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Inside Arts EXTRA

NIVA and the Case for Creative Sector Collaboration: It’s a tax status, not an attitude

Jill Robinson APAP
By Jill Robinson

I’ve been thinking about the variety of business models and players in our global arts and cultural ecosystem since this pandemic began. It struck me first because it seemed that other similarly affected industries had a collective voice, like travel and restaurants. They were getting public reaction, media support. But in arts and culture and live entertainment, there are so many siloed operators. Creative businesses, all. But with different legal statuses, incentives and postures.

My breath was taken away a little when in late summer I saw that the U.K. had this “collective voice thing” better in hand. The country’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) allocated £1.57 billion to something it titled the Culture Recovery Fund to support culture, arts and heritage institutions, including charitable and commercial entities. This in a region where the arts and cultural economy delivers .05% of total gross domestic product (GDP). In America, by contrast, the same sector contributed 4.3% of GDP (National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), March 30, 2021)—more than the construction, transportation and warehousing, travel and tourism, mining, utilities and agriculture industries. In this country, Congress allocated $75 million to the NEA, and then artists and businesses—for-profit and non-profit alike—had to seek and search for other, generic financial support in a myriad of places at the local, state and federal levels.

Fast-forward to this past Thursday, May 6, when the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) received the Sidney R. Yates Award for Outstanding Advocacy by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals at its inaugural APAP Honors. I’ve just joined that board, and I watched with enthusiasm as Rev. Moose and Dayna Frank, two of the co-founders of the organization who have full-time gigs elsewhere, accepted on NIVA’s behalf this recognition of advocacy impact for the full arts ecology. Frank said, “it was truly wonderful to work across the non-profit and for-profit sectors…with government entities…and come together as one arts economy and creative economy to achieve relief for our industry.”

By now most in the U.S. arts and entertainment community are familiar, if not with NIVA, per se, then with the movement it became: #saveourstages. And here’s what it caused: $16 billion in government relief accessible through the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant, or SVOG. Like in the U.K., commercial, non-profit and government operators alike can apply … relief for the whole sector. NIVA got its start just one year ago, in April 2020, as the existential nature of the crisis was becoming clear.

Finally. An amount, a number, that felt like it reflected the impact of the arts and live events sector in America.

And what did that take? I was so curious, so interested in learning from the people who made this happen — especially because their efforts made it apparent that existing American systems couldn’t make it work in the same way. NIVA appeared to be nimble and creative; it’s clear they moved fast. And man: the results. They were unlike anything politically or financially we’ve seen, even as we have major-league and-sized lobbying organizations deployed year-round by so many.

So, I reached out to NIVA’s Moose and Frank, and these wonderful people gave me time. What I learned is that commercial and non-profits operators have so much more in common than we know or focus on. Certainly, our causes are aligned, not just now but in general. I also learned that their impact reflects what’s possible if we work — together NOW and moving forward in our communities and nations with a big vision in mind.

Marching forward against all odds

The background and operational details of getting NIVA and the Save Our Stages Act up and running have been documented in the media, and two articles in Pollstar this year and last year tell the story well. When I talked to Moose and Frank, I was interested in the sheer creative energy required to not only found NIVA but also to drive such results. If you read my blog from last month you’ll see I was thinking about Jim March’s definition of creativity, which requires three things: 1) slack, which means having sufficient time and resources for exploration, 2) hubris—belief that inspires risk-taking, and 3) optimism, which takes hold when a vision of something truly different is made to seem more promising than the status quo.

Moose, Frank and I talked about these ideas and how they related to their work with NIVA. I must admit that even applying the concept of creativity related to Save Our Stages was a tough sell for them. Moose said, “This is the closest I feel like I’ve ever felt be to being at war — knowing that there’s no way that it correlates and with every respect to people who have actually served our country — but there was no alternative, this was existential. Our industry was failing. Marching forward was the only option.” But I pushed, and said, “You must have felt something akin to optimism, a belief that you could do something different, like in March’s definition, something more promising than the status quo?”

“Optimism? Not really. Maybe the opposite: desperation,” said Frank. “The independent venue world felt invisible. There were no provisions for our world. Lobbying wasn’t part of our experience or need. We were unfamiliar with Americans for the Arts. PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding didn’t provide in the way we needed.”

On to slack. While they eye-rolled about their own slack and lack of it, Moose and Frank acknowledged: There were many people out of work and furloughed who unexpectedly had slack and could dig in and volunteer. Many others volunteered simply out of love for and interest in the future of the live entertainment field.

The belief (not hubris, they both argued) came as they began to formalize, organize, sell merchandise to fuel their limited operations, and raise money that went to the Emergency Relief Fund that went directly to venues. Everyone volunteered. Meanwhile, many had full-time jobs trying to keep their venues afloat. And to my ears, here’s the key to NIVA’s success, as described by Frank:

“It was a like a sports team. We all played different, necessary roles. And everyone felt existentially threatened, so we didn’t have the luxury of negativity and in-fighting. But let’s be clear: We did feel cultural differences between the commercial and non-profit operators in the room. It was also clear it was critical to INCLUDE — including government-owned facilities. It only occurred to us to collaborate.

