One New Model: Arts Organizations as Platforms

You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that if Michael Kaiser wants a new model for arts organizations so badly, I ought to give him one.

Where am I going to get it? Why, from Amazon, of course.

In point of fact, Amazon actually IS the new model (or a part of it)… at least when it comes to the making and selling of books.

In traditional publishing—the literary equivalent of the  “classic model” that Kaiser has been clinging to—a publishing house selects writers, buys the rights to their work, produces a finished project (either digital or paper) out of that work, markets that product, and sells it to consumers. The entire exchange between artist and audience is packaged, curated, branded, and mediated by the publishing company.

By contrast, Amazon has begun to develop a platform on which artists and audiences can dictate the terms of their exchanges themselves. From the artist’s perspective, Amazon provides a set of tools with which writers can publish, market, and sell their own books. If you’re an audience member—a reader—you can rely on Amazon’s search tools, categorization, user reviews, and dynamic recommendations to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. The many available tools of social media, furthermore, from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube to blogs, provide more than enough means by which that artist-audience exchange can continue past the reading of a book, too.

So why do we still NEED traditional publishing houses? What do they provide that Amazon doesn’t? Anything?

Some would say that what they provide is the imprimatur of quality. If Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published it, that line of thinking goes, it must be good. But is that necessarily true? Is their stamp of quality the only one that matters? Does it even matter much at all to anyone, save for a few elite readers? Most consumers, I believe, are moved more by the recommendations of friends than by some organization’s seal of approval.

The fact of the matter is that nobody ultimately cares who published the book. People care whether they like it, whether their friends liked it, and (to some extent) who wrote it. Most publishers’ sense of their own importance is completely out of touch with reality. Publishers’ brands don’t matter. Not to readers.

Amazon matters: not because people value the Amazon brand, or even because Amazon is any good at what it does (a case can be made that they’ve really still got a long way to go to get to mediocre), but because all they do is connect writers and readers. (At least in the books department.) They make that connection, then they stay the hell out of the way.

They take a cut of the transaction, but they stay the hell out of the way.

So here’s what I’m thinking… why can’t arts organizations be more like that? Why can’t more of them adopt the Amazon model?

Here’s what that might look like in the theater, for example. Here’s a New Model Theater.

The New Model Theater wouldn’t need an artistic director, for starters. It might need an artistic advisor or two, if it were big enough to afford them: someone to support the creative efforts of other artists, if they wanted that support… but the position wouldn’t really be necessary.

What would be necessary would be an Executive Director. Someone to oversee the operation of the place: a head honcho, so to speak, but with an operations perspective. Someone with financial interests, rather than artistic interests. Someone to make sure the bills get paid, the lights stay on, the systems that keep the place functioning don’t break down. And his or her mission? To facilitate the creative expression and interactions of others, while maintaining a neutral relationship to the content of the art that appears on the New Model Theater’s stages.

You’d need to do the same sort of transformation on everyone else’s job as well. Take the New Model Theater’s marketing director, for example. Instead of selling New Model Theater as a brand, his or her job would be helping artists sell themselves: consulting on messaging strategy, helping develop audience engagement initiatives, providing recommendations of freelance poster and postcard designers, giving advice about press releases and press packets, and so on. Artists would be able to “buy” time from the marketing director, who would maintain a list of free resources and helpful tips for those who couldn’t afford that time.

Think about how the box office might be different, too. From the perspective of potential theatergoers, it would remain the same (though “season” tickets would of course not be available). From the perspective of the artists, however, everything would be different. You’d be able to set your own prices, using whatever pricing model made sense for you, and simply pay the theater a cut of whatever tickets you sold. The New Model Theater could set a minimum amount it would collect per ticket, or a minimum percentage; either method might work. The box office manager would simply input whatever prices an artist might set into the ticketing system and then make sales the normal way.

The point is: everything about the New Model Theater would be redesigned around a DIY approach. Its whole existence would be centered around helping other people put on shows. The theater itself wouldn’t have an artistic identity. In fact, it would probably do best to keep its own identity as thoroughly submerged as possible, letting the artists come forward and become the face of the theater. After all, organizations don’t make art, artists do. (Organizations are good at one thing: organizing. And that, in this model, is all they’d be doing.)

