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How Do We Compete with Netflix?
Episode 71

How Do We Compete with Netflix?

CI to Eye with Emily Simoness

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Emily and Erik talk about how SPACE on Ryder Farm went from an idea to one of the premier centers for the development of new artistic work in the U.S. They also discuss the radical power of analog connection in our tech-obsessed world.

Erik Gensler: So, Emily, I’m so excited to have you here because your organization brings together two things that I love, organic farming and the arts and-

Emily Simoness: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … can you talk about how the idea of creating the SPACE at Ryder farm came to be?

Emily Simoness: Sure, it’s funny. So, the farm has been in my family since 1795 but I’m from the Midwest and so, I had actually never visited the farm, which is in Brewster, New York. It’s about 90 minutes north of here. So, it was like folklore as a kid. I trained as an actor. That’s what my … BFA in acting, very exciting. Nowhere on my resume does it suggest that I would be doing what I’m doing but … So, anyway, moved to the city in 2007 and then on a lark I cold-called my fourth cousin once-removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I had never met and said, “I’m Emily. I’m related to you,” with, really, the intention of like calling her saying, “Can I come and check out that farm? I was going to take a picture. I was gonna, like, call my mom, who’s the Ryder family member. I’d be like, “I made it to the farm!” go back to New York City and continue my life as an “actrisse.” That is not what happened that day that I took the Metro North up to Ryder farm for the first time. So, that was in March of 2009 and three things happen that day that sort of set this whole thing in motion. One, I couldn’t believe it was 90 minutes north of New York City. “Upstate New York” is a generous term for where the farm is but it’s one that was used and is used. So ,that was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so close” Two was, I thought I was going to land on an eight-acre vegetable patch, which would have been impressive, but it’s a 127-acre expanse, so-

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Emily Simoness: … woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and old historic structures and just, like, “Whoa.” And then, three, and probably the reason that we’re having this conversation today, is that the historic structures had fallen into disrepair and weren’t being inhabited and weren’t being lived in. And it was clear by looking around that the place could use some real TLC, new energy, et cetera. So, I went home, couldn’t stop thinking about it. The other thing to note about where I was in my life is that I was in this community of artists, a lot of playwrights, theater people, who did not have time and space to work on their creative pursuits. So, New York City’s amazing but it’s very expensive, particularly for a 25-year-old struggling actor. Maybe it’s not the most conducive environment to make your art. I don’t know. So, two things were true: my family homestead was in need of revitalization and the other thing that was true is that my artistic community needed time and space to work on their things. And those two ideas, those two needs, collided and I thought, “Huh, what if I brought my scrappy artist friends up to this place and we scraped and spackled and sort of remade this 1795 homestead and in exchange, we got to work on our art?” Pitched it to my cousin, Betsy, and some other fourth cousins that I had just met and they said, “Sure.” So, a very long answer to your short question is, how did it come to pass? I sort of feel like it found me. It’s not like I came to the farm with an agenda that day. My agenda was to, like, take a picture and it is turned, you know … fast-forward ten years, it’s now my life and it’s how I make my life. So, the farm has taken on all different characteristics in its 225-year history in my family. It’s been a dairy farm. It’s been an estate. It’s been a vegetable farm. Sort of depending on the “me” of that time, whoever in the family sort of decided to put it on their shoulders, it took on their character, right? So, since 1978, it has been an organic vegetable operation. We’re actually one of the founding farms at the Union Square Green Market. So, today, what is happening on the land is, we’re still in an organic vegetable operation, we’re still at Union Square, and we have a 140-member CSA, and then there’s this artists’ residency program, right? So, it’s really farm and art and the synergies between the two of them that are what is happening and incubating on the land.

Erik Gensler: So, talk a bit about the artist residency programs-

Emily Simoness: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … and, you know, how that works, and perhaps contextualize why that’s so important.

