How Things Work, Part 2May 19, 2010
Finding the Paradigm Shift
What form should an art space take? Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a deep and long history of alternative visual-arts spaces, many of which have great influence today. These distinct and varied spaces are bound together by dedicated members of the visual-arts community working on common projects or offering a common response to the arts climate.
The model of the art space is evolving, alongside the evolution of artists' practices, arts workers’ strategies, audiences’ behaviors, and funding. Emerging spaces offer new and hybrid versions of operating that often do not include incorporating as nonprofit organizations, as was the case for many of the arts spaces that opened twenty to forty years ago. Now, it is far more common to see a gallery in a hallway or someone's front room. Neither is it unusual to see art venues fusing commercial and retail ventures with experimental project spaces as a way to both maintain financial stabilty and attract audiences.
Today, the successful organizations maintaining a vital role in the community are those taking advantage of operating models that incorporate the uncertain financial climate. Through an examination of these current models of sustainability, we can arrive at a place from which to examine what might be considered a paradigm shift in the way the visual-arts community performs today. If there is indeed such a shift at work here, what is its trajectory?
The term arts community, as used in this essay, is the population that sustains (or does not sustain) any arts organization. In the broadest sense, it includes the artist, the arts worker, the audience, and the funders, although one person could embody all of these labels. The Bay Area arts community looks more like a Venn diagram than a linear list. So how does this community participate in the paradigm shift of arts organizations? By examining the specific exchanges between art spaces (new and old) and the communities they intend to serve, we will be better able to articulate the shape a successful art space might assume.
The burgeoning generation of cultural producers in San Francisco and Alameda counties is discovering novel ways to support artists and build upon their communities. These organizations are not choosing to incorporate or formalize themselves in the same way. They create spontaneous calendars of programming and bring in funds through their for-profit business, art sales, or through fiscal sponsorship. These models are nimble, porous, and not tied to a history they feel responsible to perpetuate. Programming becomes a response to what is being created at the time. Events are created out of interest from the grassroots level instead of dictated, for instance, from a grant application's requirements. They are able to finesse their organizational model quickly to respond to the needs and actions of their community.
Just as the already long-established nonprofit art spaces grew of specific needs and specialized funding sources, these relatively new endeavors are also arising from specific needs. By operating outside of the nonprofit structure, they liberate themselves from certain limitations, such as living with the specter of perpetuity; operating under a constant process of fundraising and need to chase after grant monies; or having to answer to a formal board of directors. By breaking open the operational, we can better examine how present-day realities may be encouraging these kinds of spaces to proliferate.
Before diving into a specific example of these new models, it is imperative to state that the arts community in the Bay Area does not have a linear trajectory, in which arts funding begat nonprofit organizations, which begat liminal, project-based spaces. At this point, myriad visual-arts project spaces and organizations exist together, feeding off of each other’s energies, artists, and audiences.
Triple Base as Case Study
Author’s note: There are many current spaces and projects employing varying types of hybrid operational models in San Francisco. 667 Shotwell, [2nd floor projects], Receiver Gallery, Spare Room Project, 31 Rausch Street, Hallway Bathroom Gallery, Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, the Thing Quarterly and the Valencia Street Wall make up a short list of such spaces.
Triple Base is an interesting example of a hybrid model, as it takes advantage of multiple funding sources. Triple Base is a five-year-old exhibition space located in the Mission District that also serves as a home base for the organization’s offsite events, dinner lectures, and partnerships with other organizations (most recently with the San Francisco Arts Commission [SFAC] Art in Storefronts project). It operates as part commercial gallery and part experimental space. Its sustainability relies greatly on the dexterity of its founders, Joyce Grimm and Dina Pugh. In a March 21, 2010, e-mail exchange with Pugh, she described the relationship between their revenue streams and their overall mission.
