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May 2008
Sourcing the Imagination
By Casey Jacobus

     It is no longer adequate to maintain a level of competition by keeping up with one’s competitors; it is now necessary to lead in innovation instead of reacting to it.

     Collaboration between the business and the arts communities of Charlotte created McColl Center for Visual Art on North Tryon Street. The Center is housed in a former ARP Church, which was once of the city’s most active congregations. Originally built in the Gothic Revival style in 1926, the church had 500 members at its height. However, membership declined as the city’s population moved away from the inner city and the church building was sold in 1981. It stood empty until an accidental fire damaged the structure in 1985. For many years the burned out shell of the building marked the Tryon Street entrance to uptown.

     In 1995, Bank of America bought the church in order to establish an urban artists’ community. With the vision and support of the bank, Hugh McColl (Chairman and CEO at the time) and the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte Mecklenburg, McColl Center opened to the public in September 1999. Since then, more than 180 artists from around the world have come to Charlotte to challenge themselves intellectually, hone their techniques, and develop new skills and experiment. McColl Center provides them with a state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot facility, which includes nine individual studios and common use wood , blacksmith, sculpture, and ceramic studios, plus a darkroom, printmaking studios and a media lab. The center also provides each artist-in-residence with a one-bedroom furnished condominium.

     “It’s like a scientist going to MIT,” explains Suzanne Fetscher, president and CEO of the McColl Center. “An artist comes here for three months to push the boundaries of their work. We provide all the tools and equipment and the safe environment.”

     Out of the 125 similar artists-in-residence programs around the country, the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York City has designated McColl Center one of the top three. Artists have come to Charlotte from a variety of countries, including, Botswana, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, Latvia, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom. They practice a wide variety of arts, including ceramics, conceptual,   environmental, fibers, film/video, furniture, installation, mixed media/collage, multimedia, paint, performance, photography, printmaking, quilting, sculpting, and new media.

     One of the original goals of the Center was to demystify the creative process by providing opportunities for artists to engage with the public. The Center maintains an open door policy and encourages the general public to visit artists’ studios and to view exhibitions. In addition, each artist participates in at least two outreach programs during his/her residency.


Unleashing the Creative Core

     About three years ago, Fetscher, who has a Master in fine arts degree, began to consider how Charlotte’s high-powered corporate community could be brought into closer contact with the uptown McColl Center. The 2002 publication of Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, was creating a buzz among business leaders who were beginning to realize that competing in the global marketplace would require more than cutting costs and increasing efficiency.

     “There was a dialogue going on in Charlotte,” says Fetscher. “Business leaders were all talking about the need for innovation. Well, you can’t be innovative without first being creative. Creativity is the generation of new ideas; it is the creation of something that wasn’t there before. I saw an opportunity for artists to be integrated into the conversation.”

     Recognizing that artists could provide insights into the creative process, which could benefit corporations and other organizations looking for innovative ideas, Fetscher envisioned the Innovation Institute as a way to form a bridge between corporate executives and artists. During six alternating Fridays, Institute participants work with professional artists and expert facilitators to explore topics such as “Unlocking the Creative Voice,” “Pushing the Edge” and “Risk: The Value of Failure.” Presentations, along with hands-on group and individual exercises, give participants insights into artists’ creative process and how the process can be applied to business.

     “Creativity is applied knowledge,” says Bart Landess, senior vice president for development and planned giving at The Foundation for the Carolinas. “I do a lot of writing and presenting materials to potential donors. The Institute program helped me recognize opportunities to be more creative in these tasks.”

     The Innovation Institute is based on the premise that everyone is innately creative. However, our educational system focuses on developing analytical abilities and the workplace often reinforces this. The Institute’s goal is to assist individuals in becoming more innovative in their approaches to every day problems. McColl Center anticipates that the individuals, the companies, and the community will all benefit from this approach.

     “Everybody is creative,” says Fetscher. “All of us know it and recognize it. As kids we built forts, made up games, put on plays, but gradually we lose confidence in our creativity. With this program, we can help develop that lost muscle and help create the culture that supports it.”

     The Institution is looking for participants for the program who are senior level executives, committed to their company and interested in making a difference in their company’s performance, and who are also risk takers and leaders in their company. The Institute anticipates that the individuals, their companies, and the community will all benefit from the program.

     The program is limited to twelve participants, each of whom goes through an orientation before beginning the six-day session. Each day of the program is led by an artist with support from a professional executive coach and consultant in organizational development. The curriculum is designed to help the participants tap into their own creative core, develop the capacity to recognize, influence, and support creativity in others, and to apply these new abilities to their professional and personal lives.

