Profit in the Arts: Are All Projects Worth Funding?
Trivia Time! Whose business model is this?
Our core operations are sustained by earned revenue drawn from [our products/services]. This is by design. We believe that if the services we provide create real value for our [customers], then they will be willing to pay a reasonable amount for them. This approach also provides a built-in evaluation gauge for our work, meaning that our [customers] will tell us - quickly and unambiguously with their buying power - whether our [products are] having a positive impact on their lives.
Apple? Toyota? The entire pharmaceutical drug industry? Nope. Need a clue? Let me restore the bracketed words to the original:
Our core operations are sustained by earned revenue drawn from membership dues and program fees. This is by design. We believe that if the services we provide create real value for our members, then they will be willing to pay a reasonable amount for them. This approach also provides a built-in evaluation gauge for our work, meaning that our members will tell us - quickly and unambiguously with their buying power - whether our work is having a positive impact on their lives.
Yes, that’s item #1 of the brief, succinct Fractured Atlas business model. I was taken aback when I came across it last month (contrary to popular belief, I’m not an FA employee, just a fan), and it took me a moment to figure out why.
An arts organization - a nonprofit! - is founded on the premise that they should produce stuff people will pay for?!
Why do so many arts professionals seem to believe that the arts are exempt from providing value? Market-worthy, marketable, customer-satisfying, money-making value?
If you are working in the arts professionally - that is, being paid or expecting to be paid for what you do or create, is it really so scandalous to try to create something that will generate enough revenue to pay for itself?
Artists are innovators, risk takers, dreamers, doers. But not every idea is viable. Yes, risks must be taken. But risk is mitigated by research, experience, and above all, common sense.
In the arts, we have huge funding opportunities that other industries don’t: unique tax breaks, nonprofit status, fiscal sponsorship, grants - not to mention funding by private donors - whether the art is for a cause or the art is the cause.
Many excellent ideas never get off the ground due to a lack of funding, but the lack of a solid pitch is equally tyrannical. Part of the business of launching anything is to create the marketing strategy — and that’s all communications, from fundraising appeals to selling tickets to audience growth.
The era of turnkey, online fundraising has blurred the line between arts initiative and vanity project. An idea-ist can set up a Facebook event, Kickstarter campaign, or IndieGoGo page in one minute and solicit his entire extended network for money the next. I’m a big fan of tools that make communications easier, but speed is not a substitute for strategy - or respect for your current and potential audience.
Here’s the danger, especially if you haven’t already jumped through the hoops of getting nonprofit status or fiscal sponsorship: if the pre-funded project is - or seems - primarily designed to build your resume, increase your income or professional opportunities, or otherwise increase your artistic status, you risk turning off your ticket-buying and buzz-spreading audience before the project even exists.
I’m not exempt; I actively apply these principles to my own business - even when it tests my ego. Instead of rushing to introduce a service every time a new idea arises, I try to push through the process of surveying my potential audience, evaluating my current resources, formulating a product based on what people want (versus what I want to create), pricing it appropriately, then marketing it strategically. I partner with my clients as they work through this process too. It can be frustrating to temper the passion of the creative spark (yes, my actual passion is creating marketing strategies - goosebumps!), but deliberation at the start can save a lot of heartache in the end.
To oversimplify: if an idea is solid and its promotion is on point, the funds should follow. If it doesn’t sell, I can fix it or abandon it for a better idea.
Build your audience diligently and approach them with respect. Solicit their feedback. See if your idea provokes action. And if it doesn’t, re-tool and re-present - or swallow your ego, embrace your creative spark, and come up with the one that will.