Emily Simoness: So, there’s, like, a long tradition of artist residencies in this country. You know, there’s the MacDowell Colony, there’s Yaddo, these sort of old institutions where artists would go into the woods and write their great novel, right? And then, we all enjoy those novels and hopefully they change the culture (laughs). That’s the ambition. I didn’t know about that tradition when I visited the farm for the first time. Right? I saw 127 acres and a place to workshop new plays and bring up playwrights and not … I mean, I didn’t know that there, that I wasn’t the first person to have that idea (laughs). So, the residency program serves about 130 to 150 artists per season, predominantly writers, predominantly theater artists, for fully subsidized residencies of one to five weeks. And the days are grounded in three communal meals, a lot of which are sourced from the farm. You have to show up for the meals. It’s non-negotiable. So, that’s one of the mandates on your time if you are a resident. The second mandate is that you have to give back to the farm, so about 80% of folks opt in to harvest for the farm, but you can also wash dishes and paint a wall or do something to sort of … the reciprocity is really important to us. And then the third mandate on your time is that you have to share some of what you created at the culmination of the residency with your fellow residents. But we have eight distinct programs. I won’t go into all of them but just to highlight a few, we have the family residency for working parents and their kids, predominantly women, which came out of a need, really, that we saw a big disparity in men versus women getting these experiences. This idea that you have- that women have to choose between being a parent and being an artist and that what that means is that if men are getting these opportunities time and time again, then it’s no shocker that things we’re seeing on stage are written by men because they’ve had all these opportunities. So, the family residency addresses that head on and provides a residency for, predominantly, working women and then their kids have a junior residency, which is essentially a glorified camp. They get to go out into the fields and harvest, they get to cook with the chef, they get to shear some sheep. So, that’s one of our programs and that really sprung up out of a need that I was hearing. I feel like one of the great things about, sort of, accidentally finding yourself as the leader of an organization and not necessarily having that as your plan, “capital P plan,” is that one of the things that I feel like we do really well is that we’re very responsive and that we’re listening because we actually really want to hear; we’re not listening cause that’s what you’re supposed to do and we’re, like, building a business. Do you know what I’m saying?

Erik Gensler: Totally.

Emily Simoness: So, that program came out of the need that, like, two different women had expressed being like, “Can I bring my kids? I don’t really know if I can do this without doing that.” So, that is a theme throughout a lot of our programs, is that they directly came from the community saying, “Hey, we need this.” The working farm, which is our most robust support—so, it’s five weeks over the course of a five-month season, but they’re not successive weeks—so, again, it came out of this need that, like, “I can’t go away for five weeks in a row.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Emily Simoness: “I have a day job and I’m doing all these things in the city,” and so, it allows people to come to the farm for a week, have concentrated work, go back to their life, come up to the farm for a week, have concentrated work, go back to their life. That culminates in the roving dinner, which is an eight-course meal on eight locations of the farm with eight excerpts at the new plays and then we continue our support of those playwrights by having stage readings of those plays at Playwrights Horizons, which is an off-Broadway theater company here in the city. And then, a lot of those plays have gone on to have world premieres off-Broadway, on Broadway, et cetera. So, that’s probably our most noteworthy program and the one that’s really put us on the map. And then the last one that I’ll punch up is our creative residency, which is our most popular program, which is really artists of all stripes. You come for one to two weeks and one of the benefits of that program, in particular, is that you’re really in a cohort of artists that are dynamically different from yourself, right? In all the ways we think about diversity, right? So, age, race, gender, artistic form, et cetera, which is really a value that we hold across all of the programs.

Erik Gensler: That’s a great summary of it and I think what’s also so amazing is the growth in applications.

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: I think I remember you saying once, you’re, like, shocked every year that … thinking no one’s going to apply and then they just pour it in.

Emily Simoness: (laughs) Yeah, yeah. I have this imposter syndrome moment about two weeks … It was like … if you’re like me, you wait till the last day to apply, which I will tell you, the data shows that most people wait till the last day to apply. So, what happens is, two weeks before we don’t have the application numbers, right? I’m like, “They’re not there. It’s not going to happen. We’re going to be found out,” and then they pour in the night before. We have a pool on the staff of, like, what the number’s going to be. I think I may have won this year, which I’m very excited about.

Erik Gensler: How many came in this year?

Emily Simoness: This year, it’s about 1,300

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Oh, my god.

Emily Simoness: Yeah. So, we’re … to give you sort of a context, I think in 2015 or 2014, we had 294 applications. So, to see that sort of growth is exciting and also head-spinning and means that we need a reading committee of over a hundred individuals to sort through the applications, right? The application process itself is … people are always like, “What do you do on the off-season?” and I’m like, “We don’t really …” I know that it’s, it feels like the off season, but to us, it’s … there isn’t an off-season.

