The Six Principles for Replication
1. Generate Support For the Arts
For programs like the Arts Incubator to succeed, their administrators must convince citizens and local government officials that a healthy arts presence is a vital part of community infrastructure. The Arts Incubator seeks to change the way government thinks about the arts, to redefine the relationship between the two entities, not only procedurally but conceptually. The program's underlying assumption is simply that the arts make places better, that they should be cultivated as assiduously as any other community good. "There is no cost to an arts-friendly attitude," explains an Arts Incubator staffer. "Any community can have it."
Adopting such an attitude necessitates taking an active rather than reactive approach to developing a local arts presence. The Arts Incubator staff pursues artists in much the same way that chambers of commerce pursue businesses. In addition to assisting individuals and groups who wish to launch new arts ventures in the area, and expanding the scope of those organizations already in place, the program strategically courts arts groups and individual artists who have something to offer the community.
The Washington Shakespeare Company is one such group. Despite its name, the company is located in Arlington. "The Company producing in the District and in Maryland, and the expense of renting rehearsal and performance space was bankrupting us," explains founding artistic director TJ Edwards. "We were about to go out of business when Arlington County offered free rehearsal and performance space, as well as technical support and the use of a costume shop. The result is that after five years and 36 shows in Arlington County, the WSC still provides an avenue for metropolitan theatergoers to see the classics of theater at an affordable price."
2. Seek Out Untapped Resources
Limited resources are not an excuse for lackluster arts support. Local government has many more assets than cash at its disposal, and making good use of these assets requires a flexible and often opportunistic approach to problem-solving. What Arts Incubator administrators call "government-plus-arts arithmetic" can yield many unexpected resources when participants are open to possibility.
For example, the Arts Incubator secures rent-free facilities from a variety of sources--school classrooms and auditoriums, commercial warehouses, conference centers or vacant retail spaces--whose use requires ingenuity rather than capital. This can be done by creating partnerships with businesses, schools and nonprofit entities. In Arlington, county staff negotiated gallery space as part of an office development project. Performance and rehearsal spaces are housed in school buildings. A converted single-screen movie house will operate as a conference center during the day and a theater at night. Low-cost resources of this kind enable the county to provide facilities and services to artists for free or for a negligible fee.
The Metropolitan Chorus is one of many groups to benefit from this kind of creative space-sharing. A year ago, the chorus began holding rehearsals at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a private organization that represents small power facilities and electric companies around the country. "At that point, we didn't have rehearsal space," recalls artistic director Barry Hemphill. "The NRECA has a big conference room that has been made available to us, and in turn we've given two concerts there. It's a wonderful place to rehearse."
3. Connect Arts Support to Community Benefit
When allocating arts support, arts agencies traditionally respond to the needs of the artist or arts organization rather than the needs of the community. In contrast, the arts incubator focuses first on the health and vitality of the community, and encourages artists to play an active role in its development.
Applicants' proposed means of giving back to the community play a role in decisions about which artists and groups receive assistance. For this reason, the Arts Incubator does not offer so-called "buying time" fellowships. Instead, artists are required to exhibit or perform within the community and to engage it through outreach activities. Individuals and groups must include public activities as part of proposed projects in order to be considered for assistance. Likewise, inclusion of community service in proposed projects is significant in evaluating whether an organization will receive Arts Incubator support.
The county supports artists because they provide a service to the community, not because they have efficient management practices or a prominent board of directors--often the standards set by government agencies in determining which artists and activities get funded. Four years ago, Arlington supported the emergence of a black theater company. One year later, it presented its first performance; two years later it folded. While not a success in the conventional sense, the company allowed the Arts Incubator to provide relevant programming for an underserved portion of the population.
However, the Arts Incubator philosophy holds that participating groups who become healthier will themselves, in turn, become community resources. (To this end, the county now provides proactive workshops on subjects like marketing and management in addition to its other offerings.) Rather than dependence, the Arts Incubator aims to create a kind of positive synergy.
Teatro de la Luna, a Spanish-language theater company, holds its performances in the county's Gunston Arts Center. "It's a big, big help," says managing director Nucky Walder. "We don't own a space, but our theater has found a home there." The company, whose works are performed in Spanish but available to English-speaking audiences through simultaneous translation, is working with the county to develop ways to attract the area's lower-income Latino audiences; recent initiatives include lowering ticket prices for some performances and offering on-site child care.
