This essay was originally published in Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts by the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Many thanks to Linda Essig for permission to syndicate it on Jumper.
On Entrepreneurialism and Publicness (or Whose Theater Is It, Really?) by Diane Ragsdale
But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.
President John F. Kennedy (Remarks at Amherst College, 1963)
In his paper on the creative industries and cultural entrepreneurship Richard Swedberg examines “the parallels between the entrepreneur and the artist, according to the young [Joseph] Schumpeter” (Swedberg, 2006, p. 250). Swedberg conveys that, among other characteristics, the artist/entrepreneur (as contrasted with the static majority) “puts together new combinations,” “battles resistance to his actions,” and is “motivated by power and joy in creation.” I was disquieted when I encountered this discussion of cultural entrepreneurship a few years ago; however, it took completing a case study on the Margo Jones Theatre last year for me to identify the source of my unease.
Margo Jones is generally credited by theater historians with having founded the prototypical nonprofit-but-professional resident theater in Dallas, Texas in 1947. Among a handful of “pattern-setting elements” attributed to Jones’s theater, her adoption of the nonprofit form is said to have had “the most far-reaching effects” on regional theater in America (Berkowitz, 1982, p. 58). It is difficult to refute the statement if one considers that before 1950 there were almost no examples of professional (read: unionized) theaters organized as nonprofit corporations and that today there are hundreds. Nevertheless, it is ironic that one of the few enduring dimensions of Jones’s unique theater model—which combined elements of the community, academic, art, and commercial theater—was its nonprofit status.
While Jones founded her theater as a nonprofit “civic venture” (Jones, 1951, p. 67) there is considerable evidence that she didn’t actually run it like one. Jones is said to have “believed firmly that the head of a theatre must of necessity be an autocrat—which [she] unquestionably was” (Larsen, 1982, p. 123). Likewise, her biographer relays that when the business chairman of the board “expressed a desire to have more authority over how money was spent and accounted for,” Jones declared, “I will not be confined!” and “demanded 100 percent artistic and financial control” (Sheehy, 1989, p. 236). In return, the board of directors gave Jones a “free hand” and “unquestioning support” (Wilmeth, 1989, p. 365). Evidently, it “was not disposed to refusing her whatever she wanted” (Larsen, 1982, p. 183). Jones was able to dominate the theater in part because the economics of the arena-style venue she created enabled “the organization to depend solely on ticket sales for operating expenses” (Wilmeth, 1965, p. 269). Moreover, Jones actively avoided soliciting donations from the community, beyond the $40,000 (in 1946 dollars) she raised to convert a found space into a theater and produce her first season.
In her manifesto-handbook, Theatre-in-the-Round, Jones suggests three business forms that a resident theater might take: nonprofit, sole proprietorship, or stock company funded with investments from shareholders (Jones, 1951, p. 66-67). One of Jones’s so-called followers—though a maverick in her own right—was Zelda Fichandler, who co-founded the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 1950 as a stock company utilizing shareholder investments. It sustained itself on box office income and converted to the nonprofit form only when doing so became a condition of a significant grant from the Ford Foundation. For years after the conversion, Fichandler expressed concerns about the potential influence of the public on the institution—a worry captured and explained in this poetic passage (Fichandler, 1970, p. 110):
I am not very strong on community giving, except perhaps when it represents only a small percentage of the total. I think we could well do without the hand that rocks the cradle, for the hand that rocks the cradle will also want to raise it in a vote and mix into the pie with it. For while a theatre is a public art and belongs to its public, it is an art before it is public and so it belongs first to itself and its first service must be self-service. A theatre is part of its society. But it is a part which must remain apart since it is also chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater—another organization that consulted with Jones before opening—was founded in 1954 as a hybrid nonprofit-stock company. It solicited donations from the community, which it combined with investments by its founder, Mary Widrig John, who held a majority of shares in the stock corporation. This unorthodox pairing reflected John’s desire (akin to that of Margo Jones) to involve the community financially in raising a theater from the ground, but to exercise control over its direction once raised. According to one chronicler, there was “growing dissension among the staff and board of directors regarding John’s authority. The crucial question to be answered was whether the theatre belonged to John or to the public” (Pinkston, 1989, p. 377). The matter eventually went to court and a judge ruled that the theater could not be nonprofit and have shareholders. It became a non-stock nonprofit corporation and John departed.
One imagines that if Certified B Corporations or Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporations had been in existence at the time either one would have been a preferable legal structure for these theaters, given the goals of their entrepreneurial leaders. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing the creation and adoption of hybrid forms of organization alongside the emergence of social, cultural, creative, and arts entrepreneurs. Such forms are ideally suited to those who want to do work that benefits society but don’t want to relinquish ownership or control over their enterprises to do so.
And this brings me to the source of my unease. For all intents and purposes, the Margo Jones Theatre (née Theatre ’47) was operated by Jones as if it were a sole proprietorship (i.e. a private enterprise). Put another way, in terms of funding and control, Jones’s theater was, to a great extent, lacking in publicness (see e.g. Andrews, R., Boyne, G. A. & Walker, R. M., 2011). Moreover, the characteristics that made Jones a highly successful artist/entrepreneur made it nearly impossible for the board of the nonprofit theater (owned by no one and therefore everyone) to exercise what is now generally taken to be good governance, including: oversight of the theater’s financial health, determination of the theater’s goals, and representation of the public’s interest in the theater. Tellingly, following Jones’s untimely death in 1955, the board of directors seized the power that had been denied them for years, dismantled many of Jones’s policies, and took the theater in a different (and ultimately fatal) direction.
As I ponder the motives, opportunities, and means of the three pioneering leaders highlighted in this essay, the parallel characteristics of the artist and entrepreneur as theorized by Schumpeter, and the emergence of new hybrid private/public organizational forms, a philosophical question emerges—in large part because I hear calls these days for nonprofit arts organizations to become both more entrepreneurial (i.e. innovative and self-sustaining) and more communal (i.e. responsive to, or representative of, the communities they ostensibly exist to serve).
Is there an inherent, underexamined, and perhaps necessarily unresolvable conflict between the autonomy or authority needed by the artist/entrepreneur and the publicness required of the 501c3 charitable nonprofit, in order for them effectively to fulfill their respective roles vis-à-vis society?
Andrews, R., Boyne, G. A. & Walker, R. M. (2011). Dimensions of publicness and organizational performance: A review of the evidence. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Volume 21(Issue Supplement 3), i301-i319.
Berkowitz, G. M. (1982). New Broadways: Theatre across America 1950-1980. Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield.
Fichandler, Z. (1970). Theatres or institutions? The American Theatre 1969-70: International Theatre Institute of the United States, Volume 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Jones, M. (1951). Theatre-in-the-Round. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Kennedy, J. F. (1963). Remarks at Amherst College, October 26, 1963. Retrieved at: https://www.arts.gov/about/kennedy-transcript
Larsen, J. B. (1982). Margo Jones: A Life in the Theatre (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. 8222956)
Pinkston, A. (1989). Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. In W. B. Durham (Ed.) American Theatre Companies, 1931-1986 (376-386). New York: Greenwood Press.
Sheehy, H. (1989/2005). Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones (1st paperback ed.) Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
Swedberg, R. (2006). The cultural entrepreneur and the creative industries: Beginning in Vienna. Journal of Cultural Economics, Volume 30(4), 243-261.
Wilmeth, D. B. (1965). A History of the Margo Jones Theatre (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. 6503696)
Wilmeth, D. B. (1989). Margo Jones Theatre. In W. B. Durham (Ed.) American Theatre Companies, 1931-1986 (362-369). New York: Greenwood Press.