Erik Gensler: You’re still working.

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: What parallels do you draw between making art and organic farming?

Emily Simoness: So, farmers and artists, I think, are quite similar. They are people that are scrappy. They are people who have to be invested in process because there is no proof that the product is going to see the light of day, right? You might have a big rain storm, global warming might continue. Who knows? The manuscript that you’ve written might be interesting to your editor and it might not be. Right? Like you have to love process and you have to find in order, I think, to, like, inhabit that space, you have to get so much out of process that the product … of course you want it to be all of these things, but if it’s not, you’re still doing the thing, right? So, there’s a tenacity. There’s a patience. There is, you know, it’s funny … I don’t want to say it’s fringe, but, like, farming and art are not necessarily things—this is from my perspective—that our larger society is saying we value, “We’re putting a value on those things,” right?

Erik Gensler: Oh, yeah.

Emily Simoness: Like, I think the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, I think the budget for that, which this current administration wants to slash, I think it’s, like, 0.03% of the national … of our budget is what is being given to arts. I’m guessing farming is probably similar.

Erik Gensler: Well, the different kind of farming, like organic farming versus agribusiness-

Emily Simoness: Right.

Erik Gensler: … which is barely farming. It’s more like science.

Emily Simoness: Yes, exactly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: Exactly. But there are people who, like, despite, sort of, society reflecting back to them, like, “We don’t really care,” they are showing up every day and continuing to do this thing because they know it is of value to a lot of people and to culture at large.

Erik Gensler: So, I had the chance to attend your fall gala here in the city and I was so impressed, how you brought the spirit of the farm to this raw space, you know, from how you design things, just the energy and the lighting, and it was just so tangible that night and it seemed to be very financially beneficial, from what I can tell, from the auction and the enthusiasm in the room. What are the secrets to putting on such an impactful gala event?

Emily Simoness: Well, first of all, thank you. So, one of our values is radical hospitality, this idea of being radically hospitable. So, what does that mean in the context of a gala? It means that, you’re right, every detail was thought out and you were thought of, Erik. I take forever thinking about the seating chart. Forever. Like, my staff is like, “Why are you spending so much freaking time on that seating chart?” and it’s because I’m going to take care of you. You have done me the service of saying, “I’m going to buy a ticket to this thing. I support this thing.” I’m going to take care of you that night and that means everything from, I’m going to ask you what your dietary restrictions are. I’m going to put you next to somebody that I think you’re going to have a good time next to you.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) You did!

Emily Simoness: Yeah! I’m going to, like … the tablescape is going to feel evocative of the place because if you haven’t been there, which you have been, my goal is for you to come to that gala, if you have not been to the farm, and say, “I want to go to that place-“

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: “… because the feelings that I felt, the way that I was treated, was such that I want to know what that place is about,” and so much about the farm is home, right? It’s like, and like, even if home for you or for me is not ideal, we still have our idealized version of what home could have been. Right? I get goosebumps even thinking about that, this idea of home for the holidays and, like, what does it evoke for you? Right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: As a place of being protected, of being cared for, being nurtured. Right? Why would that be different at a gala?

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: Because we’re trying to, like, raise money? Why wouldn’t I want to translate that value of home and of radical hospitality and of being cared for and taken care of to our gala? And I think that for us, the amount of thought we put into it-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: … is not different than the amount of thought we put into it if you were going to come up and be a resident for five weeks because you’re a part of the community and, yes, you’re a different constituent; you’re not taking part in artistic residencies, but we don’t … we still think of everyone as part of the thing that we are trying to build and sustain.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, the food was just incredible. Like, I’ve tried to recreate some of those dishes.

Emily Simoness: (laughs) Well, good! Well, that’s another thing, is half of our mission is sustaining an organic farm. Our food better be freaking good, right, at the gala.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: And you’re trying to feed 270, which is so hard to do, but this … I want to give a shout out to Night Kitchen, which is this caterer in Brooklyn who did an extraordinary job and in a world where I could make a coffee table book about dietary restrictions, that’s really hard to do-

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Yeah.

Emily Simoness: … because they’re on the rise. People are eating very specifically and so, to feel like it was nourishing and good and all those things-

Erik Gensler: Beautiful and impressive and you just don’t expect that at that scale at all.

