Two of the coolest arts organizations I know of are about to become a single entity. Fractured Atlas, a 10-year-old national service organization providing healthcare, fiscal sponsorship, and other goodies to its members, is merging with NYC Performing Arts Spaces, a collection of online, searchable databases for rehearsal and performance venues in music, dance, and theater. By doing so, Fractured Atlas adds an important new dimension to its programming, and NYC Performing Arts Spaces gets itself much-needed ongoing IT support and development (Fractured Atlas partially self-funds through its own IT consulting subsidiary).
This story is interesting to me not because of my own history with the organizations involved (I was one of NYC Music Spaces’s early-ish adopters and am listed on their testimonials page, and it was a conversation with Fractured Atlas founder Adam Forest Huttler that sparked me on my way to applying to business school), but also because of all the talk that I’m hearing these days about mergers and acquisitions in the nonprofit sector. It’s the sort of subject that is very interesting to my classmates and professors at business school, but tends to be far less exciting for executives and board members of actual organizations in the field. For better or worse (mostly worse, in my opinion), clashing missions and egos have a way, or at least a reputation, of stymieing even the best-laid merger plans.
I first learned about the impending Fractured Atlas/NYC Performing Arts Spaces merger through a conversation with a staff member at Americans for the Arts, which itself merged in 2005 with the Arts & Business Council. That was a marriage that in some ways made less sense on paper, but from all appearances the transition seems to have been accomplished rather smoothly. Assuming all continues to go well, perhaps these two relatively high profile megers will encourage other arts organizations to consider similar steps, which for service organizations in particular would be, I think, a healthy proposition.
For straight-up presenting organizations? Maybe not so much. I had a case in Nonprofit Management class last year that looked at theatre organizations in Seattle in the 1990s and considered whether some of them should merge. Frankly, I do think there is some value in letting individual arts presenting organizations and ensembles retain their own identities and leadership structures. It allows for a more nimble landscape, a more entrepreneurial spirit, an ebb and flow of organizations successful and not. That’s not to say that some economies of scale can’t be leveraged, however. (Oh, look at me, I’m using MBA-speak.) Not every organization needs its own performing and rehearsal space (or even its own office space), for example. Not every organization needs to have its own accounting department, or IT team, or fundraising operation. A couple of colleagues of mine from Yale who graduated last year have started their own bookkeeping and financial consulting firm aimed at small nonprofits, called Easy Office. Another friend from high school has a startup IT consulting firm that provides custom solutions to nonprofits at below-market rates. These sorts of ventures and other forms of collaborative infrastructure can go a long way toward containing overall nonprofit-sector expenditures on support systems and talent, without necessarily sacrificing what makes each individual organization special.