Defining “entertainment,” arts and culture

There are differences, of course. Let’s start with the fact that in entertainment there are what I call “Big E” entertainment companies like Live Nation, Eventim, and AEG, and “small e” entertainment businesses, like ones that present live events in a local community. The “Big E’s” are often publicly traded and enormous on a global scale, presenting and touring big names across the entertainment spectrum, and whose financial and operational remit is clear.

“Small e’s” on the other hand — these are most often run by local community members or government authorities. Their legal and tax status may require that they post a profit to continue or to grow; or they may be non-profits whose benefit to the community grants a charitable status that doesn’t require a profit and enables fundraising and the rest. But the “small e’s” tend to be local and driven by local concerns and economies. I was reminded by Moose and Frank as they wrangled the entire ecosystem toward the common goal of lobbying and impact that they’re ALL passionate as hell about providing live entertainment and culture to the people in those communities.

So, back to tax status and attitude.

Everyone involved in the arts, cultural and “small-e” entertainment industry is part of the same system. As NIVA demonstrated, we should be navigating through this together to become more resilient. But I’ve observed three biases within the ecosystem that don’t serve us. I think they’re harmful and may unnecessarily slow our efforts to move into the glorious post-pandemic world we all desire. They include:

a. The “arts group” bias. I regularly hear arts organizations described as “arts groups” in conversation and the media. To my ears it reflects a business-oriented bias that non-profit operators don’t know what they’re doing or how to run an effective organization. But this appears to be specific to the arts — we don’t hear cancer charities called “cancer groups.” I suspect the bias is tied to the caricature of the crazy artist who decides to “put on a show.” Unfortunately, the words and tone perpetuate paternalism and allow the non-profit part of the sector off the hook. The Metropolitan Opera is not an “arts group,” and many arts and cultural organizations have budgets and turnovers in the tens of millions of dollars. And not to put too fine a point on it: There’s ample evidence of poorly run commercial entities in as high a proportion as poorly run non-profits. It’s a tax status…it shouldn’t be an attitude about them.

b. “Commercial operators are only in it for the money.” This is crap. Most are critical parts of their communities, partnering with them in a variety of ways. Independent venues and their brethren bring creative energy and experiences to people of every age, and community support and participation is a barometer of their appeal. Frank’s First Avenue Productions in Minneapolis is a great example. First Avenue operates six theatres in the Twin Cities and describes the work as “dedicated to promoting artistic expression in diverse voices old and new, to … bolster the health of the local community and its economy by … offering artists a stage and a mic, and fans a place to gather.” The company also partners with the community. “With the help of artists and musicians, First Avenue has been able to host countless benefit shows for local and national non-profit groups, including Pastor Paul’s Food Shelf, The Red Cross, the Twin Cities Music Community Trust, and many more … (we also) work with area schools to hold workshops and lectures for students interested in music and related fields.” Sometimes the attitude about business is deserved; but more often than not, assumptions are made that prevent creative partnerships and impact that could positively exploit the differences these businesses bring. Businesses operate with a tax status, too — one that requires profits to fuel growth.

c. “It’s a no-sum game.” Many privately believe that there’s a risk in sharing resources and partnering within the ecosystem. But there are wonderful examples of partnership in theatre, where the non-profit environment affords the experimentation required to test new works that commercial producers can invest in and take to Broadway in New York City or the West End in London. And there’s so much more to learn! Non-profits can learn from entrepreneurs and their specific kind of hustle and focus on results and return. In turn, commercial operators can learn from non-profit educational programs and community connections. Most importantly, data research always tells the positive story about collaboration. At TRG Arts we aggregate arts/culture/entertainment consumer data across cities and nations, and the same story shows up every time: the more arts and culture and entertainment consumers buy from one organization, the more they buy and support across the community ecosystem. Here's a great example out of Philadelphia. We have massive incentives to work together.

In talking with Moose and Frank, I was reminded about the things our ecosystem shares: passion for communities, quality of life and impact. All of the leaders within this ecosystem run small businesses. Some work for boards, some for government authorities, some in a 501(c)3 model, and some as commercial entities. But ALL have been hit by this pandemic in very similar ways. Most of us have had to hustle in the past year — with fewer staff, fewer resources, and radically different demands on our time.

But the year or 18 months ahead? That will be about recovery and resiliency — IF we create new ways, test and learn, and work together as a sector toward it. Let’s think about the arts/entertainment/cultural system as one local, regional and national asset together. Our sector’s resiliency will be stronger if we do.

Remember: It’s a tax status. It should NOT be an attitude.

Jill S. Robinson is CEO of TRG Arts (The Results Group for the Arts), a renowned international, data-driven change agency and a ColoradoBIZ Top 100 Women-Owned Company. As a driving force in the arts and culture sector, Jill has inspired leaders and organizations for more than three decades, and her expertise and counsel are sought out by arts and cultural executives worldwide. Jill believes in the transformative power of arts and culture experiences, and that positive, profound change in the business model of arts organizations leads to artistic innovation that can inspire entire communities.
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