Emily Simoness: Right, yeah.

Erik Gensler: The other thing I thought was exceptional is, you so respected our time.

Emily Simoness: Mm.

Erik Gensler: You stand at those things and, like, you’re just ready for the speech that goes on too long or is super boring or is, like, filled with inside baseball and it wasn’t there and everything was just the appropriate length. It was inspirational. It was funny. The videos were so good. It was just so well produced.

Emily Simoness: Oh, thanks. Have you read The Art of Gathering?

Erik Gensler: Yes.

Emily Simoness: I think it’s a great book and she talks, actually … I read it after the gala, but she does talk about gala culture-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: … and how, like, we’ve forgotten the “why” of a gala. We just, like, come and, like, do the speeches and do the thing and do “dah, dah, dah, dah,” and yeah, it’s a Monday night and I’m not going to keep you there longer than you need to be there and, like, I’m going to make it tighter and shorter than I think it ought be-

Erik Gensler: That’s right.

Emily Simoness: … because I know people got things to do. It’s New York City, you know?

Erik Gensler: Right, yeah. It was just this, it’s a special evening.

Emily Simoness: Oh …

Erik Gensler: It really just felt so good to be there. And I was like, “Of course this organization is growing cause you could just … who … no one would go to that and, I think, not feel invested in what you’re doing and wanting to see it succeed and wanting to see it grow.” That’s when I learned about that family- or more about that family residency program, where-

Emily Simoness: Hm.

Erik Gensler: … it had a mother and son go and I remember her talking about her experience of how hard it is and her economic challenges of having space to do her art and it was incredible to hear that story.

Emily Simoness: I think the other thing is, like, in terms of storytelling, she does that storytelling for me. I don’t need to do that as the ED.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Emily Simoness: Like, I always look for, like, where … I call it, “putting a hat on a hat.” Where are our redundancies? Let’s cut them out. I don’t need to talk about the family residency because Stefanie Zadravec, who you’re talking about-

Erik Gensler: Right, right.

Emily Simoness: … is going to do it for me. And she’s going to do it better than me-

Erik Gensler: Right.

Emily Simoness: … so why would I do it, too? You know?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, let the story tell the story.

Emily Simoness: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Don’t narrate it.

Emily Simoness: That’s right, and trust, trust that the people that I’m putting in place to talk about their experience can represent the organization.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, that’s great. SPACE has grown so quickly-

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … and growth is really hard.

Emily Simoness: (laughs) Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Can you talk about that growth and some of the challenges you faced and how you think about growth?

Emily Simoness: Well, it’s so funny talking about the gala cause it’s like, you better believe that after a night like that, a lot of folks on my board are like, “How could I make it bigger and better and batter and bah dah dah dah dah,” and I’m like, “Part of what makes it so special is that right now, it’s right size. There’s 270 people in that room. It’s not 500. We’re not at the Ritz. You know, we’re not …” It’s so hard. We finally found a space, which … the space that we were at for the gala is Annie Liebowitz’s old studio and then was Cedar Lake Dance and is now this, like, extraordinary raw space-

Erik Gensler: It’s amazing.

Emily Simoness: … like, in the West 20s. It doesn’t look like any other gala space you’ve ever been to (laughs).

Erik Gensler: No, I’ve never been in that space. I had no idea what it was and it was-

Emily Simoness: It’s amazing.

Erik Gensler: It revealed itself and in such a cool way.

Emily Simoness: Yeah, but the minute you start looking at spaces that can accommodate 400, all of the character goes away. Everything. It’s all sanitized, right? Which is sort of how I feel about the worst parts of growth, is that you start to sanitize and you start to neutralize and you start to lose everything that made it special and that made all those people rally around it and it’s so dangerous. And I feel like I’m in the moment right now. It’s so funny to know that you’re in a moment.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Emily Simoness: So many moments, like, happen and then you look back and you’re like, “Oh, my God, I was in that moment.” I know I’m in the moment and I know that the decisions I am making right now are either—and I don’t mean this does sound like it’s a binary—but are either going to preserve the culture or are going to sanitize it. And I know that that sounds very aggressive, but that is how it feels being the founder and being the person who set the whole thing in motion. We are embarking on a strategic plan. One of the things that came out of our first session is I said, “If I come back in 30 years to the farm and instead of one dining room table where everybody comes around—” and by everybody, I mean, between residents and interns and staff, you’re talking about like 20, 22 people—“If I come back and there’s a mess hall with, like, four tables and this resident on the left never even talked to that intern who’s at the fourth table during their time, then we’ve lost the thread entirely.” So, we’ve actually been using the table as a way to talk about growth because if we have two tables, then we’ve lost the thing, which sounds very simplistic, but for me, it feels like a really great anchor.

