Thursday, April 2, 2009

Not-for-profit not so good?

Firings at Parsons and the New School, layoffs at the Met, the visual arts are definitely in the throws of a funding crisis. But as I made my way back to Jersey after an interview with Robert Elmes, the founder of Galapagos Artspace in Brooklyn, I couldn't help but feel that it is how we think about arts funding that has gotten us, as cultural producers, into trouble.

Most arts organizations, community performing arts venues, and museums are not-for-profit. There are a few out there who choose to buck the system and actually try to make money, but, for the most part, we're a low-budget enterprise whose main concern is the quality and content of artistic programming- not the pursuit of the ever illusive $. Or, at least, we are in theory.

According to Robert, non-profits spend 30% of their time trying to find funding sources, and having had experience working in museums and arts non-profits, I'd say the percentage is even higher. Especially when you include the time spent planning donor galas, member newsletters, the myriad of "support" materials that are supposed to help your bottom line, and the hours clocked by the interns who normally take the brunt of all this grunt work but never seem to make it into statistics.

The problem is twofold: that, even in the best of times, organizations are still spending at least 30% of their time looking for money, and that--in the worst of times--when this support suddenly vanishes, *poof*, so too does your main source of income followed by most of your programming.

Robert's idea in starting Galapagos was not a radical one: create a performing art space open to all that showed content people in the community cared enough about to come and see. Having lived through three "mini-recessions", one attempt to starve the NEA of all funding, and the failure of his first art venue due to a lack of calamity planning (a couch caught on fire and burned out the roof), he didn't want to rely on external organizations for funds. He decided rather, to pursue the radical notion of creating a by-the-people-for-the-people art space that would actually make money.

The idea is that if an organization (or dare I say business?) spends 30% of its time on marketing instead of searching for cash, they will be able to develop a way to ride out the uneven waves of foundation funding through solid income. Makes sense. And you'd have the added incentive to keep producing new and different content (as opposed to resting on your laurels because a grant came through and now you just have to spend it in accordance with your proposal) because if you don't, you're out of business.

This does assume that the individuals involved really care about producing upright, quality work, that people will recognize good content paired with excellent branding, and that the business model is solid enough to be sustainable, but it's an interesting alternative to the ubiquitously struggling arts non-profit.

And Galapagos is working. Established, wiser, and (according to Robert) riding out this big R in good shape. They now have seven resident artists, a way-cool floor with water pools, a new building in the heart of DUMBO, and ever-evolving content. Plus a fabulous aerial dance troupe booked for an upcoming show (I caught the end of their rehearsal).

Maybe being not-for-profit isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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