Creative Generalist Q&A: Terry Rock
In the last several years, the western Canadian city of Calgary has surged to become one of the most dynamic, fastest growing, and wealthiest young cities in North America. It’s where I attended university and worked for a couple years before moving east to Montreal, where I felt urban living and the arts were more universally embraced and supported. But much is changing back in Cowtown and part of the positive change and optimism is due to the presense of a passionate generalist – a rogue intellect – located in a modest office one block west of city hall. As President and CEO of Calgary Arts Development, Dr. Terry Rock is applying systems thinking and big picture ideas to put in place the strategic foundation, political stewardship, and pure enthusiasm that the city’s arts scene needs to thrive. Here’s what he and his team are up to.
Please tell us a little about Calgary Arts Development. What is your organization’s mandate? What are its main goals?
We’re mandated to provide a long-term, strategic view and advice to Calgary City Council so that Calgary is (and is known as) a great place to live as a creatively-engaged citizen, and most importantly, as a working artist.
As far as we know, we’re the only “arts development authority” in the country. We have the same status and structure as Calgary Economic Development (hey, if the economy matters enough to have its own organization, surely the arts is that important!). We were created in March 2005, so one of our main goals right now is to build a strong foundation so that our organization is able to make a difference long into the future.
We created a little formula that keeps us relatively focused: (F+S+A+H+P)*C=Artists/M², where F=Financial Resources, S=Spaces for Arts & Culture, A=Access & Awareness, H=Human Capital, P=Partnerships, and C=Culture of Appreciation. Our plans are all focused on maximizing that equation.
How many people are on your team?
Depends how you count it… I hope the answer is “just over a million,” meaning that everyone living in this city supports our agenda. We estimate (using official Stats Canada data, recently analyzed by Hill Strategies) between 6500 and 7500 working artists live in Calgary, so maybe that’s the number… If you count the people who are somehow invested in our organization on a regular basis, then the team is 90 people (15 members of City Council, 50 volunteers who work on grant allocations, 13 members of the Calgary Arts Development Board of Directors, and 12 staff (full-time and contract).
Our “core team” is going to settle in at about 6: Me, my assistant, a Knowledge Manager, a Marketing & Communications Manager, a Director of Grants & Community Relations, and an IT/Special Projects person. We ramp up with contract staff for projects when necessary.
Last year, you posted an employment ad that quite specifically sought a generalist to fill the available role. What sort of response did you get from that posting? Was it what you expected?
You know I was secretly trying to lure you back to Calgary! Actually, I was even more specific than that… I wanted/needed “Passionate Generalists.” I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew what I needed: There was no instruction manual or “Startup Quasi-Autonomous Government Agencies for Dummies!” to guide us in our early days. I needed people who could handle the ambiguities of politics and a chaotic environment, yet work as a team to do whatever it takes to build an organization for long-term success. Our stakeholders have high expectations, so we really had to “fly the plane as we built it.” (I really hate that cliche, but as the pilot of said airplane, it sure rings true!)
The response was interesting. Most of the responses were from people who were generalists because they didn’t have much experience, but wow did they bring the passion! Two of the people I brought on have been indescribably valuable to the organization’s progress to date. Suzanne Boss is an organization development consultant with a business degree who runs a small dance-based inter-arts collective on the side. There isn’t a role she hasn’t been able to handle since we started. Suzanne’s now working with us to complete a merger with the Calgary Region Arts Foundation.
Michael “Make it Work Mike” Scullen started as a summer student, on break from his BFA (Photography) studies. One thing led to another, he decided not to go back to school… (though he’s damn good) and Mike’s been a core member of the team since he started. I knew that IT and “the web” would be an important part of our organization, but Mike’s capabilities in “things technology,” (software, hardware, coding, you name it) his creativity, and his willingness to “do whatever it takes” have been invaluable.
What specifically do you do? How would you describe your leadership style?
I drink coffee and have lunch with really cool people. I read as much and as widely as possible (30-40 blogs a day, plus newspapers/magazines), and I enrich the local babysitters by attending 8-15 shows/openings/events a month. All of these things are important to enhance my “absorptive capacity.”
I spend a large chunk of time as an equal team member producing the work that goes out to our board of directors, City Council and the public. The organization is still on a steep learning curve, and the fact that I’ve been here from “t-minus one year,” means that I know the context better than anyone, so I might as well be in it from the start.
I’m not sure how to describe my leadership style. There’s a bit of “pioneering” in there I suppose. I’ve never been afraid to ask questions or point out absurdities I notice. I really enjoy playing with concepts, asking “what if” questions, and generally trying to understand the system we’re building. I’m prone to trying little experiments that don’t seem particularly “strategic,” but give us insight into how things might work. I guess it’s the scientist in me.
I really think I’m still trying to find my stride as a leader. I’m working hard on it though, because I have a tremendous sense of responsibility to Calgarians, especially to the artists who call this place home.
What sort of projects are you working on now?
