UChicago Arts, Chicago Innovation Exchange co-sponsor new speaker series

Program explores how artists can bring innovation to businesses

Mary Abowd
News Officer for Arts & HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Theo Edmonds wants to banish the image of the starving artist. “Artists are powerful change-makers. Artists synthesize our world and show it or tell it back to us in new ways,” Edmonds said in a recent lecture at the Chicago Innovation Exchange.

Since co-founding the organization IDEAS xLab three years ago in Louisville, KY, Edmonds has been creating ways to empower artists to deploy their creativity in a variety of industries and work settings, from grassroots community organizations to corporate boardrooms.

Edmonds’ talk kicked off the Arts & Innovation speaker series, a new partnership between the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Chicago Innovation Exchange that explores possibilities for collaboration and reciprocity between the arts and business worlds. The series is funded by a generous donation from Evan Trent, AB,’02, MBA,’06.

“We are looking at arts professionals and/or innovators who are considering questions of both business and the arts,” said Leigh Fagin, associate director of University Arts Engagement, who co-created the series. “We were interested in a series that would not only suss out both significant trends and new business models, but more importantly, also highlight what lessons can be gained from these two fields and shared with others to change both the work and the way we work.” 

“We find it important to facilitate these conversations at the CIE,” said John Flavin, executive director of the Chicago Innovation Exchange. “Along with our partner, the Logan Center for the Arts, we are bringing more light to how the arts and innovation intersect to bring large-scale market and societal impact."

An artist and former health care executive, Edmonds said the modern economy demands the skills that artists possess—creativity, passion, character and a collaborative spirit. “Artist innovators,” as he calls them, have an important role to play in taking on contemporary challenges in health care, manufacturing, eCommerce and other sectors.

“Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it all together and make a difference,” Edmonds said. “[They] need artists, people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection, a new way of getting things done.”

Speaking to an audience composed of businesspeople, health care professionals and artists, Edmonds showcased several of his artist-led projects, many of them based in the predominately African American Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville, where he also lives. He also pointed to successful partnerships with corporations such as General Electric, recently hailed by the group Americans for the Arts as one of the top 10 best business and arts partnerships in the nation.

Edmonds is particularly interested in community health. His Healthy Days project takes on health and wellness in Smoketown, where he said life expectancy is “the same as someone living in Iraq” despite its proximity to the largest concentration of hospitals in the state. The project aims to create new ways of thinking about and measuring community health, utilizing artists to “help transform the relationship between corporations and communities,” he said.  

While on campus, Edmonds met with students and community organizations to explore the linkages and possible partnerships between Louisville and the South Side of Chicago.

“Theo Edmonds’ visit was the perfect kick-off to a series where we highlight the growing intersections between entrepreneurship and the arts,” said Tom Ancona, director of operations at the Chicago Innovation Exchange, who worked with Fagin to create the series. “The CIE is excited to explore how artistic thought and design influences innovative businesses, particularly startups, as the Arts & Innovation speaker series progresses.”

The Arts & Innovation Series continues this spring with the following events:

What the Business Community Can Learn from the Theater Community

5:30 p.m., Thursday, April 7

Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Theater East

Free, RSVP recommended

Representatives from local non-profit and for-profit Chicago theaters will share thoughts on their business models. They will discuss successes, failures, ongoing questions and important choices that have been instrumental in developing their work, and will offer some insight on how businesses can build community. Panelists will include David Schmitz of Steppenwolf Theatre, and Kelly Leonard and Monica Wilson from Second City. Moderated by Frank Sennett, director of digital strategy and custom media at Crain's Chicago Business.  

Survival of the Nimblest

5:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 4

Chicago Innovation Exchange

Free, RSVP recommended

Elizabeth W. Scott, J.D. '94, Lincoln Center's former chief media and digital officer and Major League Baseball's former vice president of programming and business affairs, will offer an overview of the cultural and consumer trends that are upending what cultural organizations have long taken for granted. Focusing on the role of digital content in today's "attention economy" and "participation economy," Scott will discuss the creative and business opportunities presented in this fast-changing landscape. 

For more information, visit cie.uchicago.edu.