Making Space for the Arts: A Law Firm's Story of 5,475 (Nonbillable) Hours
Let’s be frank: when it comes to creativity, innovation, and the arts, the first thing that comes to mind is not a law firm. I’ve had clients half-jokingly say that law firms are where creativity goes to die. Ouch! My rejoinder is that “we are different! We work worldwide assisting our creativity and innovation clients through patent, trademark, copyright, entertainment, and technology law. We are the cool lawyers!” In the end, however, our work supporting and protecting the creative minds of our clients was overlooked, and we were lumped in with the clichéd stereotype—boring, methodical, and the dreaded beige.
In 2011, we chose to honor our true selves by converting a century-old warehouse in the Film Exchange District of Oklahoma City—an area previously known as “skid row”—into our offices. Most of our colleagues blanched, but we bet that the area had the potential to be reborn. As part of the conversion, we decided to build an arts and community space open to everyone in the community.
OK, to be completely honest, “decided to build” is a bit misleading. We didn’t expressly set out to build an arts and community space. Like most creative endeavors, the concept evolved over time and in response to observations of our community’s needs. Our original blueprints called for a full kitchen/breakroom. An imposing commercial overhead garage door existed in the area and, thinking ourselves clever, we decided to replace it with a glass door to allow for natural light and fresh breezes. Of course, we didn’t want to look out the door at a parking lot filled with concrete—so an urban green space was necessary. Given the Oklahoma sun, we needed a pergola with sun shading. When installed, it created an intimate stage. But, if you have a stage you need seating, and dramatic lighting and a true urban garden requires native plants and trees. In the end, we created a kitchen and indoor event center that opened to the outdoors—complete with modular tables and reconfigurable seating.
Having initially designed the infrastructure for our staff’s use, we soon realized that it would be empty 99.9999997% of the time—OK, maybe only a slight exaggeration. It seemed wasteful to create such an inviting space and leave it fallow. At the same time, our clients and colleagues were engaging in a community-wide discussion about the need for places for groups to meet—whether for the arts, business, education, or civic engagement. An off-hand comment made by a young creative resonated with us: “While community doesn’t need a space, it doesn’t hurt to have one.” We decided to make our space available. Rather than saying “no,” we simply said, “why not?”
We chose to treat everyone like guests. The space should be free for community groups and $20/hr for private occasions, making it within reach of everyone. We adopted two rules: (1) treat all of our neighbors with respect and dignity; and (2) leave the space in a better condition than you found it. We appealed to our guests’ better instincts. No one wants to be “that” person and break this simple covenant. After more than 1,200 events, very few of our guests have violated these two simple rules.
When we initially put out the word that the space—dubbed “DC on Film Row”—was open and available we expected a rush of people to sign up. Instead, the sound of crickets resonated. We had to coax people into using the space—no, we're not crazy; yes, it is free to use; and no, there's no catch. The first groups to take us up on our offer were the nonprofits: Everyone from the Alzheimer’s Association to Western artists tried us out. Fundraisers, capital campaign kickoffs, volunteer appreciation events, staff training, education days, and arts education occurred in our space. We’ve made new friends and are enriched by being direct witnesses to the spirit of service and commitment within our community.
Following the nonprofits were the musicians, performers, and bands. Sensing a need, we underwrote and promoted a free monthly outside music evening—The Mix™—providing a paying opportunity for young performers. Concomitantly, the artists “found us,” and we began hosting visual art activities—openings, group and individual shows, student capstone exhibitions, classes, and open nights for people to gather and create art. Performing artists reserved the space for theatrical and dance performances. Improvisational groups rehearsed and performed in our outdoor gardens. Artists from the community facilitated painting and weaving classes. Photographers met and hosted open critique nights. Creativity and creation became the background soundtrack for our downtown space.
Of course, the tech and creative industries also embraced our space—we’ve hosted everything from pop-up ramen dinners to calligraphy classes. As we’ve become more and more popular among the creatives, we’ve also opened up our conference rooms—if the space isn’t reserved for a firm event or client meeting, it is available to the community. We recognized that in addition to DC on Film Row, we have other underutilized resources that can be shared and put to a greater use.
The common thread through all of these groups is, of course, the OKC community—the people who make up the organizations and create art and businesses. Mindful of everyone in our community, we serve meals to the homeless and support free pop-up food truck meals for them on an ongoing basis. We've also hosted weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, children’s activities, senior day activities, and memorial services. We've been there for the milestones in our community, and the artistic expression and soul put into each of these “mini-community” events inspires us each day.
We're often asked about the ROI. Sure, our “brand” has become better known and we’ve increased our revenue by X%. And while those are important, we believe that the truly meaningful metrics are these: Our space is used 80% of all weeknights and 95% of all weekends (2-3 events each day), and 75% of all the activities are open, community focused events. We’ve become a gathering place for activities that are cool, interesting, edgy, thoughtful, or just plain good.
We’ve also learned the importance of placemaking. Accounting only for the time between 5 pm and 8 am, there are roughly 5,475 hours a year in which corporate assets sit unused. Whether a conference room, training facility, courtyard, hallway, or cubicle, these spaces could be available to creatives and innovators within any community. While the cost of making these spaces available to the community is negligible, the value to the community is immeasurable. Our ROI, quite simply, consists of improved community relationships, brand recognition, recruiting (especially within the Millennial generation), and staff morale and retention.
“Community” really doesn’t require a physical space or location—there are millions of online communities, after all. It has been our experience, however, that given a little bit of space—which every business has to spare—creative and innovative activities, especially the arts, take root and flourish. We chose to create DC on Film Row and make it freely available because our community expressed a need and we opted to act contrary to a cliché. And, truthfully, we are probably a little bit nuts.
Not surprisingly, we also have a lot of fun. Excited, enthusiastic, smiling, energized, creative, and innovative people come together in our home and facilitate community each and every day. As Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” We are blessed with a front row seat to a wide swath of creativity having fun within Oklahoma City. Chalk up another win for serendipity.