Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: A Right-Brain Celebration

I was privileged to be invited to the Hallmark Creative Leadership Symposium this spring at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Early in the morning, from my mezzanine perch I observed as over 500 anticipative creative staff members of Hallmark Cards left coffee in the lobby to enter Helzberg Hall, and I was instantly aware that this would be more than a day away from the office! The stage was bare, save for a podium (and, as I was soon to realize, some well-hidden teleprompters).

Then began a nine-hour day focused on creativity that went by in an instant. One after another, with great energy and “Ted Talk” precision, highly successful celebrities in their creative fields commanded our attention. They told their stories of essential failures, successes and lessons learned. There were corporate superstars from Starbucks and Patagonia, who are challenged daily to create stories that speak to far-flung markets. Gemma O’Brien told how as a very young law school dropout she revolutionized lettering art by basically breaking all the rules. The screenwriter for “Hidden Figures,” through having observed her highly creative grandparents’ careers at NASA, was able to successfully translate the imaginative mathematical applications that carried the Academy Award-nominated movie.

There were bloggers, authors and a one-man band by the name of Eems, who defies description. He’s local, so keep an eye out! Lisa Congdon, consultant to MoMA, Harvard University and Martha Stewart, described creating as a “messy process,” to the hearty agreement of everyone in the room. We met Jeremy Collins, originally from Kansas City, an extraordinary rock climber, filmmaker and artist, and we watched his moving film, “Drawn,” honoring a fallen climber and friend.

Kwame Alexander, children’s author, explained his power to reach and inspire others as a nearly compulsive need to say “yes” — requiring fast creativity to make the impossible happen. What I heard repeatedly that day: “I was pushed to pursue a more practical profession,” “Arts have the power to do good in the world,” “By simply opening my mind I saw something no-one else had,” and over and over “I am so right-brained.”

Let’s review: The right hemisphere of the brain is where music, emotions, color, images and intuition originate, while language, logic, critical thinking, numbers and reasoning come from the left hemisphere. By the way, the differences between people have to do with the extent to which one side develops in relation to the other.

As rapid-paced changes in the marketplace continue, businesses increasingly realize the bottom-line advantage of employees who possess right-brain attributes.

Hallmark President, David Hall, in closing, urged this charged-up crowd to go find the space they need to create with abandon because that is the company’s top priority — and the crowd roared with appreciation. It is hard to imagine a product more dependent on right-brained people than a greeting card, and so, to paraphrase the Hallmark motto, “When you care enough to send the very best, it must be created by the very best.” The goose that lays the golden eggs must be fed, and in this case that means salaries, benefits and lavish professional development days at the Kauffman. Not surprisingly, the average staff tenure at Hallmark is a very long 18 years.

Ann Willoughby, founder of Willoughby Design and international corporate consultant, explained to me that nurturing and feeding the right-brain “creatives” in all sorts of large corporations is a growing national challenge. As marketplace changes come about more and more rapidly, dynamic innovations are required. Willoughby said, “Creative souls don’t thrive under the constraints of left-brain obligations, such as budget meetings and reports. They have to be nurtured and provided the right environment. When a good idea meets a critic with a spreadsheet, creativity is often squandered.”

I was reminded of Steve Jobs, who often spoke of the equal necessity of creativity and technological training to the phenomenal success of Apple Computers — which inspired a call to our hometown tech behemoth, Garmin Industries. Garmin employs more than 4,000 people locally and more than 10,000 worldwide. Brian Brooker, vice president of Creative and Communications, graciously met me for coffee on his way to the office, and he was dressed for tech — jeans, T-shirt, tennies and a fashionable but gigantic black wristwatch, A Garmin fēnix, which performs a perfectly astounding array of functions.

You remember Garmin, don’t you — that thing we all bought for our cars in the 2000s? In its short history, Garmin has robustly diversified GPS technology into products for the aviation, marine, automotive, cellular, outdoor recreation and fitness markets, with approximately 60 percent of their business in the United States and 40 percent overseas. This didn’t happen without a balance of left and right gray matter! From their headquarters in Olathe, Kansas, where a job description is apt to read, “Now seeking: Dreamers,” the company starts with a simple inspiration — to make great products that fuel people’s passions. Employees work in teams to develop new products, so that the biggest ideas of what’s possible technologically meet up with market realities of how and for whom new products will be revolutionary. They actually hire pilots, endurance athletes, snowboarders and the like in order to keep connected to their markets.

Brooker attributes Garmin’s high employee retention to shared goals, superior benefits and a great work-life balance, but also to a deliberate atmosphere of open-mindedness, positive reinforcement, passion, collaboration and kindness — all so conducive to creativity.

As rapid-paced changes in the marketplace continue, businesses increasingly realize the bottom-line advantage of employees who possess right-brain attributes. Their ability to visualize and imagine makes for a nimble operation. You might ask how successfully corporations are able to recruit this talent. Are our societal and educational systems themselves changing to accommodate work force needs? That is the question I’ll address in the next edition of “KC Studio.” Stay tuned, my friends.

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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