Erik Gensler: And an appropriate anchor-

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … for a farm.

Emily Simoness: Yeah, but I will say that last year was my hardest year as the Executive Director of this place. We went from five employees to 12. That’s crazy!

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: To translate the mission to four people and then to translate it to 11 people, forget about it! The heavy lifting that I have to do … my job changed overnight and I didn’t even realize it until it had changed and then, you have somebody doing something that you’re like, “Who, that’s not us.” How do I hold the thing and how do I have enough people around me holding the thing and knowing the thing and at the same time, moving it forward?

Erik Gensler: It’s very hard.

Emily Simoness: And I’m scared of it and I’m scared that I’m going to do the wrong thing. And it’s also a thing about, like, as the leader, what are the skills that I need to lean into right now that I didn’t need to lean into when I was 25 and, like, going to Home Depot and getting a scrub brush to scrape a wall? Like, it’s an entirely different moment, right?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah. I mean there’s that rule I always go by, which is the rule of threes and tens. Any time the size of your staff triples, when you go from one to three, three to 10, 10 to 30, 30 to 90, you basically have to reinvent almost everything-

Emily Simoness: Yep.

Erik Gensler: … all your internal and external communication, your roles, your structures. And it’s so challenging as a leader to go through that because what used to work doesn’t work anymore and you just feel like you’re working just as hard doing the same thing but it’s not working the way it used to. And then, you start to question yourself and-

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: …you know, something that Tony Robbins said, I read years ago, is, “The ability for an organization to grow is 100% centered on the leader’s ability to grow themselves-“

Emily Simoness: Ooh, yeah.

Erik Gensler: “… and to do the hard work to grow,” and something my executive coach, Jennifer’s Zaslow says that is always in the back of my head, which is, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Emily Simoness: And you have to, like, go to deeper parts of yourself and you have to be so humbled and you have to sort of just apologize and say, “I got it wrong.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: And you know, like, we were on easy street for the first eight years. Like, growth was-

Erik Gensler: It’s easier. It’s so much easier.

Emily Simoness: Oh, yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah (laughs).

Emily Simoness: It was, like, sexy and happening and everybody was, like, “Surpluses and yeah, everything’s great!” and then, all of a sudden, you just get punched. You just, you get humbled in this way that you have two decisions. You can either look deep inside and do the work of, like, “Okay, this really feels horrible and how am I going to get us out of- myself first, selfishly, out of this moment and the rest of us?” You know, you either do that or you crash and burn because what got you here isn’t going to get you there so you continue to hit your head against the brick wall. Yeah. It’s challenging as hell.

Erik Gensler: And where do you turn for those answers or for that self-work?

Emily Simoness: A variety of places. I have an executive coach who I spend a lot of time talking to and emailing with, so that’s one person. My husband. Books. You know, you and I were, before this, talking about Pema Chödrön; sounds crazy, but, like, books on mindfulness and spirituality and how to treat people and how to treat yourself … back to basics, people, because while you’re trying to figure out how to ideate, you gotta be a good, kind, nice person, both to yourself and to the humans around you in a moment of turbulence and chaos. Right? And then, I would say the people who knew me then. I find myself turning to the people who, the 26-year-old version of me said, “I’ve got a great idea. I want to do this thing.” I go back to those people and I go, “Okay, so now we’re in this moment,” and a lot of those folks were at least 10 years older than me and knew the thing that … they sort of saw the car crash coming (laughs). I don’t mean the car crash, but they saw-

Erik Gensler: The proverbial car crash.

Emily Simoness: Yeah, they saw the larger picture. And so, they keep me honest and they also remind me of why I got into this to begin with, which I think, in those moments of turmoil, you forget.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah.

Emily Simoness: You’re like, “What the … what is this?”

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I mean, this is something I always go back to is, like, let’s start with the fact that I’m a deeply flawed human being like everybody else.

