Wednesday, February 13, 2008


So here and here I described what I call the Standard Model. There’s another name that it goes by in theatre circles: the Corporate Model. Often, as a theatre company moves from its rough-and-tumble early days of everyone pitching in and sharing the workload, and it moves towards the Standard Model, you hear the revolutionaries complain about the theatre going “corporate”. It means institutionalization, it means structure and control. But it’s not really corporate.

At one theatre I worked at, the big battle was getting the founding Artistic Director to relinquish control of the finances. Granted, he had made some bad choices, but the reasoning was that it wasn’t “business-like” to have one person make the major decisions, oversee the finances and decide the course of the organization. If that’s not business-like, what the hell are businesses doing? How often do you read about someone being the Chair and CEO of a major corporation? Often. And that’s basically the situation many theatres have, at least when they start. In fact, when the board forces out a CEO, it’s usually described as a coup, especially if it’s a founder. And it’s usually a bad sign for that company.

If we looked at theatres as what they are, small businesses, the attitude would change. But we don’t. And the Standard Model is one of the big reasons we don’t. Because it wasn’t designed for theatre. It has a different purpose and history.

A few years back, an arts consultant I met with explained this to me and it literally blew my mind. The Corporate Model is not corporate at all. It comes from a totally different world: foundations. In the early days of the non-profits, when the underpinnings of the regional theatre movement were put in place, when regulation was sought, the federal government looked to foundations to set up the rules. And they did, based on their model. Look at it this way:

When a family (or a company) has too much money, they create a foundation to distribute it to those who need it more than they do. The foundation’s prime purpose is to make sure that the family (or company) doesn’t just give the money back to itself, that there is a fair and even-handed policy. They act as a firewall between the money and the family.

So, with the Standard Model in theatre, instead of money, it’s art or talent. The artists have it, but need a board to tell them how to use it, how to support it, so that they don’t waste it. It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? They stand between the art and the masses, directing it, deciding how it should be used effectively.

This same consultant regularly said that theatre artists excel at one particular skill that’s important to business: delivering a product on time. We have a deadline, a drop dead deadline that (in most cases) must be obeyed. As a group, we can manage our time and set our priorities and achieve our goals. But still there is the perception of artists as being wasteful and frivolous. Mostly because we have different priorities.
One of the first steps in making theatre fully vibrant again is letting go of this attitude and remaking this model. Having a group of people dictating to the artists how their talents are to be “spent” does no one any good. We have to define for ourselves how we want to operate.

There is a legal question, since, for 501(c)3 status, you need to have a board. The loophole is that the government doesn’t care too much about how your board is organized. As long as it approves of your budget and meets a few other requirements, you’re good to go. You don’t have to buy into the idea that your board is financial engine of your theatre and therefore holding the keys. Other models are possible…

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The flaw in your analysis is that in the Foundation model there is no product bought and sold, merely created and distributed. The Standard Model of theater business treats the art, rather than a boon to be distributed, as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Thus, the Standard NFP Model was started as a charitable organization and has become a Corporate Machine.