     “It is a truly unique experience,” says Vicky Taylor, a lawyer and consultant who acts as a facilitator for the program. “Business leaders are working side-by-side with artists. They see how artists work and learn that the creative habit is a process we can all develop.”

     Taylor says the benefits of the program are unavoidable. “Nobody can sit through this course,” she says. “You are in there, spilling paint. Everyone is a neophyte; the process forces out the creativity.”


The Power to Innovate

     Based on its success so far, the Institute is adding to its offerings. In addition to the current program of one day every other week, it is also offering an intensive week-long program, which should appeal to executives from outside the Charlotte region. The Institute is also offering custom group programs for   individual corporations and not-for-profit organizations.

     Twelve executives from Piedmont Natural Gas participated in a custom-made program last fall.

     Renee Hanson, manager of operational effectiveness, says the experience was one the group couldn’t have gotten in any other way.

     “It took us out of the office into an environment that fosters creativity,” she explains. “We saw artists thinking about things in a different way. Mistakes didn’t equal failure; they were simply part of the process.”

     Hanson says that approach can be applied at Piedmont Gas, with employees looking at new projects from as many angles as possible.

     “We’re trying to stop the mindset that ‘this is the way Piedmont always does it,’” she says. “We’re doing more brainstorming. We’re just throwing ideas out there and embracing them.”

     The group has also decided to take unused space on the lower level of the gas company’s headquarters and build an “innovation station.” The company has held two focus groups to design the space, where employees will be able to come and think or do research or “just clear our minds.”

     “This is a big change for this very traditional utility company,” Hanson laughs.

Blair Stanford, along with two other members of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, attended the Innovation Institute at a time when the Chamber was undergoing some internal changes. Stanford, who was recently appointed chief operating officer, says the organization is shedding some of its formal, business-like hierarchy for a philosophy which values new ideas from all employees.

     “People can have talent or creativity in all kinds of jobs,” she says. “Whether they work in the print shop, Web support, or an executive office, they have all sorts of ideas. We are inviting all of our employees to be part of the decision-making process.”

     To support this more open exchange of ideas throughout the organization, the Chamber has established a “Creativity Room” to create a more informal environment for meetings. Comfortable chairs, soft lighting, a large mural of the Charlotte skyline, makers, and sketch pads, M&Ms and “thinking hats” encourage out-of-the box problem solving.

     Many of the Institute participates are surprised to learn that artists follow a highly disciplined approach to creativity.

     “Before I attended the Institute, I thought that to be creative you had to be artistic,” says Hanson. “I came to realize that wasn’t true. Creativity is thinking about things in a different way.”

     Institute participants also observe the artists’ willingness to experiment with new ideas and to fail repeatedly before discovering a truly innovative solution.

     “I always assumed artists have a big inspiration and throw something on the canvas,” says Jason Ward, a member of the Institute’s first class in 2005. “I learned that being creative is something you have to work at.”

     Ward, formerly director of the eCommerce Interactive Design Group for Wachovia, was recently promoted to a new position at Wachovia, director of innovation. He calls the Institute a “phenomenal personal experience.”

     “It was intimidating at first,” says Ward. “It pushed me way out of my comfort zone. But I learned that anyone can be creative, given the time and space to work at it.”

Ward’s experience changed the way he works with his team at Wachovia.

     “I give them the general goal and then give them time to reflect on it,” Ward says. “As a result, a number of new initiatives have resulted in new patents.”

     About 85 participants have graduated from the Innovation Institute. In addition to the personal insights they gain and take back to their own organizations, a network tends to form between the participants.

     “The twelve people who go through the program together form a bond,” asserts Taylor. “They want to stay in touch with each other, whether this takes the form of drink parties or, in at least one case, two participants going into business together.”

     As the Institute grows, Taylor believes it will move into a Phase II, where the Center will track graduates and changes in both their personal and professional lives.

     “We can support the graduates better so that people who have participated in the Institute can become more valuable to the community,” says Taylor.

     Fetscher, too, believes the program will grow. She anticipates that more companies will opt for custom programs that can be tailored to the needs of their specific organizations. She also sees the Institute as filling a unique role in Charlotte and beyond.

     “No other program in the country is connecting visual artists and business people in this way,” says Fetscher. “This is a great opportunity for Charlotte to foster this serious link between business executives and creative artists.
Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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