Emily Simoness: (laughs) Yes!

Erik Gensler: And if you can just start at that assumption, it makes everything else so much easier-

Emily Simoness: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: … because you don’t take yourself so seriously.

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: And it’s like, it sets up an environment where, like, “Oh, I made a mistake? Of course I made a mistake!” (laughs)

Emily Simoness: Why wouldn’t I?

Erik Gensler: Yeah! Yeah.

Emily Simoness: Why wouldn’t I? Just because on paper it was, like, hot for eight years doesn’t mean that there weren’t mistakes all along the way.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, of course.

Emily Simoness: It’s just that, I think of it sort of like ascending circles. Problems are inevitable maybe, but, like, you have further to fall. If I fell in year two, like, I just hit my butt and it hurt.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right.

Emily Simoness: But, like, in year 10, there are a of people who are influenced by my fall.

Erik Gensler: That’s right, and your drive and will can’t fix things anymore.

Emily Simoness: That’s right, and I have a lot of drive and a lot of will, you know what I mean?

Erik Gensler: (laughs) That’s the paralyzing thing!

Emily Simoness: Like, a lot of will.

Erik Gensler: It don’t work anymore!

Emily Simoness: And that sucks.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Yeah, it does.

Emily Simoness: Cause it will get you to a certain place.

Erik Gensler: Totally, yeah. And then, it’s just so frustrating, so humbling that it doesn’t anymore.

Emily Simoness: (laughs) Yes.

Erik Gensler: And you have to relearn everything. (laughs)

Emily Simoness: Yes, you do, and you have to be really sober about the things that you don’t know-

Erik Gensler: Oh, yeah.

Emily Simoness: … and owning them and then going and seeking them out in other places. Cause, like, I’ve been really … I’ve become really clear about, like, “Okay, I’m a B student at this. I’m never going to be an A student at this. I’m an A student at this other thing over here. So, that’s great. But, like, I think will sort of supersedes all that for a while-”

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Emily Simoness: “… and then, you get really humble and you go like, ‘Oh there’s so many people that are better at this thing than I am and I need to start taking out their counsel and advice.’”

Erik Gensler: Well, and the other thing is you’re required to be an A student at so many different things.

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And I don’t know if that’s possible.

Emily Simoness: Yeah, and, like, the question for me, too, is, like, I’m an A student at some things that I like and I’m an A student at some things that I don’t like, do you know what I mean?

Erik Gensler: Right, right.

Emily Simoness: And, like, what is my day every day? Is it filled with things that I like, you know? And it means it’s called a job for a reason. Right?

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Don’t call it work for nothing.

Emily Simoness: Yeah. I mean, like, part of my life, like I don’t like part of my job. I can’t wait to find the person that 100% of what they do is just, “This is the best.”

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Right.

Emily Simoness: But I think the ambition is that there is a ratio that is on your side, right? That at least 51% of the things are great, but I’m also interested about that.

Erik Gensler: Totally. What’s one of the hardest lessons about leadership that you learned? If you could think of a specific.

Emily Simoness: I think I’m still learning this lesson. I am an extrovert. I like friends. I like to share. I like to feel like we’re all cozy. And there’s a moment where … there’s a time for that and there’s a time, I think, in a lifestrong of an organization for that and then, there’s a time when that’s just not really the thing anymore. And that’s both lonely making for me, cause I feel … I feel very alone. I feel like I have all these things that I want to talk about and there’s actually no one I can talk to them about. And the times that I have made the mistake of sharing things that I probably should have kept to myself, costs you. I have learned in those moments about the actual “capital P Power” that I have, right? And that I sometimes, cause I’m a flawed human being and I’m just like trying to figure it out like everybody else, I think there are moments that I don’t understand the power that I have within the place. Do you know what I mean? And then I will share something or I will say something and then I’ll go, “Oh, oh! I am the person that everyone’s looking at that’s setting the tone,” and the wounds that can reverberate from oversharing, from bringing people in, sometimes those things, there’s no coming back from those moments. I don’t mean to sort of speak in, like, abstract, but I think knowing what is appropriate-

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Emily Simoness: … and not appropriate.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I’ve felt the same thing. And it’s, like, you still think of yourself as the person who walked up to the farm and had this vision but for the people, the 10th person you hire, you’re the leader of this big organization that’s a thing.

