From Grassroots to Institution, Growing With Integrity

"Rhythm & Rest" by the Animus Collective, 2009" at FIGMENT NYCPhoto Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

“Rhythm & Rest” by the Animus Collective, 2009″ at FIGMENT NYC
Photo Credit: Suzie Sims-Fletcher courtesy of FIGMENT

For the past two and a half years I’ve been involved with FIGMENT, a non-profit organization that produces participatory art events in a growing list of cities, including New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, Jackson and Pittsburgh. When I first joined FIGMENT in 2010, it had already grown from a one-day event on New York City’s Governors Island attended by about two thousand people in July of 2007 to an annual weekend-long participatory arts festival attended by tens of thousands. FIGMENT had begun to expand geographically, producing a weekend event in Boston, and temporally, with a dedicated summer-long FIGMENT area on the Governors Island featuring an artist-designed minigolf course and an interactive sculpture garden. Since then, the organization has continued to grow, with events and members in cities across the United States, and even internationally—there are plans for FIGMENT events in Canada and Australia. Last year, FIGMENT received its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and this year it hired its first paid employee (the organization had previously been run entirely by volunteers). Also for the first time this year, FIGMENT will be providing some artists a small stipend beyond the cost of materials. Past Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel also works with FIGMENT, and recently profiled the organization’s growth in a piece for Americans for the Arts.

Because of my own personal investment in FIGMENT, I’ve become increasingly interested in the effects of institutional support on alternative arts organizations and projects. This grassroots/alternative arts group is hiring paid staff, providing artist compensation, creating guidelines and consistent branding for events, and receiving more mainstream institutional support and recognition. How will its ability to carry out of its principles, which include participation, decommodification, inclusion and access, be affected?

To understand what FIGMENT might encounter in the future, I thought I’d investigate how more established non-profit arts organizations have fared during similar transitions. Perhaps the organization can benefit by looking at the successes and pitfalls of other groups.

In 1974, a trio of actors founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a Deerfield, Illinois Unitarian church with a commitment to ensemble collaboration and artistic risk. The company’s stated mission was to “advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.” In the past nearly 40 years, the organization has had numerous expansions—first to the basement of a Catholic school, then to a 134-seat theater at the Jane Hull House Center in Chicago, again to a 211-seat space at 2851 North Halsted Street in Chicago, and finally to its present home, a theater complex at 1650 North Halsted. Today, Steppenwolf is an ensemble of 43 artists, including actors, directors, playwrights and filmmakers, with an annual audience of over 200,000 and an operating budget of $13.5 million. The company has won numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and a Tony Award for regional excellence.

As Steppenwolf has evolved, it has remained financially solvent while strengthening its community engagement, even as many performing arts organizations are struggling with a decline in subscription rates, or tickets for an entire season of programming can be renewed annually. In fact, Steppenwolf has also suffered from attrition in subscriptions, which means a decline in a steady, predictable stream of revenue. However, the organization used this funding issue as an opportunity to re-examine its core values. A 2011 study by the Wallace Foundation on building arts audiences profiled Steppenwolf’s strategy for building deeper relationships with both subscribers and non-subscribers. The paper outlined the company’s “Public Square” initiative, which included post-show discussions after every performance led by facilitators who are specifically trained to progress a dialogue within the audience; additional online content, with access to interviews, articles, podcasts and videos for each production on its website; and a series of social events that are free and open to the public and offer the opportunity to explore thematic elements of current productions. The strategy led to a 61% increase in multi-performance ticket sales, as well a deeper level of audience engagement. In short, Steppenwolf’s institutionalization has not resulted in the compromise of its values, but instead has actually furthered them.

Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco is another organization that has maintained and expanded its mission since its inception forty years ago. Founded in a former bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, it began as an interdenominational space that sought to bridge artistic and spiritual ideas. The organization produced alternative musical performances, theater pieces, screenings, readings and workshops. Four expansions and relocations later, Intersection continues to provide such programming in addition to maintaining a gallery space, sponsoring artist residencies with individuals and collectives, and promoting community engagement via collaborative and educational opportunities. In fact, it is such an established cultural institution that in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article, Visual Arts, Literary and Jazz Program Director Kevin Chen acknowledged that “Intersection is no longer alternative.” But far from losing its way, Intersection has become an institution that smaller, alternative organizations now look to for support.

