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!

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

  1. Mack, this is getting embarassing.

    Simple question for you: how can we get arts organisations to stop having to focus 80% of their energy on fundraising, so they can concentrate on art?

    I mean other than give up and die.

    I look forward to software programming solving this one…

    1. Honest question here: how does additional space in a downtown development obviate the need for arts organizations to fundraise?

      1. Exactly what Anand said.

        It won’t completely obviate fundraising, but will help immensely for several groups of all sizes and disciplines both those working in EDACC facilities and if there is any left-over, hopefully elsewhere in the City. It will also pay for the art space maintenance and utilities of the EDACC facilities.

  2. Creating a cultural trust is not 10 degrees removed from funding arts in Edmonton. It is in fact the solution to the entire problem.

  3. Hey! I have space– Wait, a plug? On a blog? Who does that? (Answer: This Guy)



    You need space, we have it. Three separate spaces, with different characteristics suitable to different events. We’ve been a BYOV for years at the Fringe, and last year hosted 90 performances during the Fringe.

    And because we are doing this in response to the need for space rather than profit, the rates are highly negotiable.

  4. mack,

    maybe you should try contacting some of the people involved before you pontificate about their work amounting to nothing more than “shaving the yak”. this is no more “shaving the yak” than it is “vapour ware”. you question whether e-dacc is complying with the mayor’s arts visioning committee recommendations. you fail to note that the mayor’s arts visioning committee was co-chaired by dianne kipnes just as you fail to note that e-dacc is chaired by dianne kipnes. the visioning committee’s report was submitted in november of 2011. in the interim, the process – and the evolution of e-dacc – has moved from visioning to implementation. do you really think that there has been some existential disconnect between the two because that implementation model now incorporates an extension of the churchill lrt station and has expanded to include an actual funding model that would see the original vision become self-funding? this is a potential 900,000,000 – 1,000,000,000 project that is intended to be self-funding upon completion – unlike any other major educational or cultural facility in the city. and the biggest criticism you can make is that “the group has taken arts out of its name completely” in order to more accurately reflect the expanded scope and mandate of what is being proposed. edmonton downtown academic and cultural centre is certainly intended to be supportive of the arts. I’m not sure how having “arts” in a name or not is any indicator of the actual support that will be provided to the arts for generations to come if e-dacc is successful. is your seth godin gif cute? it sure is. but you might be better off trading cute for relevant.

    1. No, I didn’t question whether they are following the recommendations. A big part of the reason this was a recommendation at all is because Dianne was the co-chair, I know that. But that’s not the point I was trying to make. If someone was to say back in 2011 that we could add some of the much needed space but it would cost $1 billion, I think they’d have been laughed out of the room. Yet here we are, discussing just such a proposal. I know you want to defend this because you’ll benefit from it, but I think it’s totally fair to ask questions about whether this is the right way to solve the identified problem.

    2. The other thing about yak shaving is that it doesn’t mean that all of the other problems are irrelevant or unimportant, it’s that they aren’t necessary for solving the original problem. So I’m not dismissing the work that has happened to create the Galleria Project, I’m saying that it seems to be taking us away from the original problem which we could probably solve with a lot less money.

      1. if you have an alternative method of “solving the original problem” that would require less capital and less operating dollars from the public sector, we’re all ears as I would have to assume that it would be different than the winspear model and the citadel model and the jubilee model because none of them accomplished what e-dacc is proposing to accomplish financially as well as physically.
        and while you now say you’re not dismissing the work that has happened to create the galleria project, what you wrote certainly seems to have done exactly that.

  5. Right on the money in my view. And I believe if you asked most arts administrators and organisations (and since I work with them I might know), they would also agree!

Leave a Reply to Adam Conway Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s