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Art…and the Stagnant Business of Art (an EALS Post)

Steven Dawson

Steven Dawson

What happens when an arts organization’s business model no longer works?

Well, as with the metaphor of the shark, it must continue to move forward or it will die.

For decades, the arts organization model has remained largely unchallenged, because there was no reason to challenge it. It almost served as a microcosm of “The American Dream.”

Everyone wanted to start their own organization, and the great entrepreneurial spirit in the United States created a thriving environment for this mindset. Margo Jones, one of the regional theatre pioneers in the 1950s, supported the idea, saying “What our country needs today, theatrically speaking, is a resident professional theatre in every city with a population over one hundred thousand.”

However, as Rocco Landesman so famously said, audiences have begun to dwindle while the number of organizations continues to rise, and there should be fewer arts organizations. I am in no way saying that some organizations should just close up shop so that another can benefit. But this is definitely something to think about.

There are only so many contributed dollars out there for the arts. This trend of continued marketplace crowding will eventually lead to organizations relying quite heavily on earned income to meet budget. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, many organizations must keep prices low (affordable) in order to fulfill their missions. Put those two factors together, and it doesn’t add up to success. 

But some organizations are creating their own remedy for the situation. Program partnerships between organizations with similar missions are sprouting up all over, and outright mergers are becoming less and less surprising.

Noted thought leader in organization business models, Andrew Taylor, also preaches that not every great idea warrants its own non-profit organization. (Check out his fantastic presentation on the topic on the Fractured Atlas Blog.)

On top of that, Marilyn Struthers notes that foundations and other funders are no longer interested in funding “stability” and are now interested in funding “flexibility” in arts organizations. My own experience writing grant proposals in the past year supports this. Every proposal instruction packet specifically asked how the organization could handle changes.

We must be open to changing our thinking about the arts business model in order to continue the success of arts organizations in the United States.

The New/Innovative Organization Models panel at the 6th annual Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium at American University on April 7 is a fantastic opportunity to discuss what’s next for the arts business model. You can join some of the greatest leaders in the topic for an intimate conversation. Those panelists include:

Thaddeus Squire – Culture Works Greater Philadelphia: Squire has been hailed as a “visionary” voice in the contemporary arts by David Patrick Stearns of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in 2011 was named one of Philadelphia’s top 76 “Creative Connectors” by Leadership Philadelphia. He has also received Philadelphia City Paper’s “Big Vision Issue Choice Awards ‘09” for his work as originator and producer of Hidden City Philadelphia. He is a curator, consultant, writer, and producer. In 2005, he founded Peregrine Arts, which served the fine and performing arts, and history/heritage fields with integrated creative, management, and audience engagement services. In early 2010, Mr. Squire retired the Peregrine brand to create two new organizations: Hidden City Philadelphia and CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, the latter of which will continue Peregrine’s consulting and management work.

Rachel Grossman – dog&pony DC: Grossman is a performing artist, administrator, and producer working in non-profit arts, education, and community program management in the Washington, DC area. Rachel spent two years at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company launching their “connectivity” innovation and serving as the company’s first Connectivity Director. She spent four seasons as the Director of Education & Outreach at Round House Theatre and prior to that she managed programming in the education and community programs departments at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, and CENTERSTAGE (Baltimore, MD). She was an Associate Producer for the 2010 Source Festival, focusing on Literary Management and Casting, and also spent a few years producing with eXtreme eXchange. Rachel is a former member of Referendum: Political Arts Collective, performed with DC Playback Theatre, and adjudicated with the Helen Hayes Awards. Rachel served on the Interactivity Foundation’s Arts & Society panel, exploring the arts and public policy.

Margaret Boozer – Red Dirt Studio: Boozer lives and works in the Washington, DC metro area. Her work is included in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Museum of the City of New York, The US Department of State, The Wilson Building Public Art collection and in many private collections. Boozer taught for ten years at the Corcoran College of Art and Design before founding Red Dirt Studio in Mt. Rainier, MD where she directs a ceramics and sculpture seminar. Her Red Dirt Seminar is a graduate school with no grades. It’s a sculpture studio with a taste for ceramics. It’s a collective work environment with shared resources. It’s a critique group.  It’s a business-of-art incubator.  It’s an exhibition space, a workspace for visiting artists, and on random Friday afternoons, the site of spirited art discussions with interesting visitors.  At its core, Red Dirt is about what can happen with the coming-together of talented, smart and curious people, working toward greater accomplishment in their professional practice.  It’s about drawing on the resources of artistic community, and at the same time giving back.

Moderator Andrew Taylor: E. Andrew Taylor is an Assistant Professor in the Arts Management Program at American University, exploring the intersection of arts, culture, and business. An author, lecturer, and researcher on a broad range of arts management issues, Andrew has also served as a consultant to arts organizations and cultural initiatives throughout the U.S. and Canada, including Overture Center for the Arts, American Ballet Theatre, Create Austin, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among others. Prior to joining the AU faculty, Andrew served as Director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in the Wisconsin School of Business for over a decade. Andrew is past president of the Association of Arts Administration Educators, and is a consulting editor both for The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society and for Artivate, a journal for arts entrepreneurship. Since July 2003, he has written a popular weblog on the business of arts and culture, “The Artful Manager,” hosted by

Please join us at the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium, coming up on April 7 in Washington, DC (just before Arts Advocacy Day)! Spend a whole day with other amazing arts managers—hear from great speakers, share your knowledge, and learn something new. Also, be sure to like and follow EALS on Facebook and Twitter for new announcements and symposium news.

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