Art sales are by far our largest income source, which works out well, because for every dollar Triple Base makes in art sales, the artist is making the same amount. Buying art is a
direct way to fund art and is a really fun way for individuals to get involved in the art community. We just don't have the infrastructure to run a formal membership or individual donorship program at this point, so by selling art, we also get to engage with individuals on a deeper level about the artists that we show on a long-term basis in a way that we might not if they were just coming to see one-off projects. We also get to invest in particular artists' careers that we believe in deeply.
The grants that we've received from the Wattis Foundation, SFAC, SoEx (via Andy Warhol), and Zellerbach Family Foundation have helped sustain our programs as well over the years and allowed us to think more expansively about our exhibition programming. Since we don't have to rely fully on art sales, we can encourage artists to take risks, do shows that no one thinks will sell, curate public programs like 24th Street Promenade, make exhibition catalogs that we can give out instead of sell to make back printing costs.
The success Triple Base has experienced since its inception greatly derives from its openness to take on new strategies of building relationships with the artists with whom it works. In turn, that has opened it up to new strategies of running the business of an art gallery. In the same e-mail, Pugh describes Triple Base’s coming into being as a hybrid model. "It seemed that a new tact was necessary for long-term survival," she said. They did not have the capacity to maintain a nonprofit organization, but Pugh and Grimm were more interested in making Triple Base a space where artists could be supported by their practice, push themselves, and move on from as more dynamic artists.
Working under the fiscal sponsorship program at The Lab, a longstanding nonprofit arts space also in the Mission District, Triple Base qualifies for funding normally only available to incorporated nonprofit organizations. Additionally, the gallery's commercial endeavors (selling art at fairs, through exhibitions, and flat file sales) funds parts of its programming that the grants don't. Pugh described the advantages of operating under a fiscal sponsorship as such:
Being your own 501c3 is extremely time-intensive and requires a level of administration that we were not prepared to take on. It's hard enough doing all your own fundraising, marketing, operations, curating, writing, artist development, etc. The Lab is great at giving us support when we need it and I see it as sharing resources, which is something I think everyone (not just in arts) needs to be looking at right now.
The model Triple Base employs is driven by its programming. The business choices are made to support the artists, to get the work to new audiences, collectors, and writers. As is the case with all arts organizations in the Bay Area, the model cannot supercede the community it is serving; it must come out of it.
The fiscal sponsorship model is an effective way for organizations such as Triple Base to receive institutional support while maintaining a flexible existence. In San Francisco, nonprofits Intersection for the Arts and The Lab both run formal fiscal sponsorship programs. These programs allow groups to organize in a formal way, without incorporating as 501(c)3, and use the hosting organization's status to apply for funding normally reserved for incorporated nonprofits. Fiscal sponsors will also hold the group’s income in a bank account and manage its bookkeeping, as well as all necessary filings with the IRS. So for a small administrative fee (seven to ten percent per transaction normally), un-incorporated groups can take advantage of many opportunities that would normally not be offered to them, including offering tax deductions to donors.
Fiscal sponsorship programs allow for the established nonprofit organizations to act as stewards for emerging and experimental artists. In turn, those artists are able to find funding and receive the support they need to continue their work. The system leaves room for questioning, though. Should these hybrid—and sometimes temporary—spaces and projects compete for the same grants as nonprofit organizations, especially if they have commercial endeavors that conceivably bring in money? Is this a loophole for commercial galleries and businesses to take advantage of grant funding? Or is utilizing fiscal sponsorship programs a very clever way to navigate an arts community in which corporate, nonprofit, government and individual funding, interests, projects, and spaces are all intersecting?
These questions point back to the working definition of the arts community as an entity that is charged with supporting and sustaining an art space, which in turn, supports the community through its programming. If a hybrid organization successfully bolsters the arts community, does it potentially damage the sustainability of an older more established organization, and therefore the community itself? This question becomes moot if organizations, regardless of their operational models, longevity, or notoriety effectively maintain a fluid strategy of programming based on the needs of the community that supports and receives support from them. Funding organizations will not abandon organizations that are accomplishing this kind of programming in an effective and tangible way.