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The Artistic Business Of Fluxible Innovation

How Chicago theater can stay modern and relevant

    A topic that’s come up in the twitterverse lately (with most of the discussion emerging from Chicago playwright, director and musician Eric Ziegenhagen) regards the space-specific mixture of arts, including culinary, poetry, painting and theater (just to name four pursuits). By re-imagining how the arts are presented, Eric puts forth the hypothesis that performance is interchangeable. A playwright may read from his or her work at a salon in the back of a bar (as if he or she were akin to a folk band) or a chef may present a “gallery” of his or her work at an “opening,” inviting those who attend to taste his or her newest creations. This artistic innovation seems to be a development born from our uncertain economic times. Artists of all stripes must find new ways of reaching their audience by varying how individual work can be perceived. By twisting and bending the format, the artistic community can hope to catch the imagination of a new audience and get them caught in a freshly formed flux.
    Change-up is key in securing an audience in a time where money is tight and artistic mediums feel weary. In order for organizations to stay on the cutting edge (and continue to pay their bills), they must diversify. In the past, this diversification was often laid at the door of the donors, as well as the board, while the artistic staff kept moving forward by forging ahead with “business as usual.” This lax standard can no longer sustain the necessary artistic output of an organization. In order to compete and grow, the basic artistic model must change and begin to fund new ways of presenting in order to survive. 
    No longer is the tried-and-true “non-profit” paradigm the only game on the block. Taking a cue from for-profit music venues, art galleries and restaurants, theaters must begin to plan for the artistically unexpected. By channeling the free-flow feel of a late-night show at The Hideout, a theater may find it can draw a varied audience by gathering different types of work. Opening their doors and widening the scope (but not lowering their standards), theaters can find ways of showcasing the grand production as well as the small. If theaters offered this kind of “menu” of work, chances are they would find and cultivate their patrons in ways that create the same kind of personal relationship that is forged between a popular gourmet restaurant and its worshipful clientele.
    How can this kind of artistic growth be forged at the seed level for theaters? A good way to begin would be from where monetary seeds are nurtured—with the board of directors and the donors. Often a board is left without the duty to inspire artistic choices, but the ideas of growth and audience development are something a board has within its discussion zone. It seems that without understanding which artistic pursuits are not only surviving, but thriving, theater boards and donors will find their favorite spaces without the money to continue to provide artistic enjoyment. Those donors who give both time and money must challenge themselves to speak to the artists not about what they are producing, but how they are producing. 
    If theater companies are relying solely on opening night benefits to bring them both favor and contributions, then those companies will find themselves without enough innovation and/or ready cash to subsist. The goal is not to look inward in order to troubleshoot, but to jump fences and look toward the horizon. By comparing and contrasting how theaters are run to how other types of artistic pursuits stay afloat, companies will be able to better understand how change best suits their ways of doing “artistic business.”
    For those with financial ability, this is an amazing time to be involved with a theater (or the arts organization of one’s choosing). Due to the basics of survival, donors, boards and artists must come together and find new ways to relate and help each other. By trusting that the artistic portion can (and will) take care of itself if superior risk meshes with thrilling innovation, both groups can focus on the task of finding fresh ways to invigorate and excite an audience. Through opening hearts and homes, delivering speeches and spaces, nurturing artists and patrons, theater can continue to be a vital, life-affirming art form. By changing the ways that theater meets its audience, it has a good chance of continuing to be soundly modern and unequivocally relevant.

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide