There is No Such Thing as ‘McArt’

Posted by MK Wegmann On December - 4 - 2012

MK Wegmann

The topic of scalability, model projects, and replicability evokes the idea of franchising: perfect a process, carefully design the ingredients, control the actions of the people according to a script, create a unified brand, and BANG! you’ve done it again and it tastes the same. Thank Goodness. I want something familiar. Is art like that?

In considering whether a successful project, organization, or structure is viable for replication, one variable to consider is the role the individual artist(s) hold in the projects and organizations.

If some creative process, product, or system of program delivery is created to respond to a particular issue or circumstance, to address a problem or to inspire a particular community, what happens when that art/work gets translated somewhere else?

When the artist is the driver and initiator, how do we analyze it to understand if it can be “picked up” and moved to another place and circumstance, and be successful in the same way—with perhaps other artists and in a different community context.

Analysis can illustrate the bones of the process or structure, but to some degree, the interactive nature of this kind of work means that it is situational and may be tied to a specific artist or group of artists, and they have the right to control it.

Urban Bush Women’s approach talks about “entering, building, and exiting community,” offering principles to consider when community engagement is an intended aspect of a project. They provide leadership training as a means to replicate their way of working.

This training model of scaling up or replicability is one that many other artists are pursuing, including Cornerstone Theater Company, Junebug Productions, and Liz Lerman for example. Another example is Marty Pottenger’s Art at Work, which is expanding from Portland, ME to Holyoke, MA and Providence, RI.

The drive to scale up is coming from the artist in these cases. These are all mature artists/organizations that have honed their work over time.

How does this opportunity play out, when we live in cycles of decision making that are too short-term and time-limited, and the environment for resources can be whimsical and cyclical?

Systemic change takes time and can’t really be measured within most current funding structures. Who decides which projects are worthy or successful enough to receive the deep investment of time and resources? The system is not set up for it. In the current climate, most are struggling to keep what they have gained; it is much harder to start something new now.

Arts programs are not fast food franchises that can have a mapped series of steps and ingredients that will produce guaranteed and consistent results. When work is situational, is a creative process, is driven by artists and is collaborative with its community, I have a hard time thinking it would be possible to transport it to another place and time and community arbitrarily.

Artists/companies do perfect processes and do have a way to engage community and galvanize change. The work can be scaled up and can be replicated when there is investment and drive to do so. And there is inherent risk in this kind of investment; after all, four out of five new businesses fail in the first five years, a risk clearly understood by venture capitalists in the for-profit world.

This is not magic. I believe that context is essential, that organizing principles are skills that can be shared and learned. It really does come back to resource. This is people intensive work that takes time and skill.

Where are the opportunities for us to know what one another is doing, the resources to document our work and methodology?

What is the national infrastructure that connects us to one another, and allows this field learning to take place? In the “old days” of the National Endowment for the Arts, we had multi-day peer panels reviewing hundreds of proposals, we had site visits, we had policy panels—many of us met one another and learned about other approaches.

Besides being a reliable funding source, there was a crossroads where some of the arts community met and got to know one another, albeit still in the many silos of the field. We could feel isolation in our home place, and then have an opportunity to meet others who were sharing the same struggles.

I certainly learned about projects or systems that I would replicate in my own work. Is the opposite of replicability reinventing the wheel? How many times have we seen this? How often have we felt this? The national infrastructure is a fragile system that is still trying to gain national connectivity.

How are successful projects shared in order to be replicated?

Is it a funder who picks a successful project in one place and then seeds it in another place the way it happens? Or do peers seeking to solve similar problems meet one another and learn from each other?

I would argue for the latter.

How do you think resources can grow to support it?

2 Responses to “There is No Such Thing as ‘McArt’”

  1. MK Wegmann says:

    Came across this in Cott Mail…A perfect example of scaling up:

    A for-profit Chicago storefront theater bucks the traditional nonprofit model

    John Carnwath, Chicago Arts Resource website

    With a lot of nonprofit theater companies struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy, it seems implausible that anyone in their right mind would start a storefront theater company expecting to make money. Yet Dan Abbate has done just that. He started Gorilla Tango Theatre as a for-profit business in 2006 and sees that model as the future for live theater entertainment.

    How is Gorilla Tango different from other small theater companies in Chicago?
    Gorilla Tango has always approached its work as a for-profit business; the product this company sells just happens to be live entertainment. Our success is a direct function of our business model being based on profitability and sustainability, rather than a specific creative agenda. This enables GTT to be nimble and adjust our product mix based on market demand.

    If your objective is to make money, why did you decide to open a theater? Managing theaters isn’t generally thought of as a surefire way to get rich.
    The key words in that question are “generally thought of.” Taking a for-profit approach to an industry that is generally written off as done “just for the love” gives us a great competitive advantage by doing it “just for the money.” It’s just as easy (or difficult) to make money running theaters as it is in any other business. The people who don’t succeed in theater probably couldn’t run any other sort of business either.

    You recently opened a second theater in Skokie and you founded Gorilla Tango Capital to finance productions at other venues. What are your plans for the future?
    We have been working with our attorneys to develop a license agreement to create a network of corporate as well as independently owned and operated GTT’s all across the country. This will give us a national distribution system for the most successful productions. In the next 12 months we plan to run test residencies of a few of our most popular shows in New Orleans, Los Angles, New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Richmond (followed by London and Toronto if all continues to go well). Preliminary results in these cities are very positive and mirror our success in Chicago.

  2. Tim Mikulski says:

    Thanks for further adding to the discussion MK!

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