The Place for Art in America: Everywhere (Part 2)

The Place for Art in America: Everywhere (Part 2)

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In the first part of this two-part series, I talked about how arts and humanities groups need to position themselves to be seen, heard, and appreciated by businesses and corporations as part of the larger economic web. In this part I propose that, in and of itself, that is not enough: we need cash support, as well as partnerships that are mutually beneficial and focused on community-building.

Where I live, tech companies have been moving in like bedraggled pioneers once did by wagon during the 19th Century. Here on the western flank of the Rockies, instead of Silicone Valley we now have what’s called “Silicone Slopes.” It’s pretty obvious that everyone from software developers to data center colocation, and from cloud services to IT support–all pioneers of a sort in their own right–are migrating in: InMoment, Landesk, C7 Data, Pluralsight, Domo, to name a few … they’re like little gleaming digital combines moving north and south along the foothills, harvesting revenue.

To the uninitiated like me all the shingles hanging out there designed to make money exist in another world from that of nonprofit arts organizations like Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) where I work as the fundraiser. To see the shiny glass buildings of corporate America with their sexy billboards, their marketing compaigns that reek of focus groups, and consultant fees, of feasibility studies and branding makeoevers–it all translates to, in the parlance of face cards, a full flush. They have it, and we don’t. We’re struggling to make payroll and keep afloat our altruistic and mission-driven programming while business types smoke fat cigars and wear Italian loafers kicked up onto their mahogany desks that look like ship’s prows, all tacking towards the 1 percent.

But … not so fast. What I’ve learned is what we always learn when we abandon our cherished (i.e., unexamined) opinions. And Scott Petty, Managing Director of Signal Peak, a venture capital firm based in Salt Lake City, is a good clarion bell to that. While Petty (who in full disclosure happens to be my brother-in-law) mostly works (and funds) startups, including many in technology, he is clear that the business sector is just like any other: nuanced, cyclical, and beholden to the vagaries not only of the economy but of what artists spend their careers illumniating:

Scott Petty, Signal Peak Ventures
Scott Petty, Signal Peak Ventures

the stuff of life.

What this means is that while the economy continues to improve, albeit at a much slower rate than most of us would like, many enterprises in my state are not in a position to give back to the community as, with, say, one of the big, established banks. Nor are these companies, as successful as their personas appear to be to the uninitiatied, ready to squirrel marketing dollars through unconventional outings such as sponsoring a concert or underwriting a dance residency in a rural or under-served area.

So even while RDT and other arts groups are attempting to re-brand software developers as part of the greater “Creatives Industry,” of which, we argue, fine art is the gold standard, the return on that investment has been thin. This is not because software developers aren’t part of a creative impulse in the broad sense of the term, but because they, like a lot of symphonies, art galleries and theaters, are just struggling to stay afloat. Who knew?

That said, don’t ever believe that, even during tough times there isn’t money to be raised from corporations. The scale with which outfits like Chevron and Boeing operate at is staggering compared to the design of non-profits and their budgets that, pride themselves on being a straight “wash” of what’s going out vs. what’s coming in. But, in the tech sector, for every Adobe there are scores of startups whose CEOs are working 80 hours a week and can’t get to sleep at night. “Flush” has two meanings, after all. (As in “flushed” down the drain.)

RDT has been fortunate to have loyal corporate sponsors, few though they may be. Speaking of Adobe, through an employee-match program, the multinational computer software company based in San Jose, California but with a large presence in Utah, is one of them, as is Celtic Bank, Ally Bank, OC Tanner and Cyprus Credit Union, among others. (As a mid-sized performing arts groups, RDT does indeed seem to have more success with regional and local corporations.)

Salt Lake City-based EDA Architects is one of them. “In the creation of a work of architecture,” says partner Robert “Bob” Herman, “which—like every other artistic act—seeks to create a transformative experience for those it engages[,] EDA strives to produce work that inspires and looks for collaborative relationships with other creatives to elevate our ideas and our work. We often describe our work in terms of ‘time and space’ and ‘choreography of movement’—an obvious association with dance and RDT.”

Robert Herman, EDA Architects
Robert Herman, EDA Architects

EDA is perhaps the best example of the kind of creative partner RDT is looking for as we attempt to help re-brand and valorize what Americans for the Arts and others are calling the “Creatives Industry.” As with RDT, EDA is animated with the impulse to imagine, innovate and execute a human experience based on artistic standards. The firm is community-driven, and its 15 architects along with its other staff are highly collaborative.

“We believe that a strong arts environment in Utah creates a more sophisticated and engaged population,” continues Herman in an email exchange, “a more discerning market for our services and a greater attraction for the recruitment of the kind of high quality staff we seek.” Because of this community-centered approach to work and creativity, EDA engages RDT in more ways than cash sponsorships. Employees often attend our concerts and galas, and RDT will host their company as a group in our studio for a brown-bag open rehearsal where they can see our creative process at work and, conceivably, compare notes.

