The Arts Biz  
Apr 23

The Rise of the Classical Indie Artist

Actually, I might just say, The Rise of the Indie Performing Artist. More than ever, performing artists - particularly classical musicians - are getting out there and doin’ their thing: new music ensembles, opera and dance companies, and new theater companies are popping up everywhere. But we’re in a bit of a pickle when it comes to arts business models.

A performing artist’s standard biz route has been to incorporate as a non-profit organization. This is, initially, relatively simple, and in a nutshell consists of a performing artist, or small cohort, creating a mission, enlisting a board of directors, a volunteer squad, and seeking tax-deductible donations and grants - and of course filing the necessary legal documents to incorporate, as well as adhering to annual reporting guidelines. Unfortunately, the creation and maintenance of an organization is very time consuming, and often the performing artists who start the company have little time to devote to the art form because the maintenance of the organization becomes a full-time job.

The creation of an arts organization is not the creation of art, and somehow we’ve gotten that all mixed up and turned around. When a performing artist strikes out on their own, there is an unspoken expectation that (of course!) they’ll create an organization because that’s the “only way to do it” and that’s “how it’s always been done”.

Phooey.

As a performing artist, my job is to create work and to find the simplest and most economical way to put that work into the world. James Undercofler, Professor of Arts Administration in Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design questions the arts organization model, “So, is the NFP [Not For Profit] too cumbersome in its structure to impede the flow of artistry it is created to facilitate? As a one-size-fits-all model, the answer is absolutely ‘YES’. For small start-ups, and for perpetual start-ups, the requirements to achieve NFP status, as well as the ongoing requirements, from financial reporting to maintenance of a fiduciary board, often overshadow the creation and presentation of artwork.”

Must performing artists be beholden to the non-profit model, one that typically does not serve the art form, particularly in an organization’s early stages of development? And even larger, older, established non-profit organizations suffer from ill management, in-fighting and fiscal irresponsibility.

Might there be another way? If not, can we create one? We’re creative-types, us artsy-folk, so let’s use some of that creativity on the business side of the arts.

Forming a non-profit is not the only option for performing artists. Creating work project-to-project as an independent performing artist is an excellent, sustainable model, and keeps an artist focused on making and funding the creative work, and concentrated on tangible, Now Goals: Put on a show. Rinse. Repeat. All revenue goes into the project not the company. There is a lot that goes into producing a performing arts project, but it is do-able for an individual artist or a small arts cohort, without the need for much back office support. It’s all DIY, baby. Creative people are coming up with hybrid business models, taking the best from both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. The emerging Fourth Sector, consisting of social entrepreneurs, is literally changing the world.

Generating Cash - Fiscal Sponsorship & What it Can Do for an Artist

Pros?

The big deal to forming a non-profit is that the organization can accept tax-deductible funds and apply for grants. Well, fiscal sponsorship is an awesome little hybrid: a performing artist (or artist in any discipline) can accept tax-deductible donations (just like a non-profit) from individuals and companies/corporations via an agreement with an incorporated arts organization, and that arts organization cuts the artist a check for those donations. Additionally, being fiscally sponsored allows individual artists to apply for some grants that are normally only open to incorporated organizations. There are a couple of national-level arts service organizations that provide fiscal sponsorship: The Field and Fractured Atlas (here in Bayou City, Dance Source Houston provides the same service to Houston dance artists). Fiscal sponsorship is not a miracle solution to arts funding, but we are in desperate need of hybrid arts business models and fiscal sponsorship is a powerful tool. If an indie performing artist couples the benefits of fiscal sponsorship with ingenious ideas on generating a commercial revenue stream, then the indie artist becomes as viable as any incorporated arts organization. No need to incorporate as a non-profit. Period. The artist maintains artistic and production independence allowing for nimble creative and business practices, and quick response to changing cultural dynamics and fluctuating market conditions. Keep. It. Small.

Fiscal Sponsorship is a viable, long-term business tool; it is not an Arts Purgatory that precedes the Non-Profit Status Panacea. Major non-profit service orgs, Third Sector and BTW, both support fiscal sponsorship as an arts biz model and not as an interim step to incorporation nor as an incubator. BTW published a particularly thorough look at fiscal sponsorship: More Than the Money: Fiscal Sponsorship’s Unrealized Potential.

Cons?