The success stories of Steppenwolf and Intersection for the Arts have achieved an almost mythic quality in Chicago and San Francisco—it’s the dream that that many non-profit arts organizations aspire to. But for every Steppenwolf or Intersection, there are multiple failures like The Franklin Street Arts Center, Collective for Living Cinema, Minor Injury and Matzo Files. It’s more difficult to find information on these defunct spaces and groups, which can seem to disappear in a day. Some began expanding, and then folded due to lack of funding, or were absorbed by a larger, more mainstream entity, resulting in a compromise of artistic vision and mission.

P.S.1 is one such example of an alternative arts organization that expanded beyond its means. Founded in 1971 by Alanna Heiss through the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, an organization that developed exhibitions in abandoned spaces across New York City, the center’s original mission was to showcase young artists and offer an exhibition space for risk-taking works that weren’t necessarily saleable or commercially viable. From 1994-7 P.S.1 underwent an $8.5 million gut renovation and expansion, adding an elevator and sculpture garden and redesigning their galleries. Although its subsequent 2000 merger with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was billed as a win for both organizations, enhancing MoMA’s contemporary art initiatives and giving P.S.1 access to MoMA’s collection and marketing resources, in reality, P.S.1 needed a larger institution to rescue it after the expansion had depleted its financial resources. Now renamed MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art controls the center’s finances and has the right to appoint its board members. In 2008, after a planned 7-year transition period for the center and MoMA, Heiss was forced into retirement. In his 2008 New York Magazine article, Andrew M. Goldstein recounts his lunchtime conversation with Heiss and Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director:

“I told him I didn’t want to retire,” Heiss explains. “And he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to work another couple of years.’ And he said, ‘I think I’m going to go ahead on the retirement plan.’ And now we’re talking about what I might do.” Lowry says the discussions are ongoing—“These are not easy conversations”—but he made clear that he and MoMA’s board considered Heiss’s retirement necessary for P.S. 1’s evolving future within MoMA. “From my perspective, the seven-year period was a transition period; the goal was to get to know each other and make things work, and then at the end of that transition period to move on,” he says.

P.S.1’s institutional expansion—the addition of space and staff, as well as the support it received from the established MoMA–transformed it from an alternative arts space to a branch of a commercial contemporary art museum. It now throws parties sponsored by Volkswagen, and launches exhibitions anchored by established artists who can draw crowds. Recent and current exhibitions at MoMA PS1 include a Kraftwerk installation that coincided with the electronic-music pioneers’ MoMA retrospective; “September 11,” which showed work by heavyweight artists like Diane Arbus, John Chamberlain, William Eggleston, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Alex Katz, Barbara Kruger and Yoko Ono; and a solo show of work by Huma Bhaba, who has work in the collections of The Whitney, The Saatchi Gallery, MoMA, and the Met. The final Warm Up of this year was DJed by Thom Yorke’s new project Atoms for Peace. This programming may be worthy in its own right, but it’s not the risky programming meant to give emerging artists a platform that the original P.S.1 was founded on. Administrative practices that enable sustained revenue should allow for more risk-taking and challenging work, but unfortunately, as with P.S.1, this is often not the result.

Building—creating a space or expanding a space– is arguably the purest form of institutionalization. It’s a concrete statement that an organization intends to be around for the long-term. “Set in Stone,” a recent study by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, examined the results of the physical expansions of cultural organizations between 1994 and 2008, drawing on data from more than 700 construction projects. The authors looked at how new facilities related to organizations’ missions; the additional staff, technical support and marketing expertise needed to effectively operate new spaces; how new facilities helped or did not help organizations to engage the surrounding communities; and the relationship of funding streams to new spaces. The final report explains:

In many cases, the actual need for a new facility had not been demonstrated (even though there was often great enthusiasm about getting underway with construction); the connection between a new facility and delivering more effectively on mission was in many instances quite murky; realism about how a new facility could be sustained once built was frequently missing – both in terms of the financial resources and staff needed to successfully run a new facility. The list goes on. New facilities would open, organizations would then run into financial problems because of insufficient revenue, or an inadequate endowment, or because they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to build, or because the building was too costly to operate, or it turned out to be beyond the organization’s capacity to administer and sustain.

