Creative Capital as Arts Incubator: Lessons for the Field

Ebony McKinney, Founding Director of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA, wrote a guest post for the Americans for the Arts blog called “Arts Incubators: Creating a Roadmap for Resilience.” We were thrilled to see that the article cited Creative Capital as a model for how arts incubators can play an important role in not only supporting innovation and risk taking, but also by cultivating our most important assets—social and human capital.

Here is an excerpt from the post:

In New York, Creative Capital grew out of the demise of individual grants from the National Endowments for the Arts. The Andy Warhol Foundation and a few others thought a response to support individual artists and risk taking should be developed. It was the middle of the boom and venture capitalism was growing in popularity.

Ruby Lerner, director of Creative Capital, was charged with creating a “21st century arts organization,” drawing inspiration from venture capitalists and mutual aid models, and thinking through the possibility of bringing together grantmaking and artist services, while incorporating an entrepreneurial spirit.

The staff at Creative Capital wanted to move artists out of the “starving artist mindset” and treat them as vital parts of the community by exposing avenues to a sustainable career, which would allow for more meaning and dignity. Over 400 artists have become part of the program since it began in 1999.

“We serve the functions of an incubator. We are pulling people together in virtual and real space, interdisciplinary space, and retreats. Emerging fields, filmmakers, visual artists, novelists, dancers…everyone gets to have a conversation about what they are working on and struggle with [and] what is failing and succeeding. This leads to problem solving and new ideas,” said Director of Grants and Services Kemi Ilesanmi.

The retreat is the foundation of the program. For three to five days, grantees participate in professional development workshops, but the social capital or network development that’s done is equally important.

Programmers, presenters, curators — those representing the “business side of the art world” — and Creative Capital alumni meet and mingle with the current grantees.

Ebony offered a few possible lessons for the field from arts incubators like Creative Capital:

A.) Human capital is roughly the set of skills acquired on the job or through training and experience that supports the production of work that has economic value. Arts incubators, with a complementary set of workshops, panel discussions, and the like support the development of strong work and careers. For many, the benefits go beyond finance by increasing the artist’s ability to generate cultural value be it aesthetic, symbolic, social, and even historical. I’d like to see similar efforts focus on creative and cultural entrepreneurs.

B.) Both of the programs that I examined created “contact zones” — dinners with BAVC’s producing teams, Creative Capital’s retreat — which placed a real emphasis on social capital, network building, and knowledge sharing. Many incubators seem to toy with the idea of promoting collaboration among its participants. To me this seems a bit heavy handed. But there does seem to be great potential in creating labs or basins that accumulate this wealth in a more organic way. A smart, heterogeneous gathering around shared values and interests could build a more dynamic, innovative, and complex talent pool. This kind of endeavor with light facilitation could also break the isolation that goes along with increasingly individualized work.

C.) Artists and arts organizations are understandably worried that thinking too much of market forces could lead to pandering, commodification, or flat, hollow work. Cultural value is predominant, but having a balanced view that incorporates a clear economic outlook should also be a part of the puzzle. Clarity on scale and direction are vital, so that business is in service of greater goals. “Not everyone wants to think as a small business”, said Kemi Ilesanmi of Creative Capital, “but we encourage artists to think about what it takes to do what they do. We say, ‘If you want a review or to contribute to a conversation, or just want to figure out how to do meaningful work and pay rent’ we can lay it out, frame it, and present it as possible.”

Read the full article on ARTSblog

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