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: And you still feel, you know … and people will project all of their stuff onto you-

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: … of what authority and leadership looks like and you have to step into that and you just think, “Well I’m just Emily!” right?

Emily Simoness: Yeah!

Erik Gensler: And you said the piece about being lonely … it is incredibly lonely. “Boo-hoo, like, the people who get to lead organizations are lonely,” you could say that, but, like, it’s very, very lonely and sad sometimes. (laughs)

Emily Simoness: Oh, I mean, I spent a lot of my time feeling deeply isolated-

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: … and I set out to create community. Like, that’s the whole thing I set to … you know, and then, like, do I actually get to be a part of that community or am I just curating that community? Is that community for me? What’s my role in that community? Am I just the marionetter—is that a word?

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Emily Simoness: You know, am I just the puppet string person? Like, do I actually get access to the community?

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve found that so true and so surprising and I just had no idea it was a thing. Yeah. What do you wish you knew five years ago?

Emily Simoness: So, we’re in year 10, so five years ago, I think you have this idea that everyone’s going to be around forever. Like, that, like, this is all just going to be the same. It’ll just be bigger. And it’s not true. The cast of characters changes, and that’s everything from board members to staff to donors to residents. I am the constant in a sea of variables and I think that you invest so much in all of those different people and change is inevitable. Like, the only constant is change. The only constant is that five years from now, if you and I were to sit down, things would be dynamically different. That’s just, like, the way it goes and I think that there is something … I didn’t know that. I mean, I knew that but I didn’t know it. Like, I didn’t know five years ago that I would have a different board chair or that some of my biggest supporters would have made a five year commitment and then move on to something else, not for malice, but because that’s the way philanthropy works (laughs). That staffers that I thought were going to be with us forever would move on. That it’s not necessarily personal, but sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: But that whatever you think is fixed isn’t fixed.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Emily Simoness: It’s way too unmooring and, like, that’s what you have to do that work because, like, ultimately, you have to find a reason every single day while you are getting up in the morning and doing the thing because the other people, they don’t- they how could they possibly have the same attachment I have to it?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Emily Simoness: That’d be so weird. Right?

Erik Gensler: I’m stealing this question from Oprah because-

Emily Simoness: Oh, I love Oprah!

Erik Gensler: She says, “What do you know is true?”

Emily Simoness: That people are desperate for community. People need to talk to each other and I think I sort of had an intuition 10 years ago … I mean, I didn’t know that we were going to be on our devices to the extent that we are, but I saw it coming. People are desperate to sit down around a table and have a conversation. It is wild and maybe it’s something about the 1795 home set and sitting at a table that’s been there for 150 years, but I think, you know, I spent … I don’t know about you, but a lot of my lunches are by myself looking at my Slack channel and scarfing down my Sweetgreen (laughs). When you are asked to sit down three times a day with human beings who are different than you, who you don’t necessarily know, and eat a meal that has been prepared for you by a chef with food that has been grown on a farm that you can see, there’s something grounding and something human about it. Like, we want to talk to each other. We want to have discourse. We want to connect and I think we have all this stuff now, all these obstacles. We have our computer screens and our Slack channels and texting that, like, this like idea of analog is now, like, radical, this idea of it. So-

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and we’re, like, we’re three levels away from reality. Like, I just-

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … was in New Zealand, which is, like, so natural and so not-urban and I took all of my social media off my phone. I took Slack off my phone. I took email off my phone and I had 12 days with just nature and I felt like a different person.

Emily Simoness: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: I … and I’m trying to stay connected to that because that is actually true.

Emily Simoness: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Like, nature and trees and mountains and lakes, that is true. All of this other stuff-

Emily Simoness: I know.

Erik Gensler: … is not.

Emily Simoness: Yep, yep.

Erik Gensler: But it’s the world we’ve created and what it does to you physiologically, emotionally, it just changes you.

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: And so, what you’re saying has such universal truth, I think, for everyone listening to this podcast, about the need to connect with human beings in a person-to-person basis and that any organization that can figure out how to do that is going to be successful.

