Want to solve the space problem for the arts in Edmonton? Stop shaving that yak!

In software development there’s an expression we use to avoid scope creep. “Don’t shave that yak!” we’ll say. It’s shorthand for staying focused and working on solving the problem at hand, not other problems that we might notice along the way. As far as I know the phrase comes from a Ren & Stimpy episode and was coined by Carlin Vieri, a Ph.D. at MIT back in the 90s.

“Yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.”

I quite like Seth Godin’s example of yak shaving. This GIF illustrates it well too:

yak shaving

I was chatting with someone in the arts community recently about the Edmonton Downtown Academic & Cultural Centre project, and I remarked, “I just don’t know how we got from ‘arts organizations need space’ to ‘a $1 billion project is the answer’.” But thinking about it later, I realized that I know exactly how we got there. We’re shaving the yak.

It was back in November 2011 that the Mayor’s Arts Visioning Committee released its recommendations for how we could “lift Edmonton to international recognition as a city of the arts by the year 2040.” They followed a public engagement process, learned about the challenges facing the arts in Edmonton, and developed recommendations to try to address them.

One of the challenges identified was space:

“Edmonton artists and arts advocates described a critical need for additional creation, rehearsal, exhibit and performance space. Developing or designating new arts space is paramount to the vision in this report.”

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a new challenge – The Art of Living identified it in 2008 too. As a result, many of the recommendations dealt with space. The third recommendation was titled “Downtown Arts District and Performance Centre” and was relatively simple:

“The City of Edmonton endorse, in principle, a landmark performing arts centre (PAC) downtown, and designate land for such a development in the city core.”

The report goes on to detail the need and provides background and context. I understand from my conversations with those in the arts community that there is a real need for more space, especially smaller, black-box space that is multi-purpose.

So that’s the problem we’re meant to be solving: a lack of performance and rehearsal space. How did we start shaving the yak? I think it went something like this:

City Council put up $100,000 for the newly created Edmonton Performing Arts Centre Foundation to develop a business case. In developing the business case, the foundation connected with the University of Alberta which expressed a desire to link its music and art & design programs with the downtown arts community. There’s not enough money for all of that, so the vision needed to be made broader. The “revitalize downtown!” mantra evidently worked for others, so the group decides to go after that as part of the vision. To compete with the other big, fancy space known as the arena, a big, fancy space known as the Galleria was designed. In order to pay for that, a commercial office tower was added to the plan, along with a new campus for the University of Alberta. But those projects were deemed unrealistic unless there was a connection to the new Royal Alberta Museum and the LRT.

Before you know it, the group has taken arts out of its name completely, and we’re talking about a $40 million dollar pedway.

Weren’t we supposed to be finding new space for the arts? Stop shaving that yak!