4. Maximize Resources Through Creative Sharing
The centralization of facilities and resources is a significant factor in the success of the Arts Incubator. Providing one scene shop that 20 arts organization can use is more cost-effective than providing funding to 20 separate groups which must then each rent the space and equipment to make their own sets. The same is true of gallery, rehearsal and office space. Centralizing management of such resources and encouraging efficient sharing makes the most of county resources.
County facilities represent a wide range of approaches to acquiring and sharing space. They include the Gunston Arts Center, a performing arts complex and middle school that the county renovated in the late-1980s, housing two theaters and a 5,000-piece costume library. A former school building also accommodates the Lee Arts Center Studios, a multi-use county facility that includes ceramics, printmaking and tile studios as well as a community center for preschoolers and seniors. The Ellipse Arts Center, a gallery space acquired by the county in exchange for granting the developer a zoning variance, is the site of six annual exhibitions and numerous lectures, workshops and small-scale performances.
All of these facilities cost a minimal amount to acquire, equip and manage due to the use of county positioning and in-house resources. The Ellipse Craft Shop, for example, is a county-run artists' cooperative that shares donated retail space in a local mall with the Arlington Symphony. The store, which had its most successful sales year to date in 1996, provides a much-needed retail showcase for the work of local artisans, who volunteer their time to staff it. "It really gets your work out there," says stained glass artist Donna McClain. "Each of us has a following, but we're all in it together--pretty unusual for a group of people in this day and age."
5. Adopt a Flexible Approach to Arts Support
Administering the Arts Incubator model--which responds to participant needs on a case-by-case basis--requires a fluidity not often associated with government bodies. This kind of institutional flexibility turns conventional bureaucratic thinking inside out. For such a program to be effective, local governments must be willing to act spontaneously and take risks--not always easy undertakings for a bureaucracy set in its ways or politicians seeking re-election.
Because they are in different stages of development, the needs of artists and groups can vary greatly. Horizons Theatre, a 20-year-old company dedicated to drama that explores women's issues, recently resumed operations after a near-closing and subsequent internal restructuring. "The county helped us identify areas that we needed to change and helped us find the energy to begin again," says artistic director Leslie Jacobson. "I'm not sure we would have come together again if they had not stepped in."
A low-risk exchange dubbed the "75/25 split" allows an interested group with little more than an intriguing idea to mount productions without waiting to become a supported organization. The county takes 25 percent of the box office in exchange for use of its performance facilities, scene shop and costume collection. This arrangement not only creates an unofficial screening process outside of the grant's cycle, but makes a far wider range of arts activity available to the public.
Dancer and choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley has gone from producing "75/25" events to launching her own company, Bowen McCauley Dance, with assistance from the Arts Incubator. "They call me their little egg," she laughs, "and I'm happy to be an egg. I don't think I would have done this without knowing that I lived in Arlington County and had this kind of support available to me. I never thought I'd have my own company."
6. Enable Artistic Risk Taking
The Arlington arts incubator model promotes innovation by creating a wider margin for error, essentially removing an organization's dependence on the box office for its survival. Giving artists and arts groups the freedom and security to work with less concern for financial failure and more for artistic possibility can create an exciting cultural climate and broaden a community's vision.
Unfortunately, in a time when resources for the arts are limited, many public arts programs have opted to present popular, or safe, entertainment and exhibitions in order to increase attendance and income. However, if the creation and presentation of art is always linked to box-office success, then opportunities to present works that probe the tough issues confronting contemporary society are restricted. The arts incubator allows artists to expose the community to differing views, thereby encouraging its growth.
The arts incubator has the dexterity to support artists simply because they have good ideas. Jack Marshall is the artistic director of American Century Theatre, a company dedicated to resurrecting forgotten classics by 20th-century American playwrights. "I can't think of a better example of the invaluable nature of the arts incubator than our experience," says Marshall. "We want to rescue pieces before they fall through the cultural cracks...it's a generally non-commercial enterprise and it's very important to have some margin for error. They've given us a chance to make the magic happen and that's all we can ask for.
By following this principle, public agencies can set the stage, so to speak, to "make the magic happen," and change the community's perception of government. As government changes its relationship to the arts, the community changes its relationship to government. When local officials come to be considered what one administrators calls "stewards of the human spirit" a true reinterpretation has taken place.
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