You think this idea is crazy? I think it’s got legs. I know there’s a LOT more detail to be fleshed out… but I’d like to see someone do it. And I think there’s a great version of it already in place: the Fringe festivals that happen all over the country. How much of a leap is it from the way Fringe festivals operate to the New Model Theater? If we put a more few dollars (and a few buildings) behind them… not very far.

12 thoughts on “One New Model: Arts Organizations as Platforms”

  1. Jason Heat Schlafstein

    To play Devil’s Advocate (and because I do truly feel this way) – I have overwhelmingly found work that is well curated to be of generally higher quality and better satisfaction as an audience member than un-curated work. There are exceptions, but that has very much been the overarching rule I’ve experienced.

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  4. There’s a lot of sense in what you say! Still, some artists are much better at writing, acting, directing than they are at marketing and producing. I fear these creative souls would get short shrift under New Model Theater.

  5. Thank for starting a conversation. As I said on Twitter, I don’t think it’s crazy but I’m struggling
    on the model’s sustainability. So let’s flesh that out…

    The difficulty I have with the analogy is that theatre is more dependent
    on finite resources for our “means of production” than literature: theatre exists in a finite space
    and time without permanence, and can’t really be supplied on demand on a “personalized” level.

    If access is determined by a first-come,
    first-served model (or a lottery), without regards to quality, it seems to me harder
    to sustain and grow the “contract” with the audience. From the audience’s point-of-view, there’s no coherence
    to what they’re experiencing from performance to performance.

    Live performance demands a lot of its
    audience relative to other art forms: come and see our work where we tell you
    to see it, when we tell you to see it, with whom we tell you to see it, and what
    you’re going to see will be produced right in front of you so even though we’re
    well-prepared, ultimately no guarantees about what you’re going to get. It’s a tough contract under most

    1. If we accept that the resources for theater are finite — and I would say they’re only finite if we don’t keep adding to them, which we could do — then they have to be divided SOME way, no? So, whose to say that putting them in the control of a few “owning class” theater administrators (and, by extension, wealthy board members) is the right or only way to do that?

      As for a “contract” with an audience… do audiences even want that any more? Do MOST people care? We do, yes… but the general run of theatergoers who might see, oh, two or three plays a year at most? How about the people who see NOTHING in a given year?

      With regard to coherence… I think your comment is fascinating. I mean… the notion that we as theater makers can even create coherence for people is a bit condescending, in some ways, when I think about it. (And to be fair, I might have had the same thought.) I think for most people coherence comes from a sense that “These shows go together because these are the shows I chose to watch.” In other words, they make their own coherence.

      Finally… yeah, that’s a tough contract. But I don’t see how that concern affects anything here…

      1. I’m still processing, but one question: How would this new model theatre fund itself? A cut of ticket sales won’t cover much. And while having a distinct season/identity/curated style/etc might not be necessary to attract audiences, I imagine it does a lot to attract funders.

        1. I think the funding question is something we need to figure out here. But I suspect that, given that we’re only talking about funding for infrastructure (rather than for art), it’d be easier (politically and perhaps psychologically) for local and federal government sources to play a more significant part.

  6. Interesting thoughts. As a co-founder of a similarly minded organization (Shunpike) this definitely resonates with me.

    What’s interesting is that you’ve actually described two separate business here. One is a rental space that works either on a flat fee or a percentage, and the other is a consulting company that helps artists with the business of art. Shunpike spent many years thinking about and trying to do both, but in the end decided that the latter was a greater need in our community (Seattle).
    Something to think about is who the primary customers are for the New Model Theater. The theater-going public, or the artists who use the facility and services? The way you’ve described it, the customers seem to be the artists. If the customer were the theater-going public, then the NMT would eventually want to curate content and set a bar for a quality experience, which probably leads to an artistic staff and then you’ve basically come full circle.
    If the audience is, in fact, the artists, then again I come back to this question of why the two businesses – the rental space and the consultancy – are wedded to one another. To be successful, one business will want to specialize in renting the space to anyone with money, and the other will want to consult for as many artists as possible, regardless of where they put up their shows. That’s just the nature of markets.

    I don’t think the idea is unworkable, but I would suggest focusing on how the two lines of business truly compliment each other in a way that makes them, to use a terrible business consultant word, synergistic.

    1. I don’t believe they need to be separate businesses. In fact, I don’t think they need to be businesses at all; they can equally be non-profit organizations. As for who the customers are… well, I don’t like the word customer. (I’m not a capitalist.) From my perspective, all art ought to be made in service to potential audiences.

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