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In this second article on dealing with challenges thrown up by the pandemic, Cimeon Ellerton-Kay and Natalie Hall shine a spotlight on existing assets and radical collaboration.

Marnie Scarlet at Blunderland

Cigdem Boru

In our first article in this series, we discussed how organisations and individuals could become more dynamic. Dynamic means being innovative (novel approaches successfully adopted or distributed) and being agile (focused on the most valuable next steps over grand and complex plans). 

The pandemic has shown how important this is in dealing with uncertain operating environments and accelerated digital societies and we introduced the theory of ‘effectuation’ as a practical framework for responding to these challenges and desires.

The theory of effectuation has four core principles and we’re going to cover two of them in detail in this second article on the subject. With full respect to Dr Sarasvathy, we’ve slightly adapted them for the arts and culture sector to illustrate how they might be applied. 

The Prop Closet (aka the ‘bird in hand’ principle)

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney embodied the true spirit of our sector when they said “Hey, let’s put on a show!” with nothing but a group of friends and a plucky attitude. And indeed, we are very good at making something from nothing: a bit of silk becomes the sea; an old trunk becomes a portal to another world; many small donations and income streams (with luck) add up to an operating budget.
What if we thought about things in a different way? Rather than a mindset of striving to afford the resources we need, why not start with the assets we already have to hand? The ‘Prop Closet’ principle is about understanding, utilising, and leveraging the full scope of positions (our unique combinations of people, skills, resources and relationships) we already have.

An MBA syllabus would advise you to break them down as tangible (financial, physical, technological, and organisational) and intangible (human, innovation, reputation). While we often have a fair accounting of our financial, physical and technological resources we don’t always pay enough attention to others.  

For example, in our research* into digital innovation in the performing arts, employees' existing but under-utilised skills were most often the drivers of new offers, new processes and new value creation. Some skills are more tacit than others, so it’s important to really dig deep when reviewing and listing your skills positions.

Digital content, media, archives, and existing IP is another. Reviewing your IP to find out what you have access to (and what rights to use it) could be a rich source of potential value. 

As creative people, we often move onto the next idea very quickly - but the rest of the world hasn’t. Colleagues say they have assets yet to be digitised, such as old show posters, recordings and so on. Leveraging these to maintain engagement beyond ‘the show’ through a rich content strategy or opening a new channel of income through merchandising and e-commerce is possible on a shoestring. 

At Social Convention we publish and continue to share as much as we can of our designs, tests and rehearsals in a living archive that constantly draws new audiences into an awareness of our organisation - it really has been the best and easiest SEO strategy to implement on a limited budget and staff. 

The principle is to work with what you know you can use, rather than what you wish you could. But the process of an IP review should also help you think about how you maximise IP in a fair and equitable fashion in the future.

Radical Collaboration (aka the ‘crazy quilt’ principle)

The arts and culture sector is uniquely collaborative - or should we say, uniquely collective? Arts and culture value chains - the way we make and show work - are highly complex, relying on armies of freelancers and contracted suppliers. 

Despite our auteur genius yearnings and showy award speeches, it takes an awful lot of people with a diversity of resources and relationships to create the experience of people in a room being moved by art. This makes our organisations a lot more porous and network-like than we might realise.

We are also uniquely cash- and time-strapped, forcing us to operate from a lack mentality where funding, stages and opportunities for visibility feel so scarce (or withheld by gatekeepers) that any resources we are able to pull together are guarded and held closely. 

We have consequently got into the habit of reaching out only to our nearest and most similar or visible networks for collaborators. But if we are expert collaborators, maybe there is a way to share more radically?

As an example, at Social Convention we are building this into our business model with the launch of a membership scheme with our network of previous collaborators to create a shared resource “umbrella” (think ticketing and streaming software, audience segment intelligence, and access to specialised skills) that all of us can benefit from. We are also building in non-monetary exchanges such as encouraging the sharing of skills and expertise in monthly Skills Sprints in return for access to shared resources or future support when needed. 

We can’t support all the cool projects people bring, but we can support them to find the support they need, and thereby ensure that diverse audiences are served by diverse creatives without everybody taking everything on themselves.

Furthermore, if we start to conceive of ourselves as a network and look at our relationships with our suppliers/collaborators and our audiences, we realise that the diversity of both is highly interdependent. This realigns audience development strategies not around ‘reach’ - a concept that conjures up long tentacles grabbing at communities and resources from a central point - but around networks of value exchange and collaboration. 

We believe this dynamic and collaborative approach is much more likely to support a diverse, vibrant and resilient sector (of both makers and audiences) without relying on grand policy, expensive audience development programmes or competitive, non-collaborative commissioning strategies.

Until next time…

If we’ve taken the time to really understand our positions (digging deep into that prop closet we all have) and map our existing relationships to discover new ways of thinking about partnership, we can actually become a little braver, a little more radical - about who we partner with, and how, and what we share.      

All organisations and individual arts workers contain magnitudes - and with a more creative, upcycled, and collaborative approach to working we can unlock a trash-to-treasure trove of resources and lateral thinking.     

Want to join us? Our first Skills Sprint programme is live now - use the code ARTSPRO for 20% off. 

Cimeon Ellerton-Kay and Natalie Hall are co-founders of Social Convention.


Ellerton-Kay, C. (2022). Digital Innovation in the Performing Arts: A Dynamic Capabilities Perspective (MSc dissertation). School of Business, Economics and Informatics, Birkbeck, University of London.

This is the second of three articles sponsored and contributed by Social Convention on an ‘Introduction to Effectuation’.