This Program Teaches Arts Organizations How to Scale Wisely

 “Our measures of success are not that we think every group should buy a building.”

Artspace Immersion participants in Minneapolis tour Juxtaposition Arts, a local gallery. (Photo by Willis Gilliard; courtesy Artspace)

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In 2015, the Minneapolis-based Artspace launched a pilot project in Detroit to help local arts organizations find new homes for their programming. Two years prior, Detroit had filed for bankruptcy, and many organizations operated on a Do-It-Yourself basis while the city was under the control of an executive manager. By 2015, that receivership period was winding down, and the city was changing its building and development rules.

That initial immersion program in Detroit proved successful at helping arts groups identify the best strategies for meeting their space needs. As a result, Artspace adopted the model to mentor arts organizations in Minneapolis and Memphis that were looking to expand. With the benefit of those experiences, Artspace is returning to Detroit to launch a 2.0 version of its real-estate-development immersion coaching.

Founded in 1979, Artspace evolved from a group advocating for the living and working spaces artists need to one that develops affordable spaces for this purpose. Its Immersion program uses a curriculum covering six aspects of planning for a new space — including concept, cost, location and more.

Anna Growcott, Artspace’s director of consulting and strategic partnerships, says that these topics don’t have to be tackled in a particular order. “It’s not a linear process,” she says. “After you’ve addressed each of these six steps, we always suggest that groups do a go/no-go-do-over decision point internally,” she says. The idea is to go through these steps several times during the real estate development planning process, with each successive review bringing new depth to the issues on the table.

“It really can be overwhelming,” says Marcellus Harper, co-founder of Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, referring to the process of planning for a new space. ”So, I think having a group of people who understand the pain, and anxiety and the stress and disappointment and the setbacks from a self-care standpoint is helpful to be able to know that you are not alone and that you are not crazy and there are people who are going through this, too, has been helpful,” Harper says.

The Collage Dance Collective is a dance school and professional troupe focused on nurturing African-American ballet dancers. Harper and his business partner moved to Memphis from New York City and launched the organization in 2009. Now, the school has approximately 240 children enrolled, some of them taking classes six days a week. After going through Artspace Immersion in Memphis over the past year, Collage is preparing to break ground on a 22,000- square- foot space, which is more than 10 times the size of its current location.

“It’ll make us one of the largest black ballet schools in the country,” Harper says. Collage’s new space, he says is the largest capital investment in an African-American arts organization Memphis has ever seen.

Harper is also quick to point out that Collage is not the first organization to engage black folk in ballet in Memphis.

“One of the things that happens when you don’t have capital infrastructure and when you don’t have institutions is that a lot of that history can become lost or hidden,” Harper says. “And so that history and that work often times dies with the people in the communities that have done it.” One of Harper’s goals for the new space, then, is to “capture and preserve that history.”

Film is another way to capture history, and Indie Memphis works with Memphians to develop their filmmaking skills as well as running an annual film festival and weekly screenings. Indie Memphis also participated in Immersion’s Memphis cohort. Executive director Ryan Watt says the group has wanted to open a theater specifically focused on independent and arthouse films for years: “But that’s a daunting task for a mid-sized non-profit.”

The organization decided to do a survey to see whether Memphians would be supportive of such a theater and collected approximately 1,100 responses. This, Watt says, led Malco Theaters, which as its corporate headquarters in Memphis and is a long-time Indie Memphis partner “to wonder what we’re up to.” Ultimately, Malco and Indie Memphis decided to try a one-year partnership in which Malco provides a dedicated theater and box office in the Studio on the Square multiplex, which is in the neighborhood survey respondents said they prefer.

Watt says Immersion allowed Indie Memphis to consider what it would take to build its own space and what its ideal would look like. “That allowed us to think about what kind of space would allow us to accomplish the majority of our goals,” Watt says. So, when the partnership opportunity came up, the organization was able to say: “Sure, we can’t have that and that, but all these other things we can accomplish and much sooner – and with much, much less financial risk.”

This is how the coaching gives organizations the tools to make smart choices, Growcott says. “Our measures of success are not that we think every group should buy a building,” Growcott says. “It’s more about organizational health and capacity building and stabilizing organizations where they’re at,” she says. Growcott offers the example of a Twin Cities group that planned to buy a building and then realized the move would create financial hardship. “The funding wasn’t there, and this building wasn’t going to work out,” Growcott says. Having the tools to analyze costs and consequences means the group was able to avoid disaster, Growcott says.

As Artspace prepares to launch its second Detroit cohort, Growcott says the program is more structured than it was during the 2015 pilot. “We didn’t know what the groups would want,” Growcott says. “We approached it as a pilot. The organizations in that pilot program told us what they were curious about and what they were confused by.”

To make the immersion bespoke, Artspace reaches out to local real estate and financing experts to bring their expertise to the workshops. This is essential since cities have very different contexts. For example, when Artspace launched its pilot immersion in Detroit in 2015, the city was in receivership with an executive manager after filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city’s population had dropped from 1.85 million in 1950 to roughly 700,000 in 2011, and finding affordable space wasn’t a big challenge. This was a very different situation than the one Artspace faced in its hometown of Minneapolis where real estate prices were climbing and population growing.

Immersion accepts applications from local groups to participate in the 18-month process. The group meets every month, alternating workshop sessions with one-on-one discussions with specialists. For example, Growcott noted that a recent workshop session in Memphis focused on developing a one-page fundraising statement. The subsequent one-on-one gave participants a chance to share those statements and get feedback on them. Ideally, Growcott says, participants have already gone through an initial planning process so that they have at least some sense of vision and goals before joining the program. She says that Artspace’s program helