Learning With Experts: Kristina Newman-Scott
In this issue of Learning with Experts, we invited Kristina Newman-Scott—President of BRIC—to discuss her experience driving institutional advancement through periods of uncertainty. By exposing the limits of traditional strategic planning processes, we reveal the hidden value of institutional frameworks that respond to emergent challenges in real time. Together, we offer strategies to support cultural workers in tapping into their own instincts and creativity, and discuss the risks and rewards of fostering more transparent work environments.
Nico Wheadon: In general terms, how does the ideal of perfectionism resonate with you, both personally and professionally?
Kristina Newman Scott: Well, first of all, the idea of “perfection” is just so subjective. Parents always say, “my child is perfect!” But we all know they’re lying, right? There’s no such thing as the perfect child, just as there’s no such thing as the perfect parent. In my work, I try very hard to not set out with preconceived notions about where I want my work to go. I know what it looks like. I love bringing people together with me to get there. But I do not want to be formulaic about the middle. That allows people to bring their full selves to building the space that gets you from A to B.
I’ve always felt so physically and mentally uncomfortable with boundaries, walls and parameters. I think that the notion of perfectionism—and especially the Eurocentric notion of perfectionism—is something that’s inherently anti-Black and anti-Brown. As a leader, I try to resist perfectionism, even though it does bubble up.
NW: So, as a leader, you embrace—and encourage your team to embrace—failure?
KNS: Totally. I read an article yesterday that said, stand back and stay out of the way. Great leaders have had to solve challenges and great leaders don’t hover. They don’t helicopter—they create space. You have to be able to fail and get back up and try again.
Madison McFerrin performing as part of the 2020 BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival virtual event.
NW: What were some failures or challenges you experienced while developing and implementing BRIC’s strategic plan amidst a global pandemic? Did the urgency of the situation allow you to ditch outdated modes of working that no longer served the institution?
KNS: Through the early part of the COVID shutdown, we were processing a lot of trauma. One challenge was BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, which is, like, 42 years-old and has happened every single year since it started: we’re talking about 6,000 to 10,000 people a night in Prospect Park over 29 nights. Every summer. And here I come as the new leader amidst COVID-19, and guess what’s not going to happen that year, on my watch? It was very scary!
Rather than living in fear, we all came together to imagine how to translate the energy of the festival into virtual form, which was not an easy feat. But we stepped back and really thought about how—knowing it’s not going to be the same—we could make the festival even more special? The question became, how do we seize the opportunity to share the beauty of this Brooklyn festival with the world? Marketing, performing arts, development, production—all departments came together and created a new model.
Madison McFerrin’s performance in the middle of the desert is one of the most beautiful virtual performances I’ve seen because it made me feel like I was there with her—it really pulled you in. We also did a Roy Ayers tribute with Brooklyn musicians performing from their living rooms and rooftops. And imagine—where we would have previously reached 200,000 in the old model, we were able to reach 5 million people in over 30 countries online. This is a great example of, let’s not try to recreate the perfection of what the thing was.
NW: As you were describing the impact McFerrin’s virtual performance had on you, I was reminded of something author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown shared on Instagram last week. She stated, “i want to give deep gratitude to the creators and entertainers who are essential to my survival in ways i don’t think i ever fully understood before. thank you to all the people who make excellent things for screens.” Such a simple thought, yet necessary acknowledgement of the power of creativity to help us transcend our circumstances. This is also a core tenant of BRIC’s mission, so can you talk about what advocacy for content creators looks like for BRIC in this moment?
KNS: That’s so real. When we closed BRIC, I called our chief curator to say, instead of leaving the show when no one can see it, let’s deinstall it and create studio space for artists and residents displaced by the pandemic. So, while we are still closed to the public, artist’s are invited to safely make use of our spaces.
Miguel Luciano, Ride of Die, 2017. Exhibition presented by BRIC. Installation photo by Jason Wyche.
NW: That’s amazing! How did your team respond to this pretty drastic programmatic and operational shift? What did you do to support them in leaning into that moment?
