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Julia Kaganskiy: Navigating the Unknown

About this talk

As director of arts and technology incubator NEW INC, Julia Kaganskiy helps creatives and makers navigate everything from cultural shifts to financial challenges. Through it all, she’s developed a framework to navigate the unknowns in the creative career, without losing confidence in your ideas.

Julia Kaganskiy, Director, NEW INC at New Museum

Julia Kaganskiy is a cultural producer across art and technology. She previously served as global editor of the Creators Project, a partnership between VICE Media Group and Intel. In 2010, she founded #ArtsTech Meetup, an initiative that brings together digital artists and professionals from New York’s museums, galleries, and art-related start-ups.

Kaganskiy has been profiled in the AOL/PBS series ‘MAKERS’, named in Crain’s New York Business’s ’40 Under 40′ list for 2015, and cited by Fast Company (2011) and Business Insider (2013) as one of the most influential women in technology.

Full Transcript

Good morning. So. I don’t know about you but I’m someone who likes to have a plan and make elaborate to do lists. I plan out what I’m going to wear. What I’m going to do. What I’m going to say. I like being prepared. I like knowing what to expect. I like having a destination in mind and moving towards a milestone.

When I was putting this talk together I realized that this tendency probably comes from being a bit of a control freak so maybe talking about navigating the unknown isn’t the best for me because I hate not knowing. It kills me. But despite this tendency to try and plan and control everything in my environment, I learned pretty early on that that is a surefire way to invite pain and misery into your life.

So, my motto is more akin to this. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. No matter how much you plan, things probably will not go according to plan. So, you know, I like to imagine the worst case scenario and work from there. When I was growing up I wanted to be a writer. A magazine journalist to be exact. And I pursued this goal from about the age of 12 with a level of zeal, one might even say obsession, that I still don’t fully understand. Like many aspiring writers I was editor of my high school newspaper. I took writing classes at Vassar and journalism classes at NYU during summers. I was a huge nerd. I joined music magazine as a freshman in high school where I worked all throughout high school and college. I basically wanted to be the kid from Almost Famous. And you know I did all the things I thought you were supposed to do.

You know the internships, the freelance pitching, got good grades. All of that. But by the time I graduated, the Internet was radically transforming publishing. It was the time of the recession, right. So many of the newspapers and magazines that I admired were shedding staff or shutting down altogether. People were calling it ‘the death of print’ which in retrospect feels pretty melodramatic, but at the time it felt like this carefully crafted life plan that I had been pursuing no longer seemed viable. And I had grown up with this idea that, you know, if you work really hard and follow the rules you can be anything that you want to be. But things still don’t work out the way that I had planned.

And I think this is a common experience for people of my generation. You know, we joined the workforce around the time of the recession and we found that the rules that we had been taught no longer seemed to apply. They were being disrupted. And so where did that leave us. And it should have been a time of despair. But, somehow I found it liberating. There was something kind of thrilling about operating in a space that wasn’t predefined. There was a sense of openness of possibility of boundlessness that I was really drawn to and I liked the idea of being able to experiment and make things up as you went along because no wrong answers, right?

And ever since then I’ve been drawn to opportunities and spaces where I would have the opportunity to experiment and build something new, which for most of my career has been working at this intersection of art and technology where I’ve worked as a writer and an editor, as a freelance curator, as a digital media producer. And every job I’ve ever had didn’t exist before I got there. So, it was really a chance to venture into the unknown and learn by doing.

Which is how, several years ago, I came to be the director of NEW INK which is an art design and technology incubator founded by the New Museum. Now, the museum itself was a radical experiment in what a museum could and should be. It was founded by a curator named Marcia Tucker in 1977, after Marcia was fired from the Whitney. She was fired for showing work of artists like Bruce Nauman, Lee Krasner, and Richard Tuttle whose work you see here that was, you know, far too conceptual and too minimalist for many audiences and visitors and critics to stomach. This was actually the review that cost Marcia her job.

And like many Avant-Garde works, right, it was seen as scandalous as obscene at the time and ultimately kind of found its way into the canon.

And at the New Museum, Marcia wanted to give contemporary artists the same treatment that more established artists received, you know, a space where their work could be presented, studied, and interpreted. She also wanted to challenge notions of aesthetics and she curated some controversial shows like one called Bad Painting, which is seen here which looked at notions of taste and featured some world class bad art. The museum’s mission is “new art, new ideas”. And throughout its 40 year history, it’s been a trailblazing risk-taking institution in part due to its upstart nature and future leaning focus. So, it was fitting that in 2014 the museum would be the first to start an incubator program. Now I’m sure many of you are sitting here thinking, “What the hell does an incubator have to do with a museum. Isn’t that for startups in Silicon Valley.

