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Imagination Conversations
By Scott Noppe-Brandon
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Love of the arts has guided and inspired me my whole life. I was a dancer before I was an executive: I breathed and lived the arts. They have, in large part, made me the individual that I am. Through the prism of arts I have viewed the world; by using the arts as my foundation of understanding I have approached the people in my life and taught my children.

At Lincoln Center Institute, which is a part of Lincoln Center, my love of the arts is shared across the board, from staff to leaders of Lincoln Center’s affiliate organizations. As well, we all share the understanding of the mission and importance of the arts in the lives of all.

“Scott,” you say, “you’ve got a terrific job and we’re jealous. But what is your point?” The point is that I have always believed that the arts—or art for art’s sake, if you will—are a blessing in and of themselves: an extraordinary expression of humanity that has a transformative ability within our society and allows us, people from vastly different traditions across the globe, to meet and to share our cultural aesthetic in peace. Unlike most other attempts at sharing, the arts do not require commonality; on the contrary, we can practically revel in the joy of our artistic differences—the only requirement is an open mind.

A rich and self-sufficient treasure then, I thought. But I have had to revise my thinking. I did not change one iota of my belief, but I’ve had to add new elements to it. And this is fitting because the world keeps adding new elements to the way it turns. The arts will always be an unequalled educational experience: I refuse to accept an America in which the arts do not have a strong presence in every classroom. But the scope of that vision has widened. The arts now have to be part and parcel of educational preparation for college and, above all, for the workforce. It isn’t as strange a statement as it may seem. Numeracy and literacy do not exist in a vacuum either; we teach them with the hope of forming young people who will be productive and successful citizens, much as we teach civics with the hope that they will be conscientious members of a democracy. The arts—I insist—must be part of that education; it is therefore logical that they, too, should contribute to the fulfillment of these goals. For educators, this has become a matter of relevance.

As I have stated in this column before, at Lincoln Center Institute we have connected the arts to Imagination— Imagination with a capital I—a skill that can and must be taught, nurtured and developed in classrooms. We have built a rigorous methodology around this concept, “teaching and learning for imagination in aesthetic education.” The arts are a natural portal into imagination, its product and its fuel. Imagination is, in turn, the fuel of creativity and innovation, essential components of a résumé in this century. Global society has reached a plateau in the way it conducts its political and economic existence; our recent economic doldrums underscore that. If we are to take the necessary step forward, we sorely need to visualize new possibilities—we need an active, productive, result-oriented imagination in the workforce, in leadership, among policy makers, and, of course, in education: that is where it all starts.

These are no longer merely my ideas, nourished by the words of philosophers who have informed my thinking. They are a call to action sounded by think tanks and leading economists, such as Michael Porter, director of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard University. Imagination is also at the heart of the current educational discussion. The Center on Education Policy, Conference Board, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, National Governors Association, and National Center of Education and the Economy all cite imagination as a fundamental skill for individuals and countries competing in the global economy. The business world is focused on innovation: not haphazard innovation, but innovation that is data-driven, effective, and inspired by well-conceived plans—and that kind of preparation and focus, once again, starts in the classroom. Prominent authors, such as Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, Kieran Egan, Malcolm Gladwell, and growing numbers of business and social venture authors are also addressing the issue with urgency.

Lincoln Center Institute is contributing to the discussion with several ambitious projects designed to bring a cornucopia of ideas concerning the propagation of the imagination to educators (and others) across the country. One project is 50 Imagination Conversations; the idea is to hold a Conversation in each of the 50 states over the next two years, culminating in America’s Imagination Summit in spring 2011.

An Imagination Conversation is a forum where individuals from different spheres of occupation talk about the role of imagination in their lives. It is the diversity of experiences that brings excitement, and sometimes veritable epiphanies, to these gatherings. The Conversations provide us with practical, specific examples of how imagination may be further articulated as a subject that is taught in classrooms and developed in students; their larger purpose is to teach us how imagination may serve all areas of human endeavor. So far, the spectrum of viewpoints has been amazing: we’ve had an executive vice president of Starbucks, the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera, a theater director, a craniofacial/pediatric plastic surgeon, the executive director of Urban Justice Center in New York, a dyslexic who learned to read at age 11 only to become a writer … picture these events!

Another important project in support of the imagination is the book that author Eric Liu and I co-wrote, “Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility,” which takes the premise into the world beyond the classroom. At the heart of “Imagination First” is a set of universal practices with which successful professionals, including corporate executives, scientists, teachers, artists, a platoon sergeant and others utilize imagination in their work. For them, imagination is not an abstraction reserved for off time; it is a creative habit they rely on as a matter of course. “Imagination First” is a field guide for all those who wish to use it as such, to get unstuck, to reframe challenges, to practice possibilities at any scale and in any sector.

The first New York Imagination Conversation, on October 8, will celebrate the launch of the book. Perhaps you’d like to join us at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts—and perhaps you’d like to be a panelist on a Conversation. Find out more on http://imaginationfirst.com and http://imaginationconversation.org.#

Scott Noppe-Brandon is executive director of the Lincoln Center Institute.



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