Arts Incubators: Creating a Roadmap for Resilience

Posted by Ebony McKinney, Nov 30, 2011 7 comments

Ebony McKinney

This post is part of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council.

Increased creative freedom, autonomy, and flexibility have come with a more precarious work style. This is becoming the new normal, even outside of the creative realm.

Does this make artists and creatives "new economy pioneers" prototyping the workstyle of the ‘conceptual age'? If so, what advice can we offer? Can we create a roadmap for resilience?

In this post I’d like to consider how arts incubators play an important role in not only supporting innovation and risk taking, but also by cultivating our most important assets -- social and human capital.


In 2007, Bay Area Video Coalition’s (BAVC) Producers Institute for New Media, began in San Francisco. The institute was developed because BAVC recognized that traditional cinema didn’t inspire people to take action. Also, new media was becoming more prolific and gradually more accessible.

When the Institute started there was no FaceBook or Twitter, but Carol Varney, managing director of BAVC said, “We thought that new media could complement long form film and not just in promotion.”

At the heart of the program it’s about new skills for filmmakers and new ways to think about content creation and delivery.

Each session takes six to nine teams of two to four people who are selected by a jury of BAVC board and staff, filmmakers, and technologists in the field. 42 people have gone through the program since it began.

The session starts with introductions and initial pitches from each of the teams. Then technologists and other leaders in field carry out rapid-fire tech talks letting the producers know things they should consider. Varney said, “It's about what’s happening now and in the future, not looking at past technology.”

Over the course of 10 days filmmakers develop a prototype with assistance from technology advisers who hail from firms like Zinga, Google, and Pentagram.

Participants share information over meals and talk about how to make projects better. This creative time has been found to be one the most beneficial parts of the program, according to participants. Not only are ideas exchanged and refined, but community is built.

At the end of the session there is a final presentation day with major funders from all over country.

Varney said, “Over the course of four years, we have gone from ‘the film is done now, what can we do on the internet?’ to thinking ‘my film isn’t done yet, what mobile application can I develop?’ It’s more integrated thinking, and thinking around an interactive experience. What was long form documentary could now end up as smaller cuts made into webisodes. We want to create an environment where people can think about projects in more dynamic ways, opening up the possibilities.”


In New York, Creative Capital grew out of the demise of individual grants from the National Endowments for the Arts. The Andy Warhol Foundation and a few others thought a response to support individual artists and risk taking should be developed. It was the middle of the boom and venture capitalism was growing in popularity.

Ruby Lerner, director of Creative Capital, was charged with creating a "21st century arts organization," drawing inspiration from venture capitalists and mutual aid models, and thinking through the possibility of bringing together grantmaking and artist services, while incorporating an entrepreneurial spirit.

The staff at Creative Capital wanted to move artists out of the "starving artist mindset" and treat them as vital parts of the community by exposing avenues to a sustainable career, which would allow for more meaning and dignity. Over 400 artists have become part of the program since it began in 1999.

“We serve the functions of an incubator. We are pulling people together in virtual and real space, interdisciplinary space, and retreats. Emerging fields, filmmakers, visual artists, novelists, dancers...everyone gets to have a conversation about what they are working on and struggle with [and] what is failing and succeeding. This leads to problem solving and new ideas,” said Director of Grants and Services Kemi Ilesanmi.

The retreat is the foundation of the program. For three to five days, grantees participate in professional development workshops, but the social capital or network development that’s done is equally important.

Programmers, presenters, curators -- those representing the "business side of the art world" -- and Creative Capital alumni meet and mingle with the current grantees.

Here are a few possible lessons for the field:

A.) Human capital is roughly the set of skills acquired on the job or through training and experience that supports the production of work that has economic value. Arts incubators, with a complementary set of workshops, panel discussions, and the like support the development of strong work and careers. For many, the benefits go beyond finance by increasing the artist’s ability to generate cultural value be it aesthetic, symbolic, social, and even historical. I’d like to see similar efforts focus on creative and cultural entrepreneurs.

B.) Both of the programs that I examined created "contact zones" -- dinners with BAVC’s producing teams, Creative Capital’s retreat -- which placed a real emphasis on social capital, network building, and knowledge sharing. Many incubators seem to toy with the idea of promoting collaboration among its participants. To me this seems a bit heavy handed. But there does seem to be great potential in creating labs or basins that accumulate this wealth in a more organic way. A smart, heterogeneous gathering around shared values and interests could build a more dynamic, innovative, and complex talent pool. This kind of endeavor with light facilitation could also break the isolation that goes along with increasingly individualized work.

C.) Artists and arts organizations are understandably worried that thinking too much of market forces could lead to pandering, commodification, or flat, hollow work. Cultural value is predominant, but having a balanced view that incorporates a clear economic outlook should also be a part of the puzzle. Clarity on scale and direction are vital, so that business is in service of greater goals. “Not everyone wants to think as a small business”, said Kemi Ilesanmi of Creative Capital, “but we encourage artists to think about what it takes to do what they do. We say ‘If you want a review or to contribute to a conversation, or just want to figure out how to do meaningful work and pay rent’ we can lay it out, frame it, and present it as possible.”

7 responses for Arts Incubators: Creating a Roadmap for Resilience


December 02, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Hi Linda! Nice to make your acquaintance. Funny coincidence, but I just joined your Facebook page earlier this week. It seems like you are doing marvellous work. Thanks for your comment.

