The Revolution will be Fiscally Sponsored

Sometimes you don’t notice massive tectonic shifts around you. Sometimes they’re so slow and gradual it’s only in retrospect you see that neon and slap bracelets for example are no longer the height of fashion.

Other times, you can. You can feel the slow but steady momentum of a major change happening and once you become aware of it, it’s hard not to notice how it is all around you. Once you begin to see it, it’s hard to do things that feel like they’re working against the advancing tide.

Ten years ago, if you were an artist arriving on the Philadelphia scene and you wanted to create structure to make your work, you formed a non-profit.

My guess is that ten years from now, no one under the age of 40 will imagine taking that step.

This is the wave that I see rolling over the artistic landscape. Across the country young and emerging artists look at the standard non-profit with dread. We see dwindling funds going to a fewer and fewer number of large entities. We see our own artistic mentors unhappy at having to spend so much of their time running an organization that doesn’t allow them time to make their own work. We see ourselves needing to learn bookkeeping, taxes, scheduling, payroll, and marketing if we are to follow the traditional “in house” model.

We see massive non-profits that get a massive portion of the funding out there and see them as the place that many in cultural landscape look to. We see mid level ones that receive a middling portion of the pie and demanding a mid-sized level of attention. And we see small non-profits that get small chunks of change and equivalently modest voices in the larger picture.

And then we think, “There just isn’t room here for any more organizations.”  In cities like Philly, ones that have had a resurgence of art and culture in the decades just before you arrived on the scene, there is an especially conflicting feeling – one in which you love the arts scene for the people that have come before you, nay may even be in the city because of those fore-runners, but are simultaneously fearful that you will ever find foothold exactly because of the people that have had success before you got there.

Is the answer to simply find the next city on it’s way up? Duke it out as a non-profit somewhere that hasn’t yet peaked? (Baltimore, I’m looking at you…)

I don’t think so.

A few months ago I read an article:  THIS ONE

The message in it struck a chord with me. For years I’ve been toying with whether or not to take my work from a solo produced project to project endeavor to a non-profit. A lot of people encouraged me to just find the board, get the paperwork filed and take the plunge. For years I kept saying “At some point. But not now.”

Why?

For a long time, I couldn’t really articulate the fear. And in practice, I saw a few friends take the plunge and really have little change in “business as usual.” And yet, I just couldn’t see where Swim Pony would fit as another non-profit in 10 or 20 years. As much as I admire companies like Exile or the Lantern, I didn’t see space in which my version of a non-profit could grow. Plus, I didn’t want my own office with my own copier, my own space, a full four-show season every year. At the end of the day I went into the arts to be in rehearsals not to worry about filling the toner cartridge.  And I was even more nervous about the idea of handing control to a board of directors. And I worried that a non-profit would put pressure for every show to be a success, or the same style, etc etc etc.  And as I started talking about this to others, it seemed like a LOT of people were in the same boat.

I think there was a time when the regional theater model was a necessary step in the expanding of the arts across the country.

And I think that time is over.

I think the creators that will survive the next few decades are the ones that have already start to accept that the model that they studied and saw as they grew into their artistic homes is one that will not work for them. Just as the idea of what a “job” is has changed radically, so much new artists rethink structuring the administrative side of their art practices.

This is the new revolution of artist as entrepreneur. And that revolution is going to be fiscally sponsored.

Fiscal sponsorship refers to the practice of non-profit organizations offering their legal and tax-exempt status to groups engaged in activities related to the organization’s missions. It typically involves a fee-based contractual arrangement between a project and an established non-profit.

If you don’t know about it now, you will soon. And I think the reason for this is that fiscal sponsorship is the first swing of the pendulum back towards allowing artists to hand off the administrative work they haven’t trained for to those that did and do want to do. Fiscal sponsorship is about streamlining. It’s not about building up, it’s about connecting out: finding ways to think of oneself not as an island needing to generate all of its resources but as a chain of interconnected aspects of a larger whole.

There was a time when most people thought of fiscal sponsorship as a temporary state that a new organization entered into on its way to “full” non-profit status. But as a 5 year fiscal sponsee myself, I can tell you, I think that for many, this will become a permanent way of life, a way to still take part in funding structures that haven’t yet caught up to the new way that art is being made, while refusing to join a practice that undercuts our ability to make it.

Because in reality, why would an artist run a theater space or marketing firm in house? The maintenance of a building or running of a PR campaign is actually a rather different thing entirely than structuring one’s next creative project. And simpler still: do I need a copy machine all to myself when I could split the cost across three or four other companies without any inconvenience?  We can mourn the loss of sheer number of dollars in this brave new world of post housing bubble collapse. We might at first glance blame it for the fact that we don’t get to each build our own tiny kingdoms since there’s just not enough money to go around. But I think that what’s happening now was always inevitable. I think the shortage of money has forced into sharp contrast a tidal wave that had been steadily approaching for a while.

Some days I thank the great beyond for my chemistry degree. I thank for it because it reminds me that I’m smart, and on some nasty unconscious level, I think a lot of artists really believe they are incapable and unintelligent. That they can’t do the books and the taxes and the admin AND the art because they’re stupid.

First of all, no one can do all those things. Especially not without the training. Go ask your accountant to choreograph a dance and see how well he or she does.

Second, just because I can do those things, doesn’t mean I should or that I want to.

And I don’t. I went into the arts to direct and to create plays. And there are plenty of sacrifices – a certain level of money and status, to name two – that I’m ok to offer up because I love what I do. But not doing the art is not one of them.  We need to learn to share our audiences, spaces, and stuff so we can be smarter about producing: by pooling resources and delegating the jobs that we don’t need to do.

And then maybe we can actually get back to making a greater portion of our time go to making our art.

So as one of those “emerging” artists on the horizon, I’d like to help foster the conversation about how we creators can be as innovative in the structures that support our work as we are in the work itself.

This is the first thought in what will likely be a series of many.

– A

PS – A quick shout out to the Wyncote Foundation, who I was able to receive funding from for this research thanks to fiscal sponsorship

Also so first resources for folks new to the topic:

1) A link to a talk I gave with another small company called “Don’t Start A Non-profit.” This is part 1 and you can find the second and third parts (which are mostly discussion with the large group) on Swim Pony’s Youtube channel.

2) Here’s a link to the power point from that talk:  http://www.slideshare.net/SwimPonyPA/dont-start-a-nonprofit

3) A couple of “Fiscal Sponsors” (non-profit umbrellas) we talked about that I recommend:
http://www.fracturedatlas.org/ (I currently use these guys)
http://www.nyfa.org/ (Check out their website for lots of cool info like grant databases, etc)
http://www.thefield.org/ (Know less about them but have heard good things)

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