The beauty with arts groups partnering with enterprises built on a shared passion to bring innovation and aesthetics to the community is obvious. RDT understands as a repertory company both the economic as well as intrinsic value of what we offer. And don’t forget the community-building component of all of this, the whole of which, as Aristotle reminds us, is greater than the sum of its parts.  Arts groups would do well, according to Herman, to “enumerate the economic impacts that strong arts assets have in creating an attractive business and tourist environment, a vibrant downtown, and enriched educational opportunities for school children and University students.”

This leads me back to cultivating other creatives, including tech companies. Social networking isn’t just a Facebook post or tweet, it’s still about face-to-face engagement through volunteer opportunities that even cash-starved startups can participate in. That startups are often missing on donor lists, “doesn’t mean that they don’t want to support the arts,” Petty reminds me. “What they do have is … time to give back. They’re trying to figure out how to give of their resources. More employees are willing to donate their time, to volunteer in these organizations than perhaps more established companies.”

And, lest we forget, a lot of these startups and tech folks are young themselves, and we’re finding out that millennials and GenX’ers want a deep social component to their lives where work and play routinely merge, as well as to intimate involvement in civic service. “Younger entrepreneurs have a certain hipness to them,” continues Petty, that dovetails with the arts.  “There is a certain aesthetic in software.” He references StartFEST, a gathering of tech-oriented folks “who are really not that geeky,” and which “always has an arts overlay to it, like local bands, local artists, painting murals on the wall. The point is there is a certain vein there” that resonates with the creative set in places like a dance company or a museum.

Again, this is not to say that many companies and corporations, large and small, don’t have money to give through their marketing budgets (sponsorship) as well as through their corporate responsibility initiative (grants). When approaching banks, for example, RDT always fronts populations and neighborhoods in  our requests that qualify as LMI (low-to-moderate income) or Title I (in the case of schools). This because banks, both commercial and industrial, are required to participate in the Federal government’s Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). It does mean that cultivating long-term relationships; telling one’s story through compelling means (and not just through one’s art form); and finding transactional ways of partnering is de rigeur when it comes to interfacing with business.

That’s why RDT is a dues-paying member (through ticket trade) with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the economic development corporation, a non-profit that works with the Governor’s office to relocate businesses to the state. These organizations are not only sites to network with exciting new startups and relocating businesses, but it’s an opportunity for artist types to learn the language of commerce, and begin using that vocabulary to, again, tell one’s story.

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Photo by Nathan Sweet Photography
Photo by Nathan Sweet Photography

 

The BCA 10, an annual award to American businesses which generously give to the arts, is a good example of how the vocabularies of commerce and art come together, sniff each other out, listen to one another and … well, start dancing with each other, sometimes for many long and romantic years. I’ve had the privilege of nominating Zions Bank for one of these awards in the past, and it is always inspiring (and validating) to have a powerful bank president or CEO stand up in black tie in front of colleagues and talk about what the arts mean to his or her organization. (To hear Richard Davis, CEO of U.S. Bank at the 2015 awards, click here.)

Finally never forget what RDT likes to call one’s “Sense of Place” a theme which has deeply encouraged the Company’s selection and performance of repertory and which speaks to the character and spirit of the land, the environment and the community. This is one of the reasons EDA, dedicated to building LEED-certified structures, resonates so well with us. “We appreciate being recognized,” says Herman, “as a partner with organizations (like RDT) that contribute to the culture of our community, which—in turn—enhances our own organization’s sense of community engagement. We also hope our contributions help leverage other support of the valuable work of RDT.”

Petty would concur, even though he speaks in more general terms about the regional climate that speaks not just to artists, but to new businesses: “I will say one thing that I know is different about the groups I work with is that venture-backed tech startups … have a real local affinity for Utah. Whenever a startup is successful here, it’s great for the company because there’s this sense that Utah is trying to prove itself in the world. There’s that mindset here that we all just love and thrive off of … economic development raises all boats, and we want to be one of those boats.”

… As do the arts: and, we desperately want to be more than the dinghy being tossed about on economic waves. We want to be seen as a legitimate, sustainable engine of commerce as well as a service organization. We want to reach the population at large, a community that in our media/entertainment-driven world, doesn’t seem to know that they are hungry for what the arts and creatives have to offer.

And what do we offer? The opportunity to live the existential questions of life through an art form, the vaulting notion of beauty and the meaning that grounds us all, that helps us understand why we do the rest of what we do … what we might call “business as usual.”

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A fiction writer and essayist by trade, David Pace is the Director of Development at Repertory Dance Theatre. You can visit his personal website at www.davidgpace.com

 

 

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