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Bright New World

Interview on innovation in arts and culture

Dutch creative agency Vandejong interviewed Johan Idema on innovation in arts and culture. They spoke about inspiration, staying up-to-date and about axioms in the cultural world. Here’s the interview.


“There is this widespread assumption in the arts world that when an exhibition or performance is visited by enough people, it is a success.” – Johan Idema, passionate promoter and initiator of cultural innovation.

What do you do as a cultural innovator?
I create new ways of bringing the arts to the audience. Artists will always create exciting work, but we need to reinvent the formulas we use to present their work. A regular exhibition in a white cube museum or a typical classical concert in a concert hall does not do it any longer, for a growing number of people. Audiences prefer other formats and settings to experience the arts. For example, I recently initiated an exhibition called Museum Minutes at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, where you could comfortably sit down in front of art works and hear surprising stories that went beyond the typical art historical explanation you find on labels. Also, I am currently initiating a three year program for museums to present themselves at the De Parade, a theater festival.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
My work is to come up with powerful new ideas and to realize them. It’s as simple as that and inspiring in itself. Coming up with ideas is actually the easy part. The other 99% of developing, funding and exploiting these ideas is the tougher part. That’s why I get most of my inspiration from observing and working with people that have a unique and strong motivation. People that persevere to realize the ideas they stand for. I have had the luck to have worked with some of them the past years.

What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation to me is not only coming up with new ideas, but also transforming them into sound, attractive plans that get funded and realized. Innovation is bringing a new idea to the market successfully. Innovation should be high on the agendas of cultural institutions. More than ever, we see that if institutions don’t try new things, they are likely to see their audience decrease (in terms of size and diversity) and to find it harder to attract funders.

How do you stay up-to-date in your field?
Once every two years, I publish a book, in which I explore how we can do things better. Beyond the Black Box and the White Cube, for instance, explored how we can design our museums and theaters differently. Present! Rethinking Live Classical Music offered cases from international pioneers – composers, performers, directors and presenters – who are reinvigorating the classical music concert. Writing these books takes effort, but I do it happily and consciously. Because the process of doing research, taking interviews, reflecting and writing it all down is very fruitful. It gives me many new ideas and a better strategic overview. For How to Visit an Art Museum, my next publication (September 2014 at BIS Publishers), I hope to open up the process of research soon and well in advance of the publication, so people can read along and offer their ideas.

Which axioms would you like to change?
There is this widespread assumption in the arts world, you could call it an axiom, that when an exhibition or performance is visited by enough people, it is a success. That might be a financial truth. However, I think we need to look better at what really happens when people enter the museum, theater, cinema or whatever cultural institution. Do the arts really have the impact we believe they have, in terms of the beauty, message or lessons they offer? Amazing research has been published recently, that offers surprising evidence that visitors are not as moved as we think. Fortunately, this research also shows how we can, relatively easy, increase the impact of the arts. So yes, I would like to change the axiom that well-visited cultural institutions are synonym with institutions that offer their audiences truly memorable arts experiences. How can we change this axiom? Let’s invite the staff of cultural institutions to have a thorough conversation with their visitors, at least once or twice a year. This has been done recently in the United States. The many insights and ideas that came from these conversations inspired some serious innovation.