Incubating the Incubators

Devon Smith recently visited the ASU campus as part of the p.a.v.e. program in arts entrepreneurship speakers series.  Her visit followed close on the heels of her blog about arts incubators and how they differ from business incubators.  In response to that blog, Diane Ragsdale, on her Jumper blog, posted some thoughts on incubation as well as several questions – the questions that I wrestle with every day as the director of the p.a.v.e. program:

  1. What is the goal of a successful arts incubator?
  2. What should it be?
  3. 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?

I’ll answer #3 first, because it’s easiest: of course it’s not wrong.  What separates an entrepreneurial approach to art-making from a non-entrepreneurial approach is an entrepreneurial approach is about connecting the work to its audience — read “market” — in such a way that is has value for the market and its production simultaneously has value (intrinsic as well as extrinsic) for the artist/maker.  The incubator can provide a physical or virtual environment that helps the artist both recognize and develop those connections.

Diane’s first question leads to a question of my own in which I am particularly interested: How do we measure the success of an arts incubator?  My preferred method of evaluation, and the one I use in the p.a.v.e. program’s evaluation plan is goals-based.  Is the incubator achieving its explicit and implicit goals or mission?  There is very little literature on assessment tools for business incubators and even less for arts incubators.  What little there is is largely anecdotal.  For example, the Arlington Arts Art Incubator indicates that it has successfully “accomplished a myriad of goals . . . most notably expanding the number and diversity of arts available in Arlington” but I could not find hard data about that expansion or diversity. They do have some excellent advocacy tools available on their website, though.  Americans for the Arts, through its Animating Democracy program, offers some guidance on evaluating the social impact of arts programs of any type that can be informative.  (see my earlier post on this topic)

On to Diane’s second question: What should it [the goal of a successful incubator] be? In all likelihood, there are as many answers to that question as there are incubators.* In the case of a university-based incubator, the primary goal may be process- rather than product-oriented because of a program’s educational mission.  P.a.v.e.’s primary goal is to “educate students, artists and educators about how the principles of entrepreneurship can support the development of creative opportunities for artists of all kinds,” secondarily to assist individual students in increasing their self-efficacy in relation to artistic creativity, and, implicitly, to enhance the cultural richness of the region through the development of sustainable arts enterprises.   For a municipal incubator, something closer to the third of these might be the goal, or, like the North Carolina Arts Incubator, the goal likely revolves around community economic development.

There is a national association for business incubators, the National Business Incubation Association.  There is no similar organization for arts incubators but  maybe there should be.  Americans for the Arts published its Introduction to Arts Incubators back in 1995.  Now that there is more interest in arts entrepreneurship, more interest in the arts as a factor in both economic and community development,  and a growing list of arts incubators, perhaps more attention could be paid to the evaluation of arts incubators.  I feel a new research project coming on . . . .

*At my last count a year ago there were about two dozen municipal or public/private arts incubators plus three university-based arts incubators.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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1 Response to Incubating the Incubators

  1. Pingback: Around the horn: Occupy Wall Street edition |

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