GETTY: The perils of partnership

I’ve got one more post in me about the leadership meeting hosted back in June by the Getty Leadership Institute and National Arts Strategies in Los Angeles. The meeting, as you might recall, focused on the connects and disconnects between the for-profit and nonprofit cultural sectors. The goal was to define the difference, explore the common ground, and discuss where the twain could meet more effectively.

Of course, anytime you talk about any ‘twain’ meeting, you’re talking about partnership and collaboration…the formalized interconnection toward a common set of outcome goals. Here, the conversation ranged far and wide, from those suggesting there should be more connections, to those who were wary about bridging the chasm, to those who thought the whole distinction was a bit of a straw man to begin with.

The conference briefing paper outlined six areas where the nonprofit and for-profit creative industries might find more ways to connect effectively:

  • Community and economic development
    (Working together to define and enhance their collective impact on local community, economics, and civic life.)

  • Building the Talent Base
    (Recognizing their common need for creative and technically proficient individuals, and the way these individuals already cross boundaries throughout their careers.)

  • Programmatic Collaborations
    (Exploring the roles and capacities of each sector to generate new ideas, innovations, and a next generation of creative works.)

  • Distribution
    (The opportunity for production in one sector and distribution in another is already a vital connection for many creative works…from theater to books to music. Might this area be more carefully explored and exploited for the benefit of both for-profit and nonprofit?)

  • Funding
    (Exploring the idea of successful for-profit creative enterprise providing more financial support to the nonprofit ecosystem…obviously an idea that rings true for the nonprofit side, and a sounds bit whiny to the for-profit.)

  • Cultural Policy
    (Government, funding, and other policies that affect one sector will often affect both…from copyright to international visas to censorship to zoning. Perhaps there is a more powerful way of exploring and influencing these policies if nonprofit and for-profit work more closely.)

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of such collaboration, among them different values of ownership, different incentives, different decision-making criteria, different definitions of success, and a vastly different capacity or leverage in bargaining or contracts between for-profits and nonprofits.

Some specific examples of production partnerships between commercial and non-commercial theater underscored the complexity of such agreements…and the waves of unintended consequences that can flow from them. Nonprofit theater companies may enter into such collaborations without the organizational capacity to carry them through, without a clear understanding of how the commercial endeavor will impact their public perception as a mission-driven organization, and without a safety net if the project goes south after they’ve sunk their initial production costs. On the other side, the for-profit may be frustrated with the nonprofit’s focus on aesthetic detail over consumer connection, and the slow process by which nonprofits aggregate resources and determine direction.

At the end of the day, however, the boundaries between for-profit and nonprofit creative activity are about as limiting as the borders between states: they are important in some essential issues (like if you’re eluding the law), but irrelevant to the bulk of activity. Artists jump from side to side without blinking. Organizations on one side use suppliers and professionals from the other (think of commercial touring shows and nonprofit presenters, museums and art dealers, orchestras and independent contractor musicians). And the illusion of being separate in our choices and our outcomes is often more about comfort than about fact.

I’ve gone on before about how the word and concept of ‘partnership’ can actually keep us apart. And while the Getty meeting worked well in teasing out our perceived separateness, it was clearly only the beginning of a much longer conversation. Who’s going to pick it up from here?