I’d been thinking about Michael Kaiser’s call for new models for arts organizations, and was happy to stumble across this post from playwright Gwydion Suilebhan on the subject. His idea for a “New Model Theater,” a “platform” for artists, sounds a lot like the organization we originally intended when we founded Shunpike 12 years ago.
The point is: everything about the New Model Theater would be redesigned around a DIY approach. Its whole existence would be centered around helpingother people put on shows. The theater itself wouldn’t have an artistic identity. In fact, it would probably do best to keep its own identity as thoroughly submerged as possible, letting the artists come forward and become the face of the theater. After all, organizations don’t make art, artists do.
To elaborate on a comment I left at the bottom of the post, there’s a tension in such a business because businesses – especially small businesses – need to focus and specialize to be successful. Shunpike toyed with the idea of being both a rental venue for artists and a consultancy on the business of art, but decided to focus on the latter. In part this was because we identified the latter as a bigger need in Seattle at the time, and in part it was because we knew that a successful rental venue would have to focus on attracting renters from everywhere, and a successful consultancy would have to focus on consulting for anyone who asked. There wasn’t an inherent synergy between the two lines of business.
But I want to return to the idea of a platform, because I think it has promise. When I think of a technology platform, I think of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s iOS. Former Microsoft employee Charlie Kindel describes the success of the Windows platform thusly:
In each of these cases, and other examples I’m sure you can come up with, there was a multi-sided market, and, at least for a while, a virtuous cycle existed because one vendor created a platform with the characteristics required to allow the sides of the market exchange value efficiently.
I think the example most people understand is Windows. The market sides were (are): Windows, Intel, OEMs (e.g. Compaq, DELL), IHVs (e.g. ATI, SoundBlaster), ISVs (e.g. Lotus, Adobe, Office), retailers & channel (e.g. Egghead), and of course, end users.
The ISVs of today are the app developers. For Windows to continue to be a platform that enables a virtuous cycle (and therefore to generate the historical profits it has in the past) there must be an efficient and natural exchange of value between app developers and the other sides of the market.
The phrase “efficient and natural exchange of value” nicely encapsulates the value that a platform can provide. Windows customers bough more software because they knew platform was likely to be around, hardware companies could standardize and lower prices, etc. Standardization creates efficiencies.
So how would you structure a platform in the arts so as to create a similarly virtuous cycle? A multi-sided arts market might include artists, administrators, funders, venues, and audiences. You’d want to structure it so that audiences benefit from having guaranteed expectations of quality, artists are more productive and profitable, venues make more money, and funders get more impact for their buck.
So, to use theater as an example, a series of venues might open around the country that all feature the same size stage and lighting grid, and use the same ticketing system. An artist could then easily tour a show from one to the next. Audiences who created an account on the platform could buy tickets and learn about upcoming shows. Administrators would optimize their services around serving these audiences.
To take this even further, playwrights on the platform might agree to write shows with a certain number of actors and of a certain length. This would allow more streamlined casting and reliable revenues. Rehearsal hours could potentially be shortened, as actors who are on the platform begin to learn the platform’s plays.
So who would oversee such a platform? There are several options. In the Windows/iOS model, the platform provider is a gatekeeper, deciding who’s in and out. The venues themselves would be a natural fit for this role. You could also imagine a more decentralized “open source” approach, like the Linux platform, or any number of approaches in between. Whomever it ends up being, the overseer would have to navigate thorny questions about how to restrict or open up the platform in a way that maximizes artistic creativity, efficiency and value creation for all the players.
Would we like the resulting art that would emerge from such a system? Or would we have created the Olive Garden of theater? These are interesting questions that merit further exploration.