Yes, I’m aware that many incubators also have co-working spaces. I actually belonged to one when I was in the Bay Area. But I guess my point is that just because the space is shared, does not mean that it is activated or cultivating social capital. In fact, many spaces are passive and turn into just a place to connect to wifi and eat your lunch. If the spaces you are talking about have the dynamics that I described I guess we are on the same page.

Yes, evaluation. I was aware of the conversation in the blogosphere and asked both of the groups that I interviewed about this. They each admitted that they are working to tighten up their evaluation process. BAVC looks at a few areas I believe in judging success 1.) a completed prototype at the end of 10 days (that hopefully takes into consideration the new media lectures and mentorship they’ve provided at the Institute) 2.) the leadership team’s ability to get funding for the project (BAVC does not provide funding, but does introduce Producing teams to funders). Additionally, they look projects’ awards and accolades (Emmy nominations, New York Times articles, ect.). From my point of view I wonder if they are able to measure if these projects are successful in moving an audience toward social action and possibly if the filmmaker has developed an expanded view of new media.

Creative Capital is a bit more individualized and focused on process. They have an initial grants assessment where they gauge the artist’s goals – artistic and personal. As of yet though these questions are not incorporated into some exit interview. Their stated goal is to promote resiliency and risk. I’d love to understand better how they measure. (A future blog post?) Of course many of their artists go on to receive outstanding accolades, so this factors in too. There is also a scheme where artists who are successful financially donate some portion of their earnings, but so far this has been largely symbolic. I love the idea of building in individual reflexivity. Good for Creative Capital. This is a key skill for any artist or cultural entrepreneur in this fast paced world.

But ultimately regarding impact, I would like to do more research. Product (prototype, business or strategic plan) or process (increased confidence, new skills, knowledge, relationships, outlook) or a combination thereof? If the incubator or artists goals are intrinsic, can they work together to devise benchmarks and measurement methods to see if the audience responded in the way the artist intended?

Also, besides the achievement of the individual, what are the incubator’s overall goals? Should they themselves be sustainable?

Funny, maybe I just wrote another post. Very best, Ebony

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December 02, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Hi Danielle,

Thanks so much for your response. Yes, I think I read about Zer01's garage. They received an ArtPlace grant Yes, I suppose incubators are becoming all the rage. I totally identified with Diane Ragsdale's post a few months ago "What are we incubating and toward what end" What is the strategic purpose? It doesn't have to be the same since different geographies have different needs.

Perhaps I should have included this in my post. I think it is difficult to be a provocative, risk taking artists these days. I'm studying in London now and we were talking about the vibrancy in the arts scene in the 70s and how much it had to do with the freedom that came along with free education, the dole (unemployment benefits) and cheap warehouses to squat in (post-industrial ruins) Now most have to live/work in a manner this is ultra lean. The US has many similarities (though higher education has never been free as far as I know) while bad times may produce good art; you've got to eat. Is there room for upstart ideas? Or are the good thoughts just swallowed up by big business? How can we support provocative, risky, innovative work from the bottom up? Maybe it's incubators. I'd like to do deeper research.

Also, I can't tell if you think 'a safety net for failure' is a good thing, but here is an interesting article.

Lastly, I often think we have too many organizations. Maybe they are not all meant to survive. I admit I'm kind of anti-institution. I like the fiscal sponsorship model for that reason. Ok, I waxed poetic long enough. Have a great weekend!

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December 01, 2011 at 3:15 pm

I see the "Lab" or "Incubator" model popping up everywhere. In fact ZERO1: The Art & Technology Network is working on one as well called the ZERO1 Garage where companies and artists can have a place to experiment and develop new ideas to solve world problems. I wonder if the lab concept creates a sort of safety net for failure or how these all will survive in the future.

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December 02, 2011 at 10:18 pm

You know, I wonder if social ventures model of SROI (social return on investment) could be tweaked for incubators and perhaps some strains of philanthropy? I may be naive, but I'm taking a class in it next term, so we'll see.

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November 30, 2011 at 11:45 am

Arts incubators come in many shapes and sizes. The two you examine may not at first blush seem like incubators in the traditional small business incubation sense, but they certainly fulfill an incubation function. For another example, you might be interested in learning about our university-based arts incubator, one of only four in the country:
The "contact zones" you describe function like the co-working spaces that are popping up in cities across the country, primarily to support small tech start-ups. One in this area, Gangplank ( ) provides not only space, but weekly workshops and meet-ups. (I am not affiliated with Gangpank, merely citing it as an example) There are some other good models for this kind structure in the commercial/non-arts world.
An issue that has cropped up recently in the blogosphere, and which deserves further study, is "How do we measure arts incubator success?" I would be interested in hearing from you on this topic.

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JD says
July 25, 2012 at 9:36 pm

IT'S STARTS WITH A FEASIBILITY STUDY in your region, I am doing one as we speak in Los Angeles. I am a consultant and will help any group that want's to to this. The GOAL: Train and Create either jobs or enterpreneurship opportunities. The Govt pays for the training (Hilda @ US LABOR DEPT) then you seek matching grants from either foundations that give to Mission-driven or program - driven projects; in other words, you must create a business that supports your non profit incubator. Get it?

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JD says
July 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

I know how to create incubators

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