This is a guest post from Misha Penton.
The Indie Performing Artist
It’s time to reconsider the nonprofit model as the only way to do business in the performing arts. When it comes to performance works, smaller really is better: a smaller enterprise lends itself to hybrid business practices that continue to emerge as artists use their creativity to tackle the business side of making art. Embracing a for-profit model or a hybrid for-profit/non-profit enterprise (like fiscal sponsorship), are viable business options for artists. Funding organizations really do roll their eyes these days, when yet another nonprofit, pops up with its hands out. Reality: no one is gonna pay your tab.
Remaining independent as a performing artist and forming project-based artist cohorts yields a creative process that is more easily funded and managed – from page to stage – than is possible with traditional institutional models. I’m not sure if we can dump donations altogether, but moving toward a for-profit arts model gives artists more independence from donors and granting institutions, and more time to focus on making art. Unjustified dogma in the non-profit world blames the for-profit sector for being beholden to the whims of their audience. Really? Perhaps those critical of for-profit arts might consider taking a good look at the absurd specificity of many grant guidelines (including their funding time-lines) and the beyond-the-pale hoops they entail, as well as admitting to what goes into coaxing Grandma to fork over a grand for next season. The party line states that traditional fundraising strategies are easier/better/more profitable than experimenting with non-traditional revenue generation. Hmmmm….I question that.
Making fast, non-committee decisions is super-effective. It is your Secret Weapon as an independent artist. No, you do not need to have a meeting about a meeting to decide when to have the meeting to pick the colors for the flyer. Get people involved in your process whom you trust to do their brilliant work on and off stage. The world changes daily and there is simply no time to wait for a board to meet twice a year. Nonprofit organizations respond far too slowly to creative needs and cultural shifts.
Audiences are interested in connecting personally with the artists; therefore, collaborate with the same performers and the same creative team consistently (as is reasonable). A performance company is the same as a rock band. People come to see you and connect with you. Put a face and a personality on your company or cohort. No one wants to support some impersonal organization. Build one-on-one relationships with other artists, peers, and audience members. Commit to your personal artistic vision and forget about the “market” or what the audience might “want”. Focus on presenting a polished, minimal, high quality performance. Consider that In Process can be Polished – don’t worry about Finished Product. Open your Process to your audience. Your audience will support you if you have a strong artistic vision and are committed to personally connecting with your community. I promise. Create productions that are made for and funded by a small, personally connected audience. A traditional non-profit arts organization, especially as it grows, simply cannot provide this. This is Secret Weapon #2.
Collaborate with other artists, combine audiences and resources. Create work that can “plug into” other artists’ processes. Don’t worry, many companies don’t want to do this, so expect resistance – but you’ll find that successful artists and progressive thinkers will see this as valuable. Let the rest eat your dust.
Keep your creative life project-based, collaborative, community-minded and artist-centered. And don’t worry too much about longevity. Just do your work. Daily. As crazy-cool-inspirational conductor and speaker, Ben Zander says, “In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.”
A few groovy sites:
Check out The Field, Fractured Atlas and your local arts service organizations for more info on fiscal sponsorship; and peek at James Undercofler’s blog State of the Art, in part, her addresses issues pertaining to arts business models.
The dance ensemble, Momix is probably the best and oldest example of a successful for-profit arts company.
Misha Penton is an opera singer, theater artist, and artistic director of Divergence Vocal Theater, a multi-performance arts cohort based in Houston, Texas.
Charles Wabwire says
I want to join so that I can become a beneficiary