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The Case for A New Arts Incubator Model

Next week I’ll  be speaking at Arizona State University’s p.a.v.e. program–the performing arts venture experience, one of the few arts incubators in the country. The program offers “arts entrepreneurship classes,” financial ($1-$5k), in-kind (space & materials), and other support (faculty mentors) for “student initiated arts based ventures,” and lots of speakers, workshops, and symposia open to the public. Any ASU student can apply to the program, typically in cross disciplinary groups of 3-5, and are incubated for 7 months. Funded projects can opt-in to allocating 5% of future revenues to the p.a.v.e. program, but so far most of the funding seems to come from the Kauffman Foundation. Previous seed grant recipients include a film festival by for and about adults with disabilities, the Rehearsal Assistant software product, a web-based comic book, and a mobile app that tags artistic content with location metadata.

I am fascinated by the way the arts and other industries think about developing new products, new ideas, and new teams, and was stoked to be invited to speak at p.a.v.e. because it gives me a great opportunity to write this post, which I’ve been meaning to for far too long now. First, the landscape of incubators, which come in a wide variety of flavors:

Stages of product development:

  • Hackathon–go from nothing to prototype in a day. Foursquare has a global hackathon going on this weekend. Arts examples include CultureHack and (sort of) 14/48.
  • Startup Weekend–go from nothing to prototype + business plan in a weekend. No real equivalent in the art world.
  • Founder Labs–find a team, validate an idea, prepare to apply to an incubator, over the course of 5 weeks.
  • Incubator–take your fully formed team, prototype, and business plan, and prepare to launch a product during demo days to an audience full of hungry venture capitalists, over the course of a summer/semester. Incubators tend to offer greater (optional) access to business services, check out all of the perks offered by TechStars.  Y Combinator calls itself not an incubator, but is by far the most prestigious of the bunch. Instead of a shared-spaced model, Y Combinator offers weekly dinners, office hours with smart people you should know, a demo day to match venture capitalists with start ups, and the most well connected alumni in the known universe.
  • Accelerator–relatively similar stage as an incubator, but greater focus on the product launch phase, and less focus on building organizational capacity. 500 Startups is a model here.
  • Co-working spaces–in theory meant for any stage of product development, but seems to be most useful for teams who have already hit their groove, but may not be large enough yet to justify having their own office space. Value here often comes not just in subsidized office space, but also the networking with other entrepreneurs, who end up integrating your product with their product in novel ways. Dogpatch Labs is one of the oldest (tech) co-working spaces in NYC, and New Work City is one of the newest.

Of course then there are all of the support services that surround the world of incubators–from educational classes at General Assembly, to the mashup of companies spawned by co-working spaces and invested in by Betaworks; from the “Made in NYC” branded community to the incentives to encourage entrepreneurs offered by Venture for America; office hours with famous founders to the insanely engaged commenting communities of Hacker News & AVC.

Sometimes these programs have a defining niche:

No matter their focus, no matter what you call them, or where they’re located, incubator-type spaces share some combination of access to:

  • Serious investors in the short term
  • A network of serious investors and potential partners for the long run
  • Mentorship by other entrepreneurs, founders, and investors
  • Business support services: think lawyers, bankers, real estate brokers, anyone else who helps you get business done
  • A considerable reputation boost via your association with the incubator & their alumni
  • Perhaps most importantly, simply the time and space to sit around for several days, weeks, or months with other really smart, driven, entrepreneurial people and brainstorm together, fail together, learn together.

Certainly the arts aren’t devoid of incubator-like spaces, I’ve in fact worked in some capacity for or with many of them:

But there are a few rather key qualities I’ve yet to find in (m)any of these so-called (and in some cases, not called at all) arts incubators.

Industry Mentorship. The brightest, best, most interesting, most well connected, successful, professional entrepreneurs dedicate their time, free of charge to supporting these incubators. They offer “office hours,” speak at networking dinners, offer advice on prototypes, invite these startups to partner with their more established product for some limited engagement, attend demo days, and generally talk up the startups to all of their industry friends. Where is the incubator support from Barry’s Top 25, or from Diane’s list of artists?

Business Model. Tech incubators tend to take some percentage of equity stake in their startups as part of their revenue model. Most arts incubators tend to charge subsidized rent combined with foundation/government grants as their revenue model. Why couldn’t an arts incubator ask for 5% of all future revenues from one of their “startups”? For an internal incubator, in the model of fbFund Rev, why couldn’t the parent company (Steppenwolf? Roundabout? Actors Theatre?) ask for “artistic equity” in the startup, whether that looked like a commitment of an artist’s time & talent, or right of first refusal on a production, or something else entirely.

Demo or Die. Not launching a new product is not an option for the tech startups, yet most of our current models for arts incubators are “we’re here to support you in however much you get accomplished for however long you’re here”. Sometimes I think we’re too forgiving, too nice. Why aren’t their more project-based arts incubators?

