After a hundred informative initial conversations with arts and social innovation leaders, Upstart Co-Lab developed a long list of potential projects and activities. We are currently developing full strategies and action plans for the most promising projects.



Many of these proposed projects adapt an existing model from elsewhere in the social sector to the arts—for example, the popular Social Capitalist Awards that from 2003–2008 socialized the idea of the social entrepreneur. Can an exemplar list highlighting the artists and designers who founded Kickstarter, AirBnB and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams — as well as the artists who are in residence at government agencies, thinktanks and science labs — help spread the word that artists are innovators?

In Canada, the national Art Bank runs on a simple model: the Art Bank purchases artwork directly from living artists, and rents it to government and corporate clients at competitive rates.  The art meets criteria of artistic excellence, cultural diversity, and suitability for lease in an office setting.  Approximately 5,000 paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures by some 3,000 artists are currently on view in public spaces and private organizations across Canada.

What if an art lending program in the U.S. was financed through a combination of impact investment; Community Reinvestment Act capital; New Market Tax Credits; 1% for Art tariffs; tax-deductible collector loans, gifts, and bequests; corporate social responsibility; and foundation support? Such a program would open opportunities for artists to sell their work, and give new and expanded audiences access to original art. A national program could be structured through regional hubs, placing locally-produced artwork in the community where it was created.

Programs like Benefits Data Trust and SingleStop help low-income people check their eligibility and register for social services. Many low-income artists qualify for existing federal, state, and local programs, but either don’t know this or don’t know how to sign up. 

A pilot program that teams a social service partner with an arts organization like ArtSpace or The Actor’s Fund would connect eligible artists with existing social and financial support programs, stabilizing the lives of our most creative citizens. 

Targeted diagnostics will demonstrate whether artists are missing out on services for which they might qualify. And because they excel at improvisation and workshopping, low-income artists can help beta-test new service options for other low-income communities. 

Creativity and culture are included in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. UNESCO has documented creativity's role in fostering entrepreneurship and resilience; building problem-solving capabilities and improving wellbeing; developing freedom of expression and dialogue; and providing substantial economic growth and jobs.

Integrating the creative process with sustainability measures will highlight creativity’s potential for solving issues of global importance. A series of meetings that connect researchers and practitioners involved with sustainability and creativity will help gather the facts, establish the arguments, and demonstrate the value that creativity can bring to inclusive finance, cohesive societies, and environmental stewardship. A related effort will integrate creativity criteria into the standards for sustainable companies. 

Many people are familiar with the importance of calligraphy to Steve Jobs and the corporate culture of Apple. But did you know that Internet visionary Clay Shirky started as a lighting designer at the Wooster Group? Or that the nonprofit finance-pioneer Clara Miller was a studio art major at the University of New Hampshire? Or that designer John Maeda is now part of top venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins?

A “top 25” list, video interviews, and case studies will shine a spotlight on innovators who started in the arts, like those named above, as well as artists who are making social impact and commercial innovation using the artistic disciplines. The Top Artist-Innovators list will ensure more foundations, impact investors, and members of the media count artists among our great social entrepreneurs—placing artists front and center in conversations about social innovation.


Others integrate the arts into existing social sector systems and structures—for example, developing financial products like a Creative Economy Index Fund that will enable mission-related investing for the arts. A product like the CEIF can quickly align the arts with the social innovation sector.

Calvert Foundation’s Community Investment Note® program allows individuals to invest as little as $20 to create jobs, build affordable housing, and promote health and education in low-income communities across the country. The Community Investment Note® offers one- to fifteen-year investment terms with fixed interest rates from 1 – 4%.  Over 20 years, more than 15,000 investors have invested more than $1 billion.

As an existing financial product, we are exploring how the Community Investment Note® can be applied to intentionally support creative businesses and creative placemaking projects.  Community and economic development catalyzed by artists and arts organizations is critical to building more equitable, resilient, and sustainable communities.

In 2013, arts and cultural production contributed more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy, or 4.2% to the U.S.’s gross domestic product. The full creative economy is even larger and includes technology, fashion, and culinary arts, among other sectors.

A proposed index fund of U.S. publicly-traded companies across the creative industries will offer mission-related investors a way to support the arts and more. Such a product can focus on companies that drive greater efficiency and lower cost for design and fabrication of creative work, and technologies that facilitate their distribution and access.

Fine art already has a vibrant commercial market and functions as an investment.  But, like sustainable food, a work of art can help investors meet more than one goal. 

For impact investors who include art in their investment portfolios, ImpactArt offers a new way to think about art objects and social impact together.  A self-administered grading rubric is in development that will divide arts investment into three distinct categories: The Artist, The Collection, and The Collector.  ImpactArt portfolios will be reviewed across several dimensions, including good labor practices and a fair deal for the artists; a focus on social impact themes like climate, health, and criminal justice; the demographics of the artists who are represented; and whether the artwork is available for public viewing. 

ImpactArt Offsets—in the form of a contribution, loan, or equity investment, which do more for artists and ensure a community has access to art—will allow impact investors to maintain their existing art holdings but meet impact goals at the portfolio level.


A few proposals are new, responding to a unique need that can be best addressed through a field-wide initiative—for example, the Campaign for Creativity, which will help situate creativity as a national social movement.

There are 2.1 million working artists in the U.S. Every year performing arts conservatories, fine arts schools, and university art programs grant degrees to 100,000 BFA, MFA, and PhD students.  But only 8% of these graduates make their living working in the arts. A sustainable creative life is unrealistic for most artists.

Artists can be better equipped to manage their careers. They need supplemental skills to launch projects or start new enterprises. Colleagues on the arts-administration track have to prepare differently to work with artist-innovators.

ArtPath is a proposed coordinated national effort that works to redefine the resources artists need if they want to be innovators. It bolsters a support system critical to moving from ideation to execution; helps identify the optimal moments during an artist’s career to gain new skills; and identifies ways for artists to hone their talents and imagination regardless of their intention to become “innovators.”

Americans agree that creative expression is an important part of their lives, especially as a way to connect with other people. Creativity is an asset that belongs to everyone, regardless of class, wealth, or education. It transcends art, design, science, technology, and social change; it’s the spark that can grow into the next Broadway hit or next season’s hottest fashion, the next significant medical breakthrough or Internet start-up—or even the next social movement.

Campaign for Creativity will explore how people who appear to be doing very different work draw on a shared set of powerful creative tools. By focusing on how the creative process is fundamentally the same across its various expressions, the campaign will reveal what diverse Americans share in common through a social media push (for example, tied to #HackingCreativity), national events (for example, in coordination with the June 2016 White House Makers Day), and local activities (open studios tours and open FabLab hours). #ProudtoCreate