And the answer is yes and no. We wanted to create a new kind of incubator. We felt that there was a space for projects that were too entrepreneurial for a typical artist residency and not entrepreneurial enough for many tech incubator and accelerator spaces. So we wanted to create something that would fill that gap and we felt deep in our gut that this needed to exist, but we didn’t know exactly what it would look like.

We knew that today’s creatives are more entrepreneurial than ever before. In part, this is because you have the chance to bypass gatekeepers, manage your own production and distribution, connect with audiences directly. You can quit your day jobs and start your own practice, build a business, crowd fund a project and so forth.

But this shift is also happening in part because we’re living in the time of the sharing economy, the gig economy, whatever you want to call it right. Where you are full time jobs are being replaced by permalance positions and roughly 50 percent of the workforce is freelance. And so for many of the artists and designers who we knew who were going out on their own and building their own company, very few of them felt like they had anywhere to turn to get business advice, ask challenging questions about contracts or how to manage teams or how to build a social media presence right. And there seemed to be incubators for just about every industry fashion, product design, health, food but not one for the Arts.

And we knew that this would require a different model, a reinvention of what an incubator is and what we think of right. Because you can’t just take the TechStars playbook and apply it to creative businesses. We have completely different motivations, values, and definitions of success. We’re not necessarily trying to be the next Google or Facebook or maybe trying to be the next Stefan Sagmeister or Björk or Olafur Eliasson, or whoever you want to be right. We’re not necessarily trying to build the most valuable company in the world or the most profitable company in the world. We want to make meaningful work and still be able to pay rent on time.

So, we started with a number of core principles that informed this thinking. One is that interdisciplinary collaboration produces more interesting and innovative ideas.

So we believe that bringing different modes of thinking and working into contact with one another is the best and surest way to produce new ideas. And we also want to acknowledge that today’s creatives are more multidisciplinary than ever before and they often move fluidly between different disciplines and industries.

We also believe that diverse networks are more generative and resilient. We wanted this space to be inclusive and representative of all of the different voices and perspectives that we have here in New York City. And we felt that, by bringing different communities into contact with one another and forging relationships between them, they all collectively become stronger through those relationships and bonds.

We also don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all definition of success. It’s not all about how much money you raised or how big you got. We believe that an individual artist or the budding design studio or the young nonprofit or the creative startup that has venture funding these are all valid and they all make up a creative ecosystem that is the creative industry, right.

And we wanted to maximize cultural value not just capital value because at the end of the day money shouldn’t be the only metric we’re interested in building a thriving creative sector and that includes new modes of culture and creative expression and bringing new models of sustainability.

But we didn’t know exactly how to do that right. We had observations about what was missing. We had some ideas. We started putting them into action and we learned adjusted adapted and basically would repeat the process all over again, which I later learned is pretty much what Lean LaunchPad and Design Thinking teach. Now they’re kind of part of our curriculum.

In the months leading up to the incubator launch I had these frantic feverish streams about what it would be like just kind of all set in this rendered space, because there were so many unknown unknowns we didn’t even know what the challenges would be. So, we kind of had to just jump in and learn by doing right.

After almost a year of planning we opened the incubator in September of 2014 with a community of about 60 members. They were a mix of artists, designers, creative technologists, and startups working in fields like interactive architecture, virtual reality, spatial sound design, 3D printing. Much like us, these people were trying to create something new. They were combining disparate skill sets with working with new tools and techniques, experimenting and searching for a market and an audience for their ambitious ideas. The purpose of the incubator was to support them on this journey, to provide them with mentorship, with professional development opportunities, with a support system. But, we didn’t exactly know what that meant yet. We were learning as we went. So, in essence we were a startup incubating startups and we were kind of all in this together.

And some of these folks didn’t even know if they were artists or design studios or startups. Some of them were kind of all three. Like this example this is Adam Harvey. He’s an artist who creates counter surveillance products like this anti-drone hijab, which you can purchase on his Shopify at the Privacy Gift Shop on his website or via some of the galleries that he works with. Or people like James George, who’s the founder of an experimental media company called Scatter and they make this volumetric filmmaking tool kit called Depth Kit, which they use to create their own award-winning VR short films, but are also releasing as a product. Or people like Charles Philipp and Amanda Schochet who are creators of MICRO museums. They’re these tiny science museums like this one on mollusks that they are placing into schools, into waiting rooms, into lobbies.

And like these examples all of the businesses that have come out of NEW INK are smart, interesting, wonderful, and a little bit weird. Like NEW INK itself, they occupy this ambiguous space that is hard to define because it’s located in this gray area between different industries, with vastly different expectations, modes of working, and world views. But in combining unlikely things and going against the norm, they’re inventing something new. They’re innovating. And where right there alongside them in the same trenches, trying to figure out how to provide an infrastructure to support these wildly new ideas and make them viable and self sustainable.