Alumni Network. While I have heard people drop into conversation with me, for example, “I used to be in residence at Spaces @ 520” I don’t get the sense there is a strong concept of an alumni community once you’ve “left the nest.” Nor does it seem (to me at least) like an arts company gains legitimacy for being in residence at one of these spaces, or that one of these incubators has a distinct brand over any other. While I could certainly be wrong about, or at least ill-informed, on all of those points, why don’t arts incubators list “alumni” on their websites, or host networking events for their “graduates”?

Collaboration Between Startups. Here’s where I’m probably least sure that this doesn’t already exist. Certainly I’ve heard of arts orgs associated with Fractured Atlas for example talk about how getting to know the other arts orgs under fiscal sponsorship helped shape some sort of partnership–a co production or sharing of some other resources. But I haven’t heard much from arts orgs in these spaces that they’re sitting around, trying to help each other solve difficult business problems together. So what could arts incubators do to foster more of this type of collaboration? 

I don’t mean to imply that the arts are doing it all wrong, or that tech incubators are doing it all right. But I’m interested in the idea that the two concepts of incubators between these two industries are so different. Perhaps they’ve evolved to be ideally suited to the types of companies they’re trying to support. But are there any arts companies out there interested in joining a new model of arts incubator? Any funders interested in creating one? Anyone have ideas about how to make this concept better? I’d love to discuss…

  • Jessyca

    Thank you for this post. We are looking at incubator models as we continue to expand our services. We envision a space full of volunteers to lend some advice to the creative community. I am so glad you hit on that point. In fact, I agree with all of the areas you mention that need some attention. Good to keep in mind as we work on our plan to create a space for creatives in the Atlanta region. We (C4 Atlanta) offer the business seminar for artists, but we would want to offer more. Our challenge: connecting to those interested in helping us make this dream a reality. We are definitely interested in starting a new model for “arts incubation.” Funders welcome.

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      Looks like you guys have an interesting model. Do you ask participants to “build” anything over the course of the 6 weeks, or is it more traditional classroom-style learning?

  • http://www.fracturedatlas.org Adam Huttler

    Hi Devon,

    Thanks for mentioning Fractured Atlas. As a matter of fact, we’re working on something that would address many of these ideas. I don’t want to say too much since it’s not fully fleshed out yet. But I can say that we’re looking at a possible second tier to our fiscal sponsorship program that would operate more like an incubator for arts infrastructure projects. The trickiest but arguably most important aspects of this are the “office hours” and “collaboration between startups” components. You’ve got to walk a tightrope between nurturing and meddling (sort of like parenthood, now that I think about it!) Anyway, I’m hoping Fractured Atlas will have something in this space within the next year or so. 

    Adam Huttler
    Executive Director
    Fractured Atlas

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      That is awesome Adam. Very excited to hear more as it develops! I also think mentorship, both between “startups” themselves, and between startups & industry leaders is key to the incubator model.

  • Bill O’Brien

    Hi Devon,

    Great post.  Given the subject and the manner in which it’s addressed, I thought you might be interested in learning about the recently conducted Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge ( artsjournalismchallenge.org ).  The design of the Challenge seems to embrace a number of the key qualities you’ve identified above for arts incubation/product development.  We’ve seen some very creative approaches in building new models for local arts journalism in the more than 230 ideas that were submitted in response.  As Adam intuits below, ‘collaboration’ was a crucial component  in the ideas that generated the most excitment from our reader panel.  I’d agree also on his comment on how ‘tricky’ it can be to promote collaboration.  Like modern love, it doesn’t tend to respond very well to perscription, but can create some crazy chemistry when left to its own device. 

    The winners of the first phase of the Challenge will be announced on October 10 from a session at the Grantmakers in the Arts Challenge (it will be live streamed as well).  Phase one support will include up to $20,000 to develop an “Idea to Action Plan” as well as additional business service consulting/mentoring support.  Of those, we anticipate up to three recieving an additional $80,000 for implementation support. 

    Feel free to get in touch if you want to learn more.  Thanks for the post.

    Bill O’Brien
    Senior Advisor for Program Innovation–
    National Endowment for the Arts

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      Thanks Bill! Excited to hear more on Oct 10 about phase 2. Are you putting any of the phase 1 winners in contact with each other? I was recently intrigued by a SXSW panel proposal having to do with arts journalism (http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/12452), but it looks like it’s unaffiliated with this NEA/Knight collaboration. I actually took a great class taught by Stephen Taylor (of the boston globe taylor’s) in my MBA program about innovative journalism models–our final project was to pitch business plans to media-focused VC’s, so this topic is certainly close to my heart!

