What are we incubating and to what end?

A couple weeks back Thomas Cott published an issue of “You’ve Cott Mail” centered loosely on the theme of innovation and business incubators in the arts world, in which he linked to a post by one of my favorite bloggers/researchers/thinkers, Devon Smith. Devon contrasted the concept of ‘incubator’ in the tech world and the arts world. After reading her post I was curious to read up on technology and business incubators and ask myself what, exactly, arts incubators are incubating and to what end?

Devon makes the point that in the tech world it is ‘demo or die’ and that, in contrast, many arts incubators tend to be about process without the expectation of a deliverable on a certain time frame. Devon characterizes it as ‘we’re here to support you in however much you get accomplished for however long you are here’. Beyond the expectation to ‘demo or die’, however, there’s something else I learned in my reading: business incubators, philosophically and practically speaking, perceive themselves to be incubating the entire enterprise. At the end of 33 months (the average amount of time spent in a business incubator) it is expected that the startup can leave the nest with a viable business model and product and fly on its own.

How do these business incubators develop the whole enterprise? Devon talks about this in her post, as well, but I found a couple things particularly interesting. First, while they don’t necessarily provide venture capital, business incubators often serve as brokers and introduce entrepreneurs to venture capitalists, other successful entrepreneurs, or people that have knowledge and skills needed by the startup. Second, a successful tech incubator will provide access to high-end technology, as well as high-level marketing support, comprehensive adminstrative support, and hands-on business planning.

After reading about business incubators it struck me that it seems important to distinguish the purpose of an ‘incubator’ from (1) a one-to-three week ‘workshop’ or ‘residency’, which is meant to give an artist time to further develop a particular project and (2) ‘access to affordable office space, basic equipment, and business classes’ — which seem to be common types of support offered to artists and arts companies. These are not without value; but I would suggest that (particularly when provided by separate hosts) they do not an incubator make, if ‘incubation’ suggests a range of support and services aimed at making a venture viable and launching it into the world with a greater chance at success.

Devon suggests that art incubators seem to be reluctant to hold the groups they are incuabting accountable for success beyond a ‘good process’ and hypothesizes that perhaps arts incubators are ‘too nice, too forgiving’. I wonder whether the laissez faire nature of many arts incubators is a symptom of two things. (1) The rejection for the past 100 plus years of the notion that great art works can be born of a ‘shared vision’ between patron/investor and artist. (2) The widespread belief in the ‘fine arts world’ that ‘being truly artistic, excellent and innovative’ and ‘keeping an eye to the market with the goal of eventually selling the work to a mainstream audience’ are mutually exclusive endeavors.

Yes, it’s important to distinguish between the processes that best support the making or preservation of culture and those that best support its exploitation. But distinguishing between these two processes does not suggest that the two cannot coexist or that we should necessarily reject the latter as a goal if we care about the former.

What is the goal of a successful arts incubator? What should it be? Is it wrong to think that it should be not only about improving the quality of the work but also about discovering avenues by which to exploit it (i.e. derive full value from it) in the marketplace?





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  1. says

    “What [should be] the goal of a successful arts incubator?” Good question. I say: the time, resources, and appropriate mentorship for arts organizations/collectives/artist(s) to *realize* (i.e. *make real*) good process & good product. Most incubated tech co’s don’t realize a sustainable business model in a 4 month residency. But they do build a working prototype, build skills to help them survive on their own, and develop relationships that will sustain them over time.

    • says

      My observation is that it takes, on average, about 18 months for a project or organizational idea to go from initial idea to “prototype” (first workshop, performance, exhibition). Some may come to an incubator with a ready-to-launch project, but for others (especially students or those just starting out) it is the very existence of the incubator that — at least in part — spurs the initiation of venture development. Some never get to the prototype stage at all, but learn a lot along the way.

  2. says

    Hi Diane,

    I write more about this here (http://www.artsjournal.com/newbeans), but my main question here is how to proceed forward with any sort of new incubation model without first tackling the fact that we don’t have common metrics for success — and in fact, many in the arts community actively fight against common metrics for success. How do you measure whether, after 33 hypothetical months, an arts organization is succeeding? Surely not simply, as in the tech world, by whether it is able to attract sufficient income to survive? Or perhaps I shouldn’t be so sure about that–as I think you told me, it wasn’t so long ago that this whole concept that arts organizations could/should continue to exist beyond their sustainable life as dictated by earned income would have been viewed as silly, and arts organizations were therefore expected to succeed or fail on popular whim the same way everything else does. But I do wonder whether we want to go back to that–and if we don’t, what deems an incubated organization able to “fly?”

  3. says

    Having served as director of program on an arts incubator board for seven years, I agree with the concerns
    outlined. I think the mistake we made was not rigorously moving members through the entire program and out the door. In any type of incubator, some dreamers are there because they don’t have the drive, instead of not having
    the right tools to succeed. They see an incubator as a refuge and place of social engagement.
    This is now compounded by the “no child left behind” thinking of young adults. Too many passively wait for direction and are very risk adverse.

  4. says

    I’m currently help design the strategy for an incubator of sorts for life science start-ups, but as a painter, too, I am interested in the potential cross-over or spill-over of learning, perhaps in both directions. More observations as this stage: early-stage facilities such as incubators are just that, early stage, and not for life. That means that those involved know that not only is a clock ticking but various goals are in the frame. Start-ups get to be start-ups because they show potential, that means they have something that is worth developing in ways that incubators can help. That means that the incubators themselves need to be clear about what they are for (and not for). With these goals in mind we have a future orientation leading to bringing something into existence that hasn’t existed before. As mentioned by others, all this is not just about process; often milestones are used to measure movement toward these goals. Assessment methods abound but the balanced-scorecard is commonly used, and there is little reason not to use them in the arts as they are widely used to assess policy programmes (such as arts funding programmes…).

    Like others I am grappling with what lessons might be learnt from the incubator notion. The one thing that keeps coming to mind is that incubators are linked to innovation, not production, but that there is a launch point where production takes off and it is time to pay rent elsewhere. That would suggest some learning around the reconceptualisation of art as innovative productive work and not (merely) a culturally desirable good thing. All the biotechnology companies in incubators all think they are solving health problems with often staggering consequences for the people with these diseases, but if they fail they fail despite the social good that might result. Others come along and pick up the pieces and move on in other ways.

    In the end, the process is about filtering varying degrees of future success and finding winners. The process is Darwinian. And like any human endeavour, it is possible to measure degrees of success against these goals.

    Art isn’t like that but perhaps there is no notion of ‘artistic failure’ to go with incubation?


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