Although most of the organizations, projects and budgets in this study are much larger than FIGMENT or other young alternative arts organizations, the takeaway is still relevant: The most successful projects were motivated by both artistic mission and organizational need. Project leadership was clear, consistent and sustained throughout the process, leaders provided efficient timelines and effect feedback, and expenses were controlled during construction. While this study was specifically about physical expansions, I also believe that these points hold true for other types of expansions, such as in staff or geography.

With all of this in mind, then, the question remains: how can FIGMENT remain “alternative” even as it receives more mainstream support?

FIGMENT strives to provide opportunities for emerging artists to showcase interactive works that wouldn’t necessarily be commercially successful. The group quite literally takes art out of the museum or gallery, primarily using outdoor spaces such as public parks for its events. According to FIGMENT co-founder and executive producer Dave Koren, this strategy has helped FIGMENT remain inclusive and accessible by showcasing a broad array of work from many artists in large, free spaces that are easily reached by the public. FIGMENT’s open call for project proposals also facilitates a transparent and wide-ranging curatorial process. FIGMENT once decided not to go forward with an event in Mexico City because there wasn’t enough time to do an open call for art there. The organizers there had proposed to approach specific artists and collectives, but FIGMENT decided that handpicking people and projects for the event would privilege particular groups and run counter to the organization’s principles.

Koren says that this open call process is especially important when there is a limited amount of space, as there is in FIGMENT’s season-long area on Governors Island, which includes an architectural pavilion, an interactive sculpture garden, and an artist-designed minigolf course. Works are chosen for this exhibition via an open call for proposals with specific, intensive guidelines and a rigorous jury evaluation.

As FIGMENT expands to new cities, ensuring that the new organizers, teams and artists understand FIGMENT’s mission is not always easy. “They get the big picture, but not always the specifics that it involves,” Koren says. He recounted one group that planned to have a bar tent with beer for sale, similar to what one usually finds at an outdoor concert. He had to clarify to them that this would violate FIGMENT’s decommodification principle. “FIGMENT seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We will not substitute consumption for experience.” FIGMENT events aren’t places to sell things, whether that be art or food or beer. For that reason, FIGMENT doesn’t want to endorse a vendor, or rely on commercial vendors as a source of revenue.

FIGMENT has recently been the recipient of some substantial grants, including one from the NEA, and the group continues to apply for funding in the form of grants from foundations. However, the group is wary of relying on these grants as a main source of revenue. Many grants have very specific criteria; it’s important that the group doesn’t lose sight of its own mission while trying to fit a grant’s standards. Ultimately, as FIGMENT builds its community, it hopes to build its donor base along with it. According to Koren, “what we’re seeing is that someone first comes to FIGMENT as an artist, then takes a greater role as a team member, and then also becomes a donor.” It’s this community of donors, it is hoped, who will sustain FIGMENT.

Institutionalization in the form of paid staff, money for artists, and physical or geographical expansion results in budget increases. Therefore, financial support from other institutions as well as from a group’s community also need to grow. The challenge for alternative arts organizations is in both growing that revenue and not compromising on artistic mission and principles. Will FIGMENT remain FIGMENT—retaining its essence and principles as it expands to Texas and California and Australia and beyond? Will its institutionalization further its mission, or weaken it? Will support from major funders lead to a realignment of values? Only time will tell, but the best predictors may be those outlined in the “Set in Stone” study: motivation, leadership and implementation. If these are the criteria, FIGMENT seems to be positioning itself well for the challenges ahead.

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