"Sold out!" Those lovely words. Who's playing to capacity venues—and why?
The Jazz Corner in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, has found a formula that mixes excellent food and drink with first-rate live jazz performance and a commitment to jazz education. Every night of the week, this venue presents local and touring jazz musicians, punctuated by Sunday jam sessions. Each dinner bill itemizes a $5 music charge and includes a brochure and donation envelope for the Junior Jazz Foundation, which helps support the performances, educational outreach to area school music programs, and community outreach programs in partnership with other cultural institutions. Right-sized at 100 seats and regularly sold out, each two-seating evening at this venue generates $1,000 to provide the jazz. It's a great example of synergy between a for-profit restaurant and a not-for-profit education program. Smart marketing by both ad-buyer and ad-seller is demonstrated by a large ad on The Jazz Corner brochure for The Vacation Company, a vacation rental business that encourages customers to "book your stay and enjoy The Jazz Corner during your visit."
Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia, founded by Georgian artists Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili in 2002, offers a distinctive brand of physical performance fusing text, movement, lighting, dance, acrobatics and music. Both accessible and aesthetically complex, recent productions include a pyrotechnic Dante's Divine Comedy and a wordless Jekyll and Hyde. We recently attended a wordless—and sold out—Midsummer Night's Dream ("silent Shakespeare" productions are frequently featured). Synetic's mission includes educating the next generation of artists and physical theater professionals, and promoting this distinct form of theater nationally and internationally through community outreach and touring programs. The plays take place in a theater located in a mixed-use structure that is part office building, part shopping mall and part parking garage. The venue is sponsored by the Vornado/Charles E. Smith real estate company in partnership with the Crystal City Business Improvement District, and a successful Kickstarter project has just raised $25,000 toward the cost of rehearsal space. The mix of revenues includes earned income from a variety of acting, dance, gymnastics, mime and fitness courses offered by company personnel. Spring Break Camp features stage combat and make-up as well. Productions for school systems add to revenues and additional support comes from individuals, foundations and several levels of government.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times master music critic, draws our attention to the successful comeback of Lincoln Center's four-week, summer Mostly Mozart Festival, which faced a strike by the resident ensemble over job security in 2002 and the cancelation of the 20 scheduled concerts. In his recent article, "Mostly Mozart, Mostly Improved," he credits artistic director Jane Moss and conductor/music director Louis Langree with rejuvenating the orchestra, bringing in risk-taking, avant garde artists in residence, and striking the right balance of classical and contemporary artistry. The lessons Tommasini recommends for emulation by other music organizations include: visionary artistic leadership is everything; new music fosters new vitality; smaller venues are better; give opportunities to emerging artists; encircle the orchestra for intimacy and acoustics; and take chances.
Last month, I had the privilege of addressing the annual Bill Bates Leadership Institute of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. My presentation focused on the changing economic, political and participatory environments for the arts. I benefitted greatly from the next presenter, Lisa Cremin, founding director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, who, in the process of directing the assembled 40 arts leaders to reexamine their organizations with regard to program, people, money and community, highlighted the work of two relatively new Atlanta-based arts groups. One is glo: "Part choreography and part interactive art installation, glo performances bridge the gap between artists and public, to deepen connections to a community's assets, inspirations and potential." Lisa emphasized the commitment of founder Lauri Stallings to free performances in public spaces. The artist-driven company began by producing ephemeral art on the campus of the High Museum, and has gone on to develop large-scale "physical installations," to repurpose an empty historic public pool, to produce works for the stage, to create Atlanta's Off the Edge Festival and to be resident artists of the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center. A major current project is Tanz Farm, "a placemaking effort to establish a 120-year old factory space as a destination for contemporary artists working with new ideas and mediums." Glo's educational component, SCHOOLHOUSE, is conceived of as a "living laboratory," seeking partnerships with neighborhoods, schools and families. The website's list of collaborators includes consulates, major Atlanta arts organizations, educational institutions, arts venues, filmmakers and Big Boi and the Dungeon Family. The company acknowledges that its growth and success depend on a "crucial" portion of the budget that comes from public, foundation and individual funders.
The other group that Lisa highlighted is Living Walls. This visual arts group uses large-scale murals to dramatize community issues through artistry. The production format is an annual "conference" that brings artists from all over the world to Atlanta to work on large, donated wall spaces. Sponsorship as well as the donation of public and private work space are critical to this business model, but most of the public experiences the process and products of Living Walls as free art. Beginning in 2010 with a small number of artists, LW2013 brought 20 artists from 20 countries to add 20 murals to the increasingly visible current total of 85, rapidly affecting Atlanta's visual identity.
These very different arts enterprises are thriving. In these challenging times, with many groups proving not to be financially viable, some have suggested that too many start-ups is part of the problem. But who could have predicted whether any of the five organizations described above would get the support they needed to survive? They have each created a distinctive mission and a brand of artistic experience differentiated from anything else available. They are each effectively engaging a complex community of participants, developing a business model and support network tailored to their artistic practice and available resources, and organizing the management of multiple artistic and operational tasks. But what else more particular can be generalized about them?
From the perspective of a funder whose mission is to broaden, deepen and diversify participation in the arts—a pretty good approximation of the mission of state arts agencies—the diversity of the organizational strategies that are successfully producing excellent art argues that core grant support for groups of all sizes and at all stages of development should allow grantees maximum adaptive discretion. (Funder-led initiatives for the purpose of branding or spotlighting specific public benefits are a different concern.) This principle can be applied whether the core grant category is called "general operating support," "project support," or "partnership agreement." It follows that a useful topic of discussion for public and private grant makers with their grantee collaborators is how to provide the most flexible use of funds while encouraging good management practice and documentation of the return on investment. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.