We’re just starting to integrate the members and routines of the Calgary Region Arts Foundation into our organization as part of a major “granting reform” initiative (the system has been fairly constant for about 37 years). Within the next 4 or 5 months, we’ll be releasing a report to address the very real challenge of providing physical space for the arts in a city with the highest real estate costs in North America. Finally, we’re doing a number of things to address relatively low awareness of the size and quality of Calgary’s arts scene. Calgarians, Albertans and Canadians are going to soon be familiar with “TCFKAC: The City Formerly Known as Cowtown.”
Those things, as big and time consuming as they may be, are about the basics, just getting the foundation re-set after a lot of years of drift. “The big project” (as we call it) is to turn this into a movement…
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities that come from spanning the worlds of politics, business, academia and art?
For whatever reason, I can vividly see long chains of action, and have an idea of what needs to happen to get from point A to point Z. I’m sure this capacity comes from the experience base I’ve built up combined with my doctoral work in Strategy, Entrepreneurship & Innovation. In the worlds I span, I bring the ability to see opportunities that come from making connections that others don’t notice. I have a natural (I think) ability to synthesize, so I’m not sure which came first… maybe I was born to be a spanner?
The challenges mirror the opportunities. Because I see the whole puzzle at once, the complexity I see sometimes makes it difficult to get started. I’m still learning to give the proper weight and consequence to the various pieces.
The other main challenge is that some people don’t understand me! I sometimes forget to switch languages… each of the worlds you mention have different bottom lines, different motivators, different things at stake. If you try to treat them all the same, or come at an issue from too abstract a perspective, you’ll have a lot of ‘splainin to do!
Richard Florida’s books have focused a lot of attention in recent years on the importance of “the creative class” in urban design and development. How influential have Florida’s ideas been? Do you agree with his ideas?
I think I’m safe to say that without Florida’s work, Calgary Arts Development wouldn’t exist right now. His books have had the effect of crystallizing a number of strands of thought about the importance of innovation/creativity/the arts as drivers of economic development (and more broadly, quality of life in cities). The criticism is that he’s only described the observable necessary conditions that appear to correlate with economic growth. There’s a huge, remaining question of “how do we get there from here?” Calgary Arts Development was created, almost literally, to help Calgary “get there.”
The danger for us in simplistically adopting a Floridian view is that Calgary, for example, will never be Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. I think there’s a tendency for “creative class” policy makers to see “creativity” as just another dimension for economic competition between cities. As was pointed out by Charles Landry at a recent Toronto conference, there’s no “ethical framework” to Florida’s work as it rolls out into policy. Is this whole thing about competing for the best and brightest so that we can grow our bank accounts? What about the places we steal people from? Calgary is “the biggest city in Saskatchewan.” Good for us, bad for them… This is a big challenge for people in my field (check out Landry’s latest book, The Art of City Making, for a start on it).
Calgary just celebrated its one-millionth citizen and it continues to boom economically. Where does it stack up against other Canadian and world cities with regard to its arts scene?
“Celebrated its one-millionth citizen” is an interesting phrase… This city is going through wrenching growth pains right now. Consider that in 1988, when Calgary hosted the Olympics, the population was around 650,000. In the ensuing 18 years, the city’s population has shown a net increase of 350,000, meaning that 50% of the people living here now have no memory of what some consider Calgary’s defining cultural moment, the ’88 Olympics.
The issue of “stacking up” against other cities is really difficult… by my observation, one million is a tipping point in the artistic growth in cities. At about a million, audiences begin to form niches such that sub-genres of artistic disciplines suddenly become viable. As these niches develop, demand for space grows, jobs for artists and supporting professions increase, ultimately driving growth of the arts scene faster than growth of the city. We’re already experiencing that in Calgary, with theatre of all kinds growing as fast as space will allow, attracting actors and artistic directors from all over the country. Other disciplines such as dance, puppetry, visual arts, and music are growing by leaps and bounds. (In my academic days, I would have called this “asset mass efficiencies.” I’d never call it that now…)
For a young, big-ish city, we stack up pretty well. Don’t be surprised when you start to hear about “The City Formerly Known as Cowtown.”!
Any particular Calgarian artists we should look out for?
Yes! Lots! I love them all equally and enthusiastically!
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any cities/organizations/people that you find especially inspiring?
I’m inspired by any example of greatness in the human story. It doesn’t matter, where, when or what the person was doing. Come to think about it, I’m not particularly fussed if humans aren’t involved!
The truth is I’m really inspired by the city I live in. We have a rich history filled with mavericks and leaders who aspired to change the world. And in 2006, I believe that Calgary (and Alberta for that matter) has the potential to be one of the leading sources of world-changing innovation. That’s my challenge to our municipal and provincial leaders: set the bar that high. We’ve got talent, dollars, entrepreneurial attitude, and hey, Calgary is the volunteer capital of Canada… so we’ve got an inclination toward benevolence. This place is, as Virginia Postrel puts it, a truly “fertile verge.”
When I get up every morning then, I’m working on helping this city realize its potential, which could just be to change the course of history… what could be more fun?!