I. M. H. O.
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I. M. H. O.

Djerassi Resident Artist Program / @devonvsmith

The Arts are Not in Trouble

Post-Dessert Reflections from Dinnervention

BREAKING: the Arts Dinner-vention Party did not reach consensus on how to build a movement for the arts, nor how to save the (institutional) arts (organizations). We did discuss, debate, and disagree on a far range of topics: whether we want to be more like co-ops or soup kitchens, if arts orgs as community centers strays too far from our mission, how to hold arts administrators accountable, who will be our growth hackers, if death panels for the weakest (organizations) among us are really a good idea, and what our minimally viable products will be, among many others. The only thing we agreed on was that the arts are not in trouble, it’s the institutions that are failing. The final cut won’t be ready for another month, but all twelve of us will be blogging our reflections in the mean time.

As the only person not actually working in the arts, I pitched three possible solutions to see if anyone else would be willing to rally behind them.

One. Experiment with the structure of our funding cycles, in order to give arts organizations bigger, but fewer, chunks of money, earlier, and then let them sink or swim. Specifically, model more funding to new arts organizations on the stages of start up financing: Angel/Seed Round → Series A (growth capital), Series B (working capital), and Series C (expansion capital) → Initial Public Offering/Exit Round.

Angels are the first investors in new organizations, typically retired experts from the organization’s field, often as part of a collective of other Angels, giving a relatively low level of funds, before the organization has proven itself with a viable product. Other than friends and family, we don’t have a good equivalent to this in the arts now, likely because our retired experts don’t have 401k plans, much less extra capital just laying around.

Venture Capitalists typically fund Series A, B, and C rounds, they often play key advisory roles for the companies by sitting on their boards, they compete voraciously with other VC’s to find and support the most promising in the field, they are held accountable to those individuals who have invested in the fund, and they typically have a clear investment thesis. I think Foundation Program Officers are the closest we have to VC’s, but few of the mechanisms are in place to hold them accountable, nor to limit the rounds of funding an arts organization gets to just three, for those explicit purposes of growth, working capital, and expansion.

Following those four financing rounds, a start up has three choices: go public (e.g. rely on funding from a mass community of interested parties), stay private (e.g. rely on funding from their users and their banks), or get acquired (e.g. give their investors a substantial return on their capital and fold their core product into someone else’s business or shut down altogether). Again, no clear parallel to arts. Instead, we continue to mix funding sources between our equivalents of VC’s, community investors, users, and banks.

Know of any other experimental funding structures that foundations, local governments, or arts orgs themselves are trying?

Two. If student loans, or the threat of student loans, are a significant barrier to high quality talent entering and staying in our field, then we should use our collective power to lobby the federal government to forgive all student debt. Not just for artists, for everyone. Much in the way the technology community is currently advocating for immigration reform for everyone, not just programmers. For young artists and administrators, forgiving their debt would be equivalent to giving them a substantial raise.

Alternately, an Artist Loan Forgiveness Program, like what some MBAs, lawyers, and teachers already get.

What else should we be lobbying the federal government for, other than an increase in funding?

Three. A new legal structure that allows donors to invest in nonprofit arts organizations for some (distant) future (monetary or not) return, forces those organizations to disclose more/better/different information to investors, and creates an arts stock market that will enable us to easily compare the relative value of each organization to our community. We already have B-Corps and L3C’s; bitcoins and Culture Coins; what’s one more?

Would you invest in an arts stock market?

While the dinner surfaced valuable conversations, one place where we might have gone wrong in trying to propose solutions, is not actually being clear on the problem(s) first. If WESTAF or other organization take up the mantle to continue this industry-wide conversation, I’d love to see a distillation of our industry through the eyes of an economist to understand the business ills, a critic/dramaturge to under the artistic ills, an artist to understand the sustainability and access ills, and so on. Until we can prioritize the problems, it’s going to be hard to evaluate and quantify the success of the solutions.

I’d also love to see more experimentation in format. A model that pits panelists against each other, to advocate for specific positions along a range of topics, presidential debate style. A crowd sourced voting page that enumerates and prioritizes the problems. A pitch night that gives open access to match those with ideas, to those with money. A hackathon that stops talking about solutions and instead just creates them.

I look forward to hearing more input from the entire industry about how to build a movement. Here, on Twitter, and around the web on your own platforms. I want to thank Barry, WESTAF, and Djerassi once again for the privilege of this experience. If any of these ideas (or the original post) struck your fancy, get in touch with me.




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Devon Smith

Devon Smith

PDX small business owner, statistics nerd, reluctant consultant, avid vagabond, arts & #nptech. Co-founder @measurecreative — strategy for progressive causes.

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