May 31, 2011
Including an Interview with Kimberly Bares, Rogers Park Business Alliance.
In Chicago and elsewhere, the still-struggling economy and the political choices it demands have given renewed focus to the fact that small, entrepreneurial businesses are likely to be a main driver of much needed economic growth. The economic value of Chicago’s small businesses is being scrutinized as the City undergoes its transition to a new mayoral administration—and arts organizations in the Chicago area appear uniquely positioned to take advantage of this attention.
The at-large economic benefits of a strong cultural sector are well documented, and summarized nicely in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recently released Chicago 2011 Transition Plan:
“Today, Chicago has the third largest creative economy in the U.S., with 24,000 arts enterprises, including nearly 650 nonprofit arts organizations, generating more than $2 billion annually and employing 150,000 people. Chicago’s creative vibrancy creates jobs, attracts new businesses and tourists, and improves neighborhood vibrancy and quality of life.”
But the real opportunity may boil down to this: isn’t there an advantage to reframing the discussion of the “business of the arts” in ways that reflect how arts organizations not only share the traditional characteristics of successful small businesses, but ARE successful small businesses? And if that is the case, shouldn’t arts organizations work as hard as they can to be more “business-like” and consider what they can do to integrate themselves into their local business community well enough to be considered viable as peers?
To put it even more simply, at the most local level “the arts mean business.” Our January ARTSBIZ newsletter article extolling this past winter’s ArtsPowerChicago advocacy effort, “Arts Power is (Small) Business Power,” stated:
“…we at A&BC of Chicago, through our efforts working with a wide variety of cultural groups, have realized that the vast majority of what are dubbed “arts” organizations in Chicago should be duly recognized for what they also are—thriving “small businesses” that are entrepreneurial in spirit, innovative in practice, resourceful by nature and fully invested in their surrounding communities.”
We’re pleased to note that, in key ways, the new administration already seems to “get” this. Consider these other excerpts from the Transition Plan that allude to the “business of the arts”:
Initiative 55: Build vibrant communities through development of local assets and institutional anchors “Many communities already have existing institutional anchors, or natural and commercial assets, which can be leveraged for growth. For example, arts institutions have become local center of neighborhood growth. Parks, restaurants and commercial centers such as technology parks or business districts hold similar potential.”
Initiative 51: Develop a strategy for creating and supporting cultural hubs throughout Chicago “As a creative capital, Chicago’s cultural life provides economic benefits and jobs, generates neighborhood development, and contributes to an urban vibrancy that draws residents and tourists to the city…From the downtown theater district to neighborhood arts businesses, local arts activity is integral to economic development in communities.”
Even before the Transition Plan was released, there was active dialogue taking place within Chicago’s business community regarding the importance of local small businesses—including the arts—as an “economic engine” for the city. In a recent op-ed piece in Crain’s Chicago Business (“Emanuel shouldn’t overlook real economic engine: local small biz,”) authors Kimberly Bares and Ellen Shepard, Executive Directors of the Rogers Park Business Alliance and the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce respectively, stated that “to spur real stability and prosperity for Chicago's residents, the new mayor should favor initiatives to foster strong local businesses, including economic development subsidies focused, laser-like, on local development.” They concluded that “the focus should be on the real economic engine of our city: small, locally owned businesses that employ the majority of Chicagoans.” Include in that definition of “small, locally owned businesses” Chicago’s many arts and culture organizations. (See interview with Kimberly Bares, below.)
At A&BC we endeavor to ensure that arts organizations emulate successful small businesses and contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of Chicago. Providing access to business best practices has been a core focus for the past twenty-five years. The Business Volunteers for the Arts program recruits skilled business volunteers and matches them with arts organizations that use this pro-bono consulting to achieve objectives in key areas such as marketing, strategic and business planning, community integration as well as others. These programs give arts organizations access to professional expertise that they otherwise could not afford. We know also that the best, most successful small businesses often employ advisory panels; boards of local art organizations serve a similar role by providing quality governance and other vital support. A&BC continues to orient and train business professionals for arts board service through our On Board training program. Supplementing these programs is A&BC’s annual Business Essentials for the Arts Workshop series.
Artsbiz recently spoke to Kimberly Bares about the Rogers Park Business Alliance (see above).
The Alliance has special membership rates set for individual artists and arts nonprofits, and most area arts organizations are members. The alliance is also celebrating the 10th anniversary of “BizArts,” their artist and business networking program.
Artsbiz: How important is it to have a strong arts presence in the local community?
Bares: It’s important that every community identify what makes it unique, what makes it stand out from other communities. The arts can help do this.
Artsbiz: What are key steps that arts organizations can take to become more integrated into the local business community?
Bares: Organizations should recognize that when we use the term ‘community’ what we are talking about is a broad community that is actually made up of smaller segments. It’s easy for arts groups to think that they are connected to the community because they have connected to a small segment of the community. There are other segments of the community that they should also connect to.
There could be a big cultural gap between the way arts organizations and other businesses operate. But arts organizations can make an effort to understand typical business language in use. For instance, what does it mean when a potential local business partner uses the term “value proposition?” Arts organizations don’t have to change their culture but having this understanding can make working together easier.
Artsbiz: Are there things that should be avoided?
Bares: I don’t think of it in terms of what to avoid – more what they need to do. Developing credibility is important. Do what you say you are going to do. Be consistent and meet people’s expectations. Remember that you may have a free-flowing organizational structure that works for you. But a lack of formal structure can be difficult for others to work with. And don’t make excuses for “artists.” When something doesn’t get done don’t say: “Oh, they’re artists.” Being an artist does not give one a license to fail to deliver on promises.
And, finally, don’t try to do it on your own. Groups have shied away from working with our alliance only to end up failing or struggling to survive. Your lack of success can hurt the community as well as your organization.
Artsbiz: Becoming more integrated with the local business community has very real advantages. Arts organizations should remember that their audience isn’t necessarily reflective of the entire community. Connecting in different ways to the other segments of the community may not increase their audience size but it may enhance their standing within the community and offer new opportunities for partnership.
Fear of losing artistic independence or company culture need not get in the way of using the resources available. Arts groups should find the local business alliance or Chamber of Commerce in their area and become a member. Knowing business terminology and concepts can help arts organizations align their goals with that of surrounding business community and other partners. They may discover successful strategies that other businesses in the area are using and, best of all, find a strong network of support.
Many arts organizations are already very good at implementing basic business best practices—networking and being integrated into their local business community is one of them. Arts organizations don’t necessarily need to change their internal culture, which can be an important part of what makes them unique. But they CAN have the best of both worlds by being a creative arts enterprise that comfortably straddles both the arts and business worlds.