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Weighing the supply and demand of arts collaboration

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Weighing the supply and demand of arts collaboration

BOHO Theater in the Glenwood Avenue Arts District.

Thanks to Thomas Cott of You’ve Cott Mail for highlighting this article in Crain’s New York Business about the value of collaboration among small arts organizations as typified by the Lower Manhattan Arts League.

The league — which includes small groups like Access Theater and larger organizations such as Dance New Amsterdam and the Children’s Museum of the Arts — has monthly meetings where constituents help each other with everything from fundraising to legal advice. The groups have created a downtown cultural festival, which they produce in the fall and spring. The members even apply for some grants as one entity and lobby the city government as a pack. Individually, some members with budgets as small as $100,000 are barely on funders’ radar, but as a group the members generate around $14 million in economic activity per year and employ roughly 1,200 people full- and part-time. After years when none of the groups were able to score a grant from American Express, for example, the consortium applied together in 2009 and was awarded $100,000. They divvied up the money according to the size of each budget.

While the cheery tone of the article elides some of the serious difficulties arts organizations face in aligning their missions and needs with one another, the point is nonetheless well-taken: organizations too small to get attention on their own may be big enough when combined with others to secure foundation funding and government cooperation.

Such collaborations also serve as living ripostes to the chronic funder complaint that the supply of arts organizations exceeds the demand for them: if these disparate groups can work together without cannibalizing their audiences or funding, they must not be duplicating each other’s work. And if the experiences of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District companies, or those involved in the North Shore consortium of theaters, is anything to go by, collaboration can actually increase demand. Just as restaurants generate other restaurants generate restaurant districts generate restaurant traffic, so with theaters.

The error of the supply-and-demanders (I’m looking at you, Rocco Landesman) is to assume that demand for the arts is somehow fixed. In fact, demand can be grown, and collaboration is a superb way to grow it. The Chicago theater community has thrived precisely because there are so many theaters, and because they’re willing to work together to a greater or lesser extent.

Here’s a thought experiment: it’s 1969, and the Goodman is the only theater in town. I propose to start a new theater and someone of Rocco’s ilk says, “But don’t you see? That will only divide the audience, leaving the Goodman with half as much. That would be terrible!” Fortunately, even if there was someone there to say it, no one at Steppenwolf or Victory Gardens or the Organic or the Body Politic paid any attention, and that’s why Chicago is a theater center today.

The moral? Beware of arts administrators bearing rules of economics: econ is a lot more complicated than they understand, and its outcomes a lot less predictable. One more reason for the people who want to make art to do so and leave economic concerns to the pundits.

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