, especially to people who are not versed in the field. Make the language more enticing and compelling.
  12. Make concerts a comfortable place to be way from home or work.
  13. Improve the production values and have a great light show as part of the performance to make it more exciting.


The students found that collaboration is fun and generates many more ideas than if you worked on your own.

They were surprised by how effective it was to combine very different types of events to come up with solutions to the artistic problem. One student remarked that the process we followed helped take something as nebulous as innovation and make it real. They also appreciated delving into the value of each trait since that made it easier to apply it to the problem at hand.

Another student found that the hardest thing was to have the courage to start brainstorming and that once you took the plunge, it was actually easy!

They were also surprised by some of the overlapping traits, despite the fact that Happy Hour and the Olympics are so different.

And they had fun!

How will they use this information?

  • Identify projects outside the field, understand what works about them and apply those lessons to the arts.
  • Break problems down and use analogies to think more creatively.
  • Come up with cool titles and good marketing for their own projects.

So take a page from these creative young Juilliard students and see how collaborative problem solving can get you to innovate in your area of the arts!