KNS: I really just reinforced that it is okay to try things and fail, and that I have their back! I’m asking for all of us to try something new, to build a new muscle—if we can’t do it now, when will we ever do it? That made a lot of people who hold onto what they know tightly, nervous! Because what they know anchors them. So I’ve just tried to be really mindful about listening and responding to how my folks work, and encouraging my executive leadership to do the same. And, if we do fail, we post-mortem it.
I think nonprofits should remember that the root cause of much of our work is to support the creative process and practice.If we become too restrictive, formulaic, and neat and tidy, we are actually in conflict with our mission and reason for being. Stasis over creativity, vulnerability, flexibility—all of the abilities—is a problem.
NW: You just named what I think of as the biggest challenge facing nonprofits today—risk. They are so damn risk-averse! So often, these cultural institutions ask their artists and communities to take enormous risks, while playing it safe behind the veil. So, in your opinion, what would it take for more cultural institutions to develop (and implement) strategic frameworks that shift alongside us in real time?
KNS: Well, I think that using a human centered design methodology is what allows BRIC to go from a strategic discussion to being action oriented. Because at the end of the day, when you use that approach, you’re really just listening to the people that you support and care about, and asking them what the hell they need and want.
I spent my first year at BRIC working on our new manifesto and strategic plan that focuses on using a human-centered design methodology and articulating a behavioral compass.
We have a “One BRIC” methodology now, which is a way of talking about our work that brings us together and allows us to deploy our collective wisdom and action towards shared goals. Our values statement states, “Rooted in Brooklyn, and reaching out to the world, BRIC is guided by our commitment to creative risk-taking and a definition of excellence that values creators and communities that are under-recognized in the cultural sector. We operate with integrity, inclusivity, and a commitment to equity. We listen and respond to our communities, ensure that our spaces allow all people to feel welcome and free, and support people with the unique resources they need to thrive.” In it, we also discuss definitions of excellence which is something that is a challenge in the contemporary art world! Our language is so coded, what does excellence and rigor actually mean?
Shaun Leonardo performing The Eulogy at BRIC House (2016). Photo by Angelys Ocana.
NW: In what you describe, I also hear a commitment to institutional accountability. That perhaps “perfection” relates less to work product and more to work process. Perfection can then be treated as a measure of an institution’s ability to translate what it learns from its community and environment into a relevant action plan!
KNS: Totally. We are accountable to deliver. Our manifesto is an action plan, and our action plan is a living, breathing process. It has fundamentally shifted how we work at BRIC. As we say in Jamaica, you have to learn to dance ah yaad before you dance abroad! We can’t go to artists and say, “be your most creative, take risks, do it! We’ll be right here watching you.” We can’t do that, we have to start with ourselves. Operations are like a six-pack—you have to have a strong core.
NW: Ha—that’s great! So what does One BRIC look like on an operational level?
KNS: Well, we now have a cross disciplinary curatorial committee. This means that we’ve moved away from thinking about things in a vacuum or silo, and instead have all these amazing different skill sets on the production and programmatic teams, including people from visual arts, media, education, lighting and sound, IT, marketing and performing arts. They’re all bringing wisdom to the table that each other can benefit from.
On a leadership level, it’s about changing policy and practice to ensure that this type of approach is sustainable. It’s not just an exercise—it needs to be a shift in infrastructure that’s everlasting. And that’s what excites me, because I believe many nonprofits have lost their way. They’re not prioritizing the right things. We are here to be of service to artists and creators. And if that is our true calling, why are we helicopter leading and getting in the way?
NW: In that, I hear a call to invert some serious hierarchies, and grant our communities, artistic or otherwise, a real seat at the table. Is that something you think most cultural institutions are ready for? How does destabilizing hierarchy also destabilize outdated notions of perfection?
KNS: During COVID, I’ve been scheduling calls with the amazing artists who we’ve worked with at BRIC to ask them, where have we gone wrong? Where did we go right? How could we better support you? And I’ve gotten such critical information from artists Miguel Luciano, Nicole Awai, David Antonio Cruz, and Shaun Leonardo, to name a few, that will help us to continue to shift how we support artists and creators. And, let me tell you, we just need to shut up and listen! When it comes to grant writing, I think we need to do that in harmony and partnership with artists, in support of what artists actually want to do. I want real, long-term relationships and genuine collaboration. Sometimes I think people actually believe the hype that artists need us more than we need them.