  • http://chrisunitt.co.uk Chris Unitt

    On the industry mentorship side of things there are quite a few artist development schemes in the UK – things like Fierce’s Platinum programme: http://www.wearefierce.org/fierce-projects/platinum Have a look at the Media Sandbox and Theatre Sandbox schemes at Watershed too, they looked really good: http://www.watershed.co.uk/ished/projects/theatre-sandbox 

    Quite often there’ll be programmes or funding streams that will commission quite a lot of work from groups of artists and I think they often miss a trick in not bringing the artists together more often to support each other.

    The alumni network thing’s an interesting one, I’ve not come across anything like that either.

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      Watershed looks particularly interesting. Thanks for turning me on to them! I agree about the alumni networking. Curious, given the ‘small world’ nature of the arts industry.

  • Anne Corbett

    hey devon,
    thanks for the shout out for Flashpoint. We actually do provide mentorship in our visual and performing arts programs housed at Flashpoint. and because we have so many “national orgs” in DC, our mentors are enviable! AND i think these programs provide the project-based incubation you crave. Artists present concepts that we then coach over a 12-18 month production process — some getting $1 – $4k up front as seed money. ofter artists/arts orgs then “step up” to our ongoing residency program.

    Re: collaboration. We have several ways we work to cultivate “peer learning” and collaboration in both our project-based incubation and our ongoing residency programs. but we feel strongly that it must be organic to be authentic. no one wants to be forced to learn or to collaborate.

    I do crave getting in on a conversation about Business Models — we all need new approaches as contributed income seems to evaporate daily! and connected to that would be leveraging Alumni. we probably don’t do that as well as we could or should. i think our artists get well networked with one another while they are with us and those relationships last. but there’s sure more fruit to be had there.

    thanks for the conversation starter. and thanks to the NEA for the continuing support of our incubator!

    Anne Corbett
    Executive Director
    Cultural Development Corporation

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      Thanks for the info Anne! All great insights. Have you guys ever experimented with shorter a shorter production process–or one with a clear/standard deliverable from everyone (eg: an expectation for that year’s cohort to all be *in production* on a new show at month 12)?

  • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

    The first (that I’ve seen) location-agnostic incubator launched today: http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/20/new-startup-accelerator-and-incubator-advise-me-launches/, and a new video out explaining the “no strings, no cost” approach to Dogpatch Labs: http://www.businessinsider.com/vc-matt-meeker-2011-9.

  • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Creatrix Tiara

    There seems to be quite a push towards project-based arts work – as evidenced by the crowdfunding campaigns where precise projects tend to be the most successful. But as an emerging performance artist whose background is largely in burlesque, it’s not quite as easy to come up with a clearly-defined project from the get go – usually because there needs to be some level of creative development and personal creative growth that needs to happen to *get* to the level of being able to put together a project. I’ve had to bootstrap a lot of my learning and training, and it’s hard when resources are minimal at best (yay bridging visas :P).

    What I’d like to see is some sort of career incubator type, not necessarily focused on an external project, but working on the idea that the *artist* is the project. Where can this artist perform? How do you take these ideas and turn them into reality? Once you have a body of work, what can you put together to make larger projects? Where can collaborations take place? I know of quite a few mentorship programs that do something similar, but something that brings these people *together* – kind of like an artsy KaosPilots or a modern-day Fame really – would be awesome. You have mentors working closely with you, the support of your peers, guidance from key people in your field, opportunities to explore/visit/work with interesting people that you may not necessarily have gotten on your own – sounds like a dream!

    • http://www.devonvsmith.com Devon Smith

      Sounds like grad school! Sort of joking, but sort of not…

      • http://blog.themerchgirl.net Creatrix Tiara

        I have yet to see a grad school that was flexible and nurturing about artistic careers (also ew dissertation writing!)…

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  • LindaInPhoenix

    Thanks for the conversation here and in person about arts incubators and the shout out to the p.a.v.e. program.  Feedback on your visit has been overwhelmingly positive too!  I’ve posted a follow-up of sorts to both your and Diane Ragsdale’s posts on the incubator topic.  What are the goals of an arts incubator and how do we measure its success? http://wp.me/p1gG8Q-a4

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  • Kemi Ilesanmi

    Very interesting post! I would say that Creative Capital, where I work, is operating as a type of incubator model for artists working on particular projects.  In our formation 12 years ago, we very much drew from the venture capital model and provide our artists with multiple forms of support (financial, advisory, professional, community building) over a long period (3-7yrs) to help them not only produce a successful (by their own definition) project but also to build sustainable career.  You can read more about what we do and how we do it here: http://creative-capital.org/approach

    That said, this is not easy or quick work and the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting as new models of support spring up (e.g. Kickstarter) and artists’ needs shift over time.  How can we, as a field/eco-system, continue to support artists over the arc of a career?  The new Doris Duke program that was just announced will be interesting to watch!  An emerging challenge for us as we get older is that we have a growing and increasingly dispersed alumni community.  A major organizational priority now is finding ways to connect them to each other and to us through professional support, community engagement, etc.  Would love to hear what others are doing in this regard!

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