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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The arts uncubator

The idea of a business incubator has been around for along while now, especially in cities encouraging 'light industrial' or technology start-ups in the for-profit world. The purpose of an incubator, as its name implies, is to provide space and resources for new business ideas (seedlings) to take root and grow. The ultimate success measure is when these small businesses grow large and self-sufficient enough to move out of the incubator space and into their own offices and warehouses.

The traditional incubator model includes subsidized rent in flexible warehouse/office space, access to financing, and management support and training services. According to the National Business Incubation Association (yes, again, there's an association for everything):

Incubators nurture young firms, helping them to survive and grow during the start-up period when they are most vulnerable. Incubators provide hands-on management assistance, access to financing and orchestrated exposure to critical business or technical support services. Most also offer entrepreneurial firms shared office services, access to equipment, flexible leases and expandable space -- all under one roof.

Always eager for a good idea, arts and city planning folks around the country have applied the same idea to artists and arts organizations. The 'arts incubator' is now a frequent initiative in community development plans, not just to foster arts activity but to revitalize blighted areas of town (see Flashpoint in DC, or the arts incubator in Arlington, VA, or another in San Jose, CA, or this book on the subject).

Arts incubators can be fabulous ways of aggregating resources, sharing space and infrastructure, clustering creative individuals to encourage collaboration, and bumping up the quality of work and quality of life of their participants. The challenge comes when such efforts inherit the end goal of their for-profit counterparts: growth and graduation.

Search most of these arts incubator descriptions, and you'll find the word 'growth' all over the place. The success measure, implicit or explicit, is to grow arts organizations out of these shared spaces and into their own. The extension of that assumption is that most will also 'grow' into individual nonprofit status, get their own governing boards, raise their own endowments or annual contributions, and move to self sufficiency.

For many small arts organizations and individuals, however, administrative growth can equal creative death. As I've ranted about before (here for example), when growth is the unquestioned goal, the administrivia of organizational life can quickly out-muscle the flexibility, creativity, innovation, and excitement of small arts activities. I've seen so many small arts organizations struggling under the weight of their corporate status and the structure it brings. Most of them only moved to nonprofit corporate status because they didn't know they had another choice (or several choices, for that matter), and because 'that's what arts organizations do.'

The truth is that there are many ways to align corporate status, tax status, resources, and energy to serve a creative mission. One of them is the traditional, stand-alone, nonprofit organization. But our collective emphasis on that model as 'best for all' has been a key part of the current challenges we now face in the industry.

So, what if an arts incubator worked specifically to keep arts organizations from growing in the administrative sense? What if they provided all the benefits of nonprofit status without encouraging individuals or organizations to move toward 'owning' those benefits themselves (primarily receiving tax-exempt contributions for most, but also the benefits of nonprofit bulk postage and other fiscal privileges)?

To tweak the metaphor, perhaps we could call these 'arts uncubators.' They would provide subsidized space, administrivia, payroll, and fiscal receivership/agency. But the goal of growth would be clearly and explicitly removed from the equation.

There are likely many attempts to do just this. If you know of some, please send them along.

posted on Tuesday, May 25, 2004 | permalink