NW: And what about the non-artist communities that you serve? Do they have a seat at the table, and what have you learned from them in terms of what they want and expect from a relationship with BRIC?
KNS: BRIC has a long history of working with our community. One of our longstanding initiatives is called the ICAC or Intergenerational Community Arts Council, which is a multi-generational team of residents and program partners who have joined together to chart the course for sustainable, values-driven arts programming designed by and for community members. It’s really a FUBU methodology that prioritizes partnering with artists, residents and community based organizations on initiatives that are really meaningful to the community. What we have found is that there is a deep interest in feeling a sense of belonging here. I’ve learned a lot from the ICAC over the past two years, and now we are discussing ways to make that work even more meaningful and integrated.
I’m only interested in deeply-rooted change. And the thing that is uncomfortable about that is that it can be messy, and physically and emotionally exhausting. It’s lifelong work and hard work and the truth is that it would be a lot easier to be a leader that would just want to continue with the status quo. (Sometimes I wish I could just be that leader.) But I’ve been given the great opportunity to lead the phenomenal organization that is BRIC. And I can’t do anything else but be me.
Kristina Newman-Scott serves as President of BRIC, a leading arts and media institution anchored in Downtown Brooklyn, whose work spans contemporary visual and performing arts, media, and civic action. She is the first immigrant and first woman of color to serve in this position and one of a very few women of color leading a major New York cultural institution.
Under her tenure, BRIC embarked on an ambitious human-centered process in the pursuit of clarity of purpose that took the form of a new four-year Strategic Plan. That process led to a rearticulated mission—informed by the institution’s impact and legacy—and a newly articulated vision statement. In addition, she led a renewed commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusivity in every aspect of the organization.
Previously, Newman-Scott served as the Director of Culture and State Historic Preservation Officer for the State of Connecticut; Director of Marketing, Events, and Cultural Affairs for the City of Hartford; Director of Programs at the Boston Center for the Arts; and Director of Visual Arts at Hartford’s Real Art Ways.
Ms. Newman-Scott’s awards and recognitions include being named one of the Observer’s 2020 Arts Power 50, A Hive Global Leadership Selectee, and a Next City Urban Vanguard. In June 2018, Americans for the Arts presented Kristina with the Selina Roberts Ottum Award, which recognizes an individual working in arts management who exemplifies extraordinary leadership qualities.
A TEDx speaker, guest lecturer, and visiting curator, Kristina currently serves on the Boards of the New England Foundation for the Arts, National Arts Strategies, New Yorkers for Culture and Arts, and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. She resides in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.
Nico Wheadon is an independent art advisor, curator, educator, and writer. She is also founder and principal of bldg fund, LLC, an innovation platform for BIPOC artists, entrepreneurs, and neighbors. Nico currently serves on the Board of Governors at the National Academy of Design, and the Advisory Board for the Lubin School of Business.
An adjunct assistant professor at Brown University, Barnard College, and Hartford Art School, she has also guest lectured internationally on topics including: the future of museums; art and entrepreneurship; navigating risk in the nonprofit industrial complex; and building artist-led institutions. In 2020, she was appointed as a Guide at The Institute of Possibility.
Nico’s first manuscript—On Museum Citizenship: A Toolkit for Radical Art Pedagogy, Practice & Participation—is slated for publication in Spring 2021. The book brings together over forty pioneering voices from the field to reflect on canon-shifting practices currently taking place within, beyond, and through the museum space.
In recent posts, Wheadon served as Inaugural Executive Director of NXTHVN (2019–2020); Inaugural Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2014–2019); and Curatorial Director of Rush Arts Gallery (2007–2010). She holds an MA in Creative & Cultural Entrepreneurship from Goldsmith’s College University of London (2011), and a BA in Art-Semiotics from Brown University (2006).