Yesterday Arizona Republic theatre critic Kerry Lengel reported on his blog that there is a new theatre company in the Phoenix metro area: Roots Performing Arts. My first reaction was: they should have read Rebecca Novick’s contribution to 20under40, the very useful but poorly named volume of essays about changing up the way we think about arts administration. Her chapter is titled “Please Don’t Start a Theatre Company!” Lengel pointed out to me that they may have (Thanks, Kerry). You see, Roots Performing Arts is an LLC – it’s a for-profit corporation owned by many of the actors that make up the company. These aren’t seasoned actors pooling resources, either. Many of them are recent high school graduates still in college. Perhaps their youth has helped them avoid the institutionalized, ossified, reified, fossilized nonprofit theatre model decried by the 20under40 contributors.
Lengel’s story, my reaction, and my review of Novick’s chapter got me thinking about something else. Are we (the artist, arts administration, funding, arts education and arts criticism communities) expending too much energy thinking about business models for the arts and too little time thinking about the art making? I am as bad – or worse – than anyone else about this. I teach arts entrepreneurship, so thinking about business models for the arts and artists is kind of my job. Nevertheless, I am profoundly attracted to Novick’s description of Elevator Repair Service and The Neo-Futurists as “highly regarded experimental theater ensembles that have grown by putting artists at the center, adding administrative structures only after carefully examining whether the administrative model supports the artistic mission.” Developing a business model for the arts seems analogous to the way I like to read a play that I am designing – from the inside out. Start with what the play is REALLY about and the design will flow from there: not the external trappings of location or time, but the meaning is what is important and what drives my design decisions. Similarly, can the art itself drive it’s own business structure?
Last week, Michael Kaiser posted a typically (for him) insightful piece on the Huffington Post that seems to indirectly speak to the same issue. He focuses on the the need for small arts organizations and the capital to support them. He writes, “smaller organizations, with smaller project budgets, are more often the crucibles for new exciting artists and art forms.” I sincerely hope that Roots Performing Arts becomes such a crucible for new exciting artists. If they don’t, there is no business model on earth that will make the art itself exciting (or worth the price of admission).