Emily Simoness: Yeah, and I think that stock is only rising because these things are only becoming bigger obstacles, right?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Emily Simoness: I mean, one of the things we do is, the minute you land on the farm, if you’re a resident, we get you settled into your room, you have a welcome speech, and then, we take you on a tour. And part of that is, I want to get people on the land and they do a 45-minute walk—not of all the 227 acres—but they walk all the way down to the lake and back, which is about … the lake and back is about a mile. I swear to God, people’s shoulders have totally and completely descended by the time they come back. And that’s only in the first hour-and-a-half.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: But it’s like, I did the same thing. I was, over the holidays. I took everything off my phone and I read books. It was very exciting! I read books. I, you know, connected with my family and my partner in ways that I don’t, you know? We’ve just, I fear that we’ve lost the thread and the most basic thing that we’re doing at SPACE is saying, “Here is your food. Here’s the place you’re going to stay; here’s your shelter.” Right? “Here are people that you’re going to talk to and here’s a piece of land that has trees and water that you’re going to spend your time communing with.” Like, fundamental. Fundamental. But I think we don’t … I mean, certainly if you live in a city, it’s not necessarily part of your day-to-day.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah. And that reconnecting to the most basic humans-

Emily Simoness: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … pieces is, I think, something that arts … if you look at, like, performing arts, to sit in a theater with 500 people and have a live experience or go to a museum and be intellectually stimulated, spend time with friends and be with other humans … I hear from so many arts administrators, they’re so frustrated because they have to compete with Netflix-

Emily Simoness: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: … but what we have to do is make our experiences so much better than Netflix and we have that ability-

Emily Simoness: Yeah, that’s right.

Erik Gensler: … baked in.

Emily Simoness: I mean, 1000% and it terrifies me. Like, we’re not even convening in movie theaters anymore because of Netflix. Like, I watched Marriage Story on my computer by myself, you know what I mean?

Erik Gensler: Same, same.

Emily Simoness: Like … and it wasn’t the same experience as being in … Let’s just talk about movie theaters. Not even a theater theater. Like, there’s something about being in a movie theater and hearing a laugh at the same time you laugh, right, that, like, “I’m not alone, not alone,” and if we lose that, like, what are we going to do? Like, what does this look like?

Erik Gensler: I know.

Emily Simoness: What’s the point?

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, we’ve come to your last question.

Emily Simoness: Oh, my.

Erik Gensler: It’s your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could offer your advice to the executive directors, leadership team, staff, and board of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Emily Simoness: The first thing that comes to mind is, listen. I think we give lip service to listening. We pretend like, “Well, I’m supposed to listen, right? Like, I’m supposed to ask. I’m supposed to survey, right? Survey around. I’m gonna do a Google form and then my assistant’s gonna collect the data and then I’m going to change my stuff,” but we’re not actually asking the question cause we want to know; we’re asking it because we’re supposed to ask the question and then we’re going to, like, not even look at the survey results. At some point, SPACE on Ryder farm stopped being a thing that I created and it started talking to me about what it was. The place … Like, that sounds woo-woo, but, like, the people started talking to me about what it was and I was like, “Oh, huh. That’s so interesting.” The food was not my, necessarily, idea. Like, I’m not a chef. I wasn’t like, “Three communal meals a day!” but guess what? We surveyed everybody and they all were saying, “I got so much work done. I met so many people and coming together for three meals was wild and radical and that’s the lightening in the bottle.” That’s not my idea. That is the communal feedback that I was getting and if I wasn’t listening, if I wasn’t asking cause I really wanted to know, I could have missed that whole thing.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Emily Simoness: And that’s the centerpiece of the whole thing now, right? Which is, like … Listen, our operating budget is only $1.7 million so we can move our right arm very easily. So, for the nonprofit whose operating budget is $40 million and you have to talk to 7,000 people to move your figurative right arm, that’s a really hard challenge. But if you can’t listen to the people you’re serving, what are you doing? Why are you a nonprofit? Why are you a service organization? Who are you serving and are you actually asking them what they need because you want to know and you could maybe shift what you’re doing to respond more effectively?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, that’s great. Emily, thank you so much.

Emily Simoness: Thank you. So fun!

About Our Guests
Emily Simoness
Emily Simoness
Executive Director, SPACE

Emily Simoness is the Founder and Executive Director of SPACE on Ryder Farm, a nonprofit artist residency program and organic farm located on a 225-year-old, 127-acre family homestead in Putnam County, New York. Artists from all over are invited to live and work on the farm, with the space and time they need to create their art.

Read more

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