Arts orgs that offer fiscal sponsorship usually charge a membership fee, and a small percentage to process donor payments. Some granting institutions will not fund fiscally sponsored artists --- many enormous ones, like the Rockefeller Multi-Arts Project Fund, absolutely will. Granting bodies’ policies on fiscal sponsorship seem arbitrary and nonsensical, and are very specific to each granting institution. In part, reticence from a granting institution to fund fiscally sponsored artists emerges from a fear that independent artists are irresponsible with the granted funds, that fiscal sponsors lack speedy reporting of distributed monies, and lack organizational stability themselves. But there are plenty of uninvolved and untrustworthy Boards of “Trustees” roaming around out there in Non-Profit Organization Land. A recent NYTimes article reports on a state-level investigation of fraud against The New York State Theater Institute. Granting institutions can no longer hide behind the indefensible excuse that funding sponsored individual artists is fiscally irresponsible. No business model is immune to fraud, but simply wearing the non-profit organization mantle does not guarantee fiscal responsibility, longevity/sustainability, nor artistic excellence. With the establishment of organizations like The Field (with over 25 years as an arts service org) and Fractured Atlas (founded in 1998), both specializing in fiscal sponsorship, granting institutions’ need no longer be reticent to support sponsored artists.

Ole Prof. Undercofler adds (ok, maybe he's not old, he could be a hottie for all I know) "…in order for this option [fiscal sponsorship] to even be considered seriously, foundations and government funders must rewrite their guidelines for this alternative to be considered." HALLELUJAH! Houston Arts Alliance does not accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists for organizational grants and they will not fund interpretive artists in their individual artist grant category; Texas Commission on the Arts does not accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists either; on the other hand, the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division does accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists. Why are many individual artist grants only open to artists who create new work (choreographers, composers, playwrights)?, but not open to interpretive artists (classical musicians, actors)? This “policy”, unreasonably, forces interpretive artists to form nonprofits.

I don’t have the answers to the arts funding conundrum, but it's imperative that artists understand their options as entrepreneurs, and fiscal sponsorship is one option. It’s also important for my fellow artists and local arts service organizations to understand the power and legitimacy of fiscal sponsorship. The City of Houston and Texas state granting institutions need to re-visit their guidelines concerning the funding of fiscally sponsored artists. Even better, all granting institutions need to re-visit their guidelines and re-implement substantial grants to individual artists in all disciplines.

Although being a fiscally sponsored artist allows for a lot of creative and organizational freedom, right now, and particularly in Texas, most grants open to organizations are not open to fiscally sponsored artists. So why bother? Why not just incorporate? Well:

  • I'm convinced a “one-size-fits-all” non-profit model for the small arts does not work.
  • I'm particularly interested in what artists might do with commercial/for-profit/hybrid business models.
  • Granting institutions must change their policies and guidelines to include more grants for individual artists - particularly performing artists and interpretive artists - and open their organizational grants to fiscally sponsored artists.
  • If more performing artists remain independent, granting institutions will likely alter their guidelines based on this trend.
  • Investing in an individual performing artist’s career is as important as supporting the efforts of an arts organization.

It is time to take a serious look at the merit of individual performing artists’ work, their relationship with and contribution to the community, and stop burdening performers with organizational red tape and administrative hoop-jumping. Performing artists are creators of original art, but we also interpret and re-imagine established music and theater repertoire. In part, the success of the arts depends on the encouragement of commercial arts ventures and on embracing the individual performing artist as a creator and interpreter of significant work.

Here’s what a few fiscally sponsored artists and indie artists are doing:

Divergence Vocal Theater - Opera & multi-arts performance company. New works & re-imagingings of old rep. Houston-based. I’d be terribly un-savvy in my marketing department (that’d be me) if I excluded myself from this list. Fiscally sponsored artist with The Field.

Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (ERPA), The Field’s arts entrepreneurial lab, seeds and supports significant work by indie artists.

A few Fractured Atlas fiscally sponsored artists:

Rubber Repertory, theater artists in Austin, recipients of the monster-prestigious Rockefeller Multi-Arts Project Fund grant.

PearldAmour, theater artists. Recipients of both the Multi-Arts Project Fund grant, Creative Capitol grant (national-level indie artist grant), and significant foundational and individual donor support.

Pocket Opera of New York (founded by two alumni of the Juilliard School)

New York Arabic Orchestra

String Orchestra of Brooklyn

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Interested in fiscal sponsorship and artist support services? Check these out:

The Field - national

Fractured Atlas - national

Dance Source Houston - hometown

Spacetaker - hometown (does not offer fiscal sponsorship, but offers a host of artist career development resources)

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Serendipitously, I recently met with Audience Development Diva, Shoshana Fanizza, and she blogged about our conversation on arts business practices: here.