This post is part of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council.
Increased creative freedom, autonomy, and flexibility have come with a more precarious work style. This is becoming the new normal, even outside of the creative realm.
Does this make artists and creatives “new economy pioneers” prototyping the workstyle of the ‘conceptual age’? If so, what advice can we offer? Can we create a roadmap for resilience?
In this post I’d like to consider how arts incubators play an important role in not only supporting innovation and risk taking, but also by cultivating our most important assets — social and human capital.
BAY AREA VIDEO COALITION (BAVC)
In 2007, Bay Area Video Coalition’s (BAVC) Producers Institute for New Media, began in San Francisco. The institute was developed because BAVC recognized that traditional cinema didn’t inspire people to take action. Also, new media was becoming more prolific and gradually more accessible.
When the Institute started there was no FaceBook or Twitter, but Carol Varney, managing director of BAVC said, “We thought that new media could complement long form film and not just in promotion.”
At the heart of the program it’s about new skills for filmmakers and new ways to think about content creation and delivery.
Each session takes six to nine teams of two to four people who are selected by a jury of BAVC board and staff, filmmakers, and technologists in the field. 42 people have gone through the program since it began.
The session starts with introductions and initial pitches from each of the teams. Then technologists and other leaders in field carry out rapid-fire tech talks letting the producers know things they should consider. Varney said, “It’s about what’s happening now and in the future, not looking at past technology.”
Over the course of 10 days filmmakers develop a prototype with assistance from technology advisers who hail from firms like Zinga, Google, and Pentagram.
Participants share information over meals and talk about how to make projects better. This creative time has been found to be one the most beneficial parts of the program, according to participants. Not only are ideas exchanged and refined, but community is built.
At the end of the session there is a final presentation day with major funders from all over country.
Varney said, “Over the course of four years, we have gone from ‘the film is done now, what can we do on the internet?’ to thinking ‘my film isn’t done yet, what mobile application can I develop?’ It’s more integrated thinking, and thinking around an interactive experience. What was long form documentary could now end up as smaller cuts made into webisodes. We want to create an environment where people can think about projects in more dynamic ways, opening up the possibilities.”
In New York, Creative Capital grew out of the demise of individual grants from the National Endowments for the Arts. The Andy Warhol Foundation and a few others thought a response to support individual artists and risk taking should be developed. It was the middle of the dot.com boom and venture capitalism was growing in popularity.
Ruby Lerner, director of Creative Capital, was charged with creating a “21st century arts organization,” drawing inspiration from venture capitalists and mutual aid models, and thinking through the possibility of bringing together grantmaking and artist services, while incorporating an entrepreneurial spirit.
The staff at Creative Capital wanted to move artists out of the “starving artist mindset” and treat them as vital parts of the community by exposing avenues to a sustainable career, which would allow for more meaning and dignity. Over 400 artists have become part of the program since it began in 1999.
“We serve the functions of an incubator. We are pulling people together in virtual and real space, interdisciplinary space, and retreats. Emerging fields, filmmakers, visual artists, novelists, dancers…everyone gets to have a conversation about what they are working on and struggle with [and] what is failing and succeeding. This leads to problem solving and new ideas,” said Director of Grants and Services Kemi Ilesanmi.
The retreat is the foundation of the program. For three to five days, grantees participate in professional development workshops, but the social capital or network development that’s done is equally important.
Programmers, presenters, curators — those representing the “business side of the art world” — and Creative Capital alumni meet and mingle with the current grantees.
Here are a few possible lessons for the field:
A.) Human capital is roughly the set of skills acquired on the job or through training and experience that supports the production of work that has economic value. Arts incubators, with a complementary set of workshops, panel discussions, and the like support the development of strong work and careers. For many, the benefits go beyond finance by increasing the artist’s ability to generate cultural value be it aesthetic, symbolic, social, and even historical. I’d like to see similar efforts focus on creative and cultural entrepreneurs.
B.) Both of the programs that I examined created “contact zones” — dinners with BAVC’s producing teams, Creative Capital’s retreat — which placed a real emphasis on social capital, network building, and knowledge sharing. Many incubators seem to toy with the idea of promoting collaboration among its participants. To me this seems a bit heavy handed. But there does seem to be great potential in creating labs or basins that accumulate this wealth in a more organic way. A smart, heterogeneous gathering around shared values and interests could build a more dynamic, innovative, and complex talent pool. This kind of endeavor with light facilitation could also break the isolation that goes along with increasingly individualized work.
C.) Artists and arts organizations are understandably worried that thinking too much of market forces could lead to pandering, commodification, or flat, hollow work. Cultural value is predominant, but having a balanced view that incorporates a clear economic outlook should also be a part of the puzzle. Clarity on scale and direction are vital, so that business is in service of greater goals. “Not everyone wants to think as a small business”, said Kemi Ilesanmi of Creative Capital, “but we encourage artists to think about what it takes to do what they do. We say ‘If you want a review or to contribute to a conversation, or just want to figure out how to do meaningful work and pay rent’ we can lay it out, frame it, and present it as possible.”