Friday, June 08, 2007

Art for Profit

Profit vs non?

I have existed in the nonprofit world my entire professional life, until a year ago when I chucked it all and started a business. My theatrical design/production training included a sketchy overview (from mr. i-like-to-dress-like-a-pirate) of the way nonprofits and theatre administration work but it's very much an art that requires specialization and groups, and the work that I do is not on the track to leadership. (we'll get back to that, don't worry)

The fundamental difference between the two is that the nonprofit cannot make money above and beyond the salaries of its employees, while the whole point of a for-profit business is to do the same. Does this make them diametrically opposed? In a non-profit, the ultimate decision-making body is the board of directors. This board only necessarily has to be one person but is often many, often rich, often opinionated, often ego-driven "supporters" of the arts. Theatres are always then run by the artistic director, followed by the managing director. This points to another major difference, a noble ideal of putting creative in a position to trump business. The result, though, is that most theatres are managed by an actor, and have their strings pulled by a collection of bored retirees. Maybe this is why they are so fucked up.

For-profit entities can be run however they please. Mine is a benevolent dictatorship at present. As long as it is completely opt-in, a benevolent dictatorship is an appealing social model to me (it's a bonus that I get to be the dictator, sure). I'm not looking to become a national t-shirt chain, though, although that's a successful 'indie business' model. the internet is flooded with (especially) women looking to turn their at-home crafting into some sort of dream job. The companies that exist in any kind of major way all sometimes seem to produce the same pap as ever, only labeled 'indie'. Artists are often asked by collectors to paint work to match the couch - if they are lucky enough to know any collectors. Paintings as cheap as $20 become a hard sell when they are placed next to a t-shirt, also $20. It has utility! I must purchase it! Don't kid yourself - successful corporations have brainwashed you with their superscientific marketing research and ultra million dollar advertising budgets. The designer becomes a production position in a clothing manufacturing firm; the structure of the manufacturing process and your business practices seem to matter so much more than your actual product to the scale of your success.

Do the arts simply not make money? Must a business run effectively necessarily be watering down its creative product? Is compromise necessary for commercial success? Is compromise even bad? In theatre, all the artists learn to work with the limitations of the script - these limitations are like the rocky crevasses in tidepools where the interesting things happen. Sea anemones are best at clinging to the turns and corners of when things must fit around something else. Compromise is food for the creative engine.

Going Independent

I left theatre because I ceased to see jobs in the future that I wanted to have - the culture of regional theatre doesn't place my skill set equal to others' in the command structure. This rift between administration and production seems to be a little universal - a friend at Amazon described basically identical frustrations of not being allowed to manage projects on a macro level, but being expected to carry out the work as capriciously decided by management. It boggles my mind the way organizations of all kinds will hire people to act as project managers, but not actually want them to carry out these vital, cost-saving tasks. Value is placed on getting what you want regardless of what the guys who actually have to carry it out have to say about the ramifications. What makes these practices abusive in the profit and non-profit fields alike is the way undercompensated employees can trace what could have been a raise of their salary through waste they could have prevented if they were empowered to do so. Kathleen Fasanella has great examples of this in her book, and lots of practical management advice that heads of organizations would be well served to heed.

Next Step

A few days ago I went to a house fete for Indy Arts and Media, a local nonprofit that produces a nonpartisan news feed and an arts/media expo here in San Francisco. I will probably be doing some work with these guys in the coming months. There was a little speechifying at the event. Emphasis was placed on integrity, and i wrote word for word "we will not influence the content of what you do". It seems like a young, lean, excited organization, and I like the one guy I've talked to. The speeches made sense. I'm curious to peek behind the curtain to see where this odd-shaped org fits into my Spectrum of Questions and Issues - maybe there will even be a few answers from the Nonprofit side.

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