And so anyone who is familiar with either the creative process or the entrepreneurial process and I can attest that they are far more similar than we’re typically led to believe, knows what a tumultuous emotional, vulnerable experience it is. You are blazing a new path, venturing into the unknown. You have to clear the path before you go. And not only that, you also have to convince other people to follow you down this path and you’re not even sure if it’s the right path or where it’s going to lead exactly. So, it’s that much harder. And some days you’re kind of on top of the world. You’re overflowing with ideas and excitement about the possibilities. And other days, you’re in the depths of despair because you faced countless rejections. Your bank account is dwindling. You hate everything you’ve ever done and you’re seriously questioning your life choices. Anyone? Okay.

And this emotional roller coaster is something that I’ve witnessed the creative entrepreneurs and artists and designers at New Ink go through and it’s one that I ride myself all the time. Because, you know, at NEW INK there is a constant cycle of ups and downs. When, you know, I am confident that we are building something like amazing and other times when I’m questioning what we’re doing and why, right. There’s a lot of what we’re doing that defies convention.

So let’s look at these core principles. They sound really good in theory but what they mean in practice is that we’re making things really hard on ourselves.Because interdisciplinarity means that everyone’s way of working requires different tools, different expertise, different work environments. Diversity means that we have to proactively build bridges, and forge bonds, build relationships, create common values between people with different backgrounds, and try and make a productive environment where we can all not kill each other as we share a fridge for a year, you know. Not having one definition of success means that we don’t have clear metrics for success, and that myself and my staff are often spreading ourselves thin trying to provide adequate resources for everyone’s individual success plan. And maximizing cultural value over capital value means that we’re seen as an oddity by venture capitalists and philanthropists alike. Nevertheless, like, I still believe in these core principles and whenever I question them I come back to them with new conviction because, ultimately, I feel like these are the right principles for the new environment that we’re in and we’re creating something that maybe is harder but is ultimately necessary.

So, three years in we’re still experimenting. We’re still learning and it’s a little bit uncomfortable to say that we don’t have all of the answers. We’re still in the discovery process because especially when you’re attached with a company or an institution, you know, there is this air of authority, of infallibility. There’s kind of an unspoken pressure to succeed, because although – while we might acknowledge the importance of taking risks – nobody really likes to acknowledge the possibility of failure. So, doing anything truly new requires getting comfortable with uncertainty. The process of discovery is one that means that you don’t know what the outcomes are before you start. And that’s really what we’re doing and what everyone at NEW INK is doing. So I’m still in the thick of it but I can share with you some of the things that have helped me navigate this and that I often share with our community.

The first is to start with ‘why’. Getting clear on what you’re doing, what your values are, what motivates you, what is driving this work is fundamental. It’s the most important thing, because no matter what happens you’re going to need to come back to these core principles and really understand what is motivating this work.

Find your tribe. This can be a really isolating and lonely process and finding your tribe is important, not just that you have a support network, but that so you have a community of peers to have a sounding board, to have collaborators, and also to not feel like you are in this alone because you’re not.

Make a plan. Imagine where you’re trying to get to or what you’re trying to build with as much specificity as possible and then start to work your way backwards. What steps can you take to ultimately reach that destination? How small can you break down these steps into the most bite-sized pieces imaginable? But no matter how detailed your plan is, be ready to learn and adapt because inevitably, things will not go according to plan. You will discover things. You will face challenges. You will discover new possibilities along the way and they may alter your course altogether, which is why it’s important to know why you’re doing this so that you can make these decisions when things start to get complicated.

And this is also why I think it’s important to focus on process versus the end result. Because the end result can also shift as you go through this process of discovery. But knowing what the hypothesis is, how you’re evaluating success, what things that you’re planning for, this is something that you can define and control and name.

And finally, as challenges arise and they inevitably will, approach them with honesty about what’s working and what isn’t working. And with compassion for yourself and for everyone around you and for the circumstances knowing that it’s OK it’s not perfect and maintaining a level of curiosity because curiosity is ultimately what’s going to help you continue to try, to continue to experiment, and try and find the ultimate answer.

So we’re getting ready for our fourth year of NEW INK and it’s going to be the best one yet. Very excited in the planning process. And, you know, no matter what unforeseen challenges we might face, it’s been an incredible journey and learning opportunity for myself and for everyone who’s been affiliated with the program. A member once told me he thought of NEW INK like the art and technology version of Dr. Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, which I really love because now this is something that I kind of take comfort in when I’m having a really tough day and things aren’t going according to plan.

Because ultimately, you know, the unconventional road is never easy but it’s ultimately more rewarding. And you, know what, the hell is the metric of success for incubating mutant superheroes anyway?

Anyway, thank you.

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