Bridging the Nonprofit/For-profit Arts/Creative Industry Divide

Posted by Mr. Gary P. Steuer, Mar 11, 2010 6 comments

We recently ran a Creative Economy Workforce grants program with funding provided by the special Community Development Block Grant allocation increase under the Recovery Act (CDBG-R). Quite a mouthful, and quite an ordeal in terms of paperwork to administer. BUT, what operating this program highlighted was the need to move beyond our traditional definition of how we define the arts, and the sorts of activity that is funded or supported. In effect, we are trying to perform sophisticated surgery on the patient with rusty sabers and sledgehammers—our tools are not appropriate to the job we have to do.

Increasingly, creative activity is happening within a for-profit or hybrid context. Many of the most innovative artists studio and live/workspace developments happening in Philadelphia right now are not initiated by nonprofit organizations but by creative entrepreneurs who have identified a market niche and are seeking to fill it. We have a commercial developer looking to create a public sculpture garden because they feel it will add value to their property and help attract and serve their tenants. We have a recycling company that wants to add artist studio space to their recycling plant so artists can work on site with recycled materials. One of our most successful creative economy/technology co-working spaces got started with no government input or support or even any type of philanthropic support.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the death of the nonprofit arts model, but the model is not dead. We are just moving into an era where an array of different models exist to make and support art and creativity. Some are for-profit and some nonprofit. Yet we (as in the "arts funding and policy sector") are all set up to support and study nonprofit arts groups—and maybe individual artists. And our commercial economic development folks largely ignore creative businesses and artists as an industry segment. Even in my own city, I find it somewhat concerning that tremendous energy and resources are going into fostering "green" jobs, when there is an opportunity to support a vibrant creative economy sector that already exists. And, of course, the two are totally connected as a successful green economy depends on innovation and creativity—designers, architects, landscape architects, etc.

For our CDBG-R program we learned that it was unprecedented for the City to be making "grants" to for-profit businesses; it simply did not fit into the system. But why not?  If our goal is to foster our creative sector, create temporary and long-term jobs, improve our neighborhoods, why should it matter what the corporate structure is of the entity that is helping us achieve those goals? I remember having a conversation with Gregory Peck years ago (he was an investor in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" which I produced Off Broadway in NYC), and he told me of the first few years of the NEA when he was on the National Council - he remembered with great wistfulness the fact that in those early years they (the Council—there was little staff yet) were able to go around and identify what needed to be supported to advance the arts in America. He recalled one grant (made at the suggestion of violinist Isaac Stern, another early Councilmember) to an elderly business-owner who was one of the last remaining links to the art-form of hand-crafting rosin for bows. He was not a nonprofit corporation, and was not even a maker of art directly. But the craft he practiced was essential to musicians, and the grant allowed him to stay in business and train apprentices before retiring. Today that grant could not be made.

Somehow we need to change how government cultural and economic development agencies operate, how foundations operate, how policies are developed and implemented. Should Americans for the Arts be working as hard as it does on NEA funding, to help ensure that the new landscape of commercial music provides opportunities for young musicians, airplay on the radio, access to iTunes distribution, etc.? There is some good work happening with NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's reaching out to all the cabinet members to explore the role of the arts in Commerce, HUD, Interior, etc. But we need to make sure that new way of thinking is reflected at the state and local levels, in private funding, and in our thought leaders.

This "brave new world" can seem scary. We worry if traditional art forms and structures like symphony orchestras and opera and art museums will survive. I think the answer is yes, but that the business models and structures may in ten or twenty years look nothing like what we see today. Why couldn't an art museum's art department also be a commercial graphic design firm working for outside clients, or their lighting and exhibition design department providing consulting services to high-end retailers? Why can't a symphony orchestra also be the orchestra for a local opera and ballet company, or be contracted to record jingles or movie soundtracks? I am sure these ideas can easily be shot down, but I provide them just as brief examples of the kind of thinking that is on the horizon where our commercial and nonprofit business models will blend into hybrids. We can bemoan this as a loss of purity, but it is a purity we never truly possessed to start with.

My rabble-rousing thoughts for the day...

6 responses for Bridging the Nonprofit/For-profit Arts/Creative Industry Divide


March 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Thanks for the comment Barbara, and apologies for not noting the Vineyard Theatre relationship with Lady Day. Actually, that project itself represented this sort of blurring of the lines. As you know, the show began at a nonprofit theatre, attracted considerable investor interest for a continued commercial life, but no commercial producers. The Vineyard was advised by counsel that it legally could not be the producer, so as Managing Director of the Vineyard I decided to become the general partner for the commercial production in order to make sure the Off Broadway transfer could happen. That commercial production allowed many thousands of people to see this theatre piece, and also to be introduced to the Vineyard Theatre (though it didn't make as much money for the Vineyard as we would have liked...). I think as time goes on we are going to be seeing many more hybrid entities in the arts, with linked non-profit and for-profit components.

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March 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

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March 16, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I agree with Gary, but then, I always have. We worked on LADY DAY together when I was Executive Director of the Vineyard Theatre in NY. My new organization, Making Books Sing, is looking to franchise our family theater work nationally, using our website. Board members who work in the for profit theater world are helping us create a business model that more closely resembles thiers. Another board member with a public relations and marketing company helped us with our web site. It's all done pro bono, which means when they have the time. If we could get a govt. grant to pay them for helping us to function at a higher level, everyone would benefit.

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March 11, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Agreed. The artists are in the lead on this. Here's one example: one of the symphony musicians in our city (who also serves on our Commission),is also responsible for an enterprise that hires his colleagues and other free lance musicians to produce soundtrack recordings for major motion pictures, generating extra work for the musicians, and pumping millions of dollars annually into our local economy. Now, this may not directly help the symphony, but it does create more opportunities for symphony musicians to earn a good living. By simply shifting our primary focus from "organizational structure" to "the activity that provides benefit to the community," the leap should not so difficult.

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Barry Hessenius says
March 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I think Gary's points are dead on. His examples cite a practical attempt to understand what the private sector might want from us, as well as what it might offer to us -- yielding rewarding, if surprising, results. My point in trying to pay more attention to what business really wants. We will I suppose have to get away from past thinking about those relationships and challenge our basic assumptions.

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