The art of shared experience, a conversation with Director of Culture at The Grove Christina Kane

Christina Kane, Director of Culture at The Grove (photo by Rachel Liu Photography, courtesy Christina Kane)

When on the first day of Drawing 101 the Professor asked the class to draw a vase on a stool, Christina put her years of doodling in notebooks to work. “Flip your easel around,” said the Professor. “What?” Looking around, Christina was mortified. “Why is everyone in Drawing 101 if they know how to draw?” They had drawn “the vase, the room…me behind the vase.”

Through honest, supportive feedback and “[celebrating] each other’s brilliance,” the students cultivated an environment of “dynamic joy” and Christina learned how to draw. This context was as much ephemeral as it was unique. Subsequent art classes did not have the same coordinated growth: they started “learning as individuals rather than growing and learning with each other.”

The question then is how can culture conducive to progress be cultivated and sustained?

Today Christina is based in New Haven, a “transient city” of “brilliant thinkers and innovators” tucked between New York and Boston. Woven together like a quilt of nine squares, New Haven is the first planned city in the United States. With its restaurants, parks, and galleries, New Haven was for Christina the “first city that felt like a friend”. The opportunity to stand in front of a Van Gogh for free “felt like someone who knows what kind of flower you like and leaves one on your bathroom counter.” New Haven has “so much, but it’s small enough to make a difference.”

In the same vein, Christina cultivates small scale cues at The Grove to build an energizing, thoughtfully curated workplace for around 150 entrepreneurs, freelancers, and remote workers in New Haven. Her strategy of shaping the environment with “more intention” emerges in small efforts, such as mugs invitingly lined up by the coffee machine as a visual cue to “make yourself at home.” It also advances through culture-friendly behaviors. When a new member joins The Grove, she takes them on a tour and introduces them to community members. Christina started noticing others doing the same on their self-initiated tours.

In considering the broader culture canvas, Christina — who in her free time creates art “bigger than what fits into people’s houses” — manages “visual orchestration” to make the space “exciting and feel good.” From moving walls to mobile whiteboards, she continually reconfigures the space to the needs of the community. To fuel this constant adaption, she talks to members and observes traffic patterns. She notices if people always sit in one area and not in another and adjusts the layout accordingly.

She also fosters connections by orchestrating creative experiences. At weekly Wine Down Wednesdays, the community comes together at 4:30pm to “sit, sip, and share.” The rules of the social gathering are simple: you cannot pour your own glass. “Is that so I don’t drink all the wine?” a new member asked. It is “actually so members get to know one another. Someone else has to notice that your glass is empty. If no one is noticing, you have to ask.” It’s at the “heart of what we are trying to cultivate. You start noticing other people’s glasses” and that “creates a cycle that’s so life-giving and beneficial.” It’s “so simple. It’s not a complicated program.”

For Christina, creating culture is a practice of “how to get things done in dynamics.” Whether in support of learning how to draw or launching a startup, a deliberately curated shared experience at its roots arises from the practice of “how to connect, create trust, and accomplish something.”