A recurring theme at this year’s Arts Presenters conference in New York was boundary crossing. Artists and arts organizations were celebrated for dancing with unexpected partners — city planners, farmers, inner-city kids, health professionals. Other speakers encouraged such new connections and new commitments to becoming relevant to communities in non-traditional ways.
There was also much talk about silos, about the insular structures of deep experts in arts organizations, in higher education, in scientific knowledge. Here, again, the call arose frequently to find or build partnerships between such silos, to rethink them in more open, more engaged, and more collaborative ways.
Some suggested we get rid of the silos altogether, which didn’t quite make sense to me. Our world demands deep expertise, and tightly connected communities of really smart people who explore a common terrain. That’s a silo. And without a silo, at least some of the time, we don’t get the obscenely focused training, learning, and inquiry that’s necessary for complex and challenging problems. We need to rethink and redesign silos, of course. But eliminate them? No.
All of which led me to invent a new word (I think I invented it, haven’t found it elsewhere). Because we can’t entirely dissolve silos, we need people who are exceptional at working across and among them.
I call them ‘edge-perts‘: Masters of crossing boundaries of deep expertise. Experts of the edges.
I’ll admit that my new word didn’t get unanimous praise. My students thought it was pretty stupid as a word, but pretty good as a concept. But whether you like it or not as a pseudoword, it’s worth exploring what it might mean.
Often, artists and arts organizations are uniquely positioned to be edge-perts in their community. They’re used to working across deep functional expertise (the stage technician, the acoustician, the lighting designer, the professional musician, the dramaturg, the accountant, and so on). And they work in a field that’s designed to connect dissimilar thoughts and insights into a new whole. But increasingly, their scope of boundary spanning isn’t nearly wide enough, and their missions and skills keep them disconnected.
How would we find, foster, and develop edge-pertise? How might we stretch the current capacity of artists and arts leaders to encompass even more experts — in agriculture, policy, science, health, education, the environment? And how do we protect the deep focus and occasional isolation required of exceptional creative work while also extending its reach and enriching its connectedness?
Figure it out. Let me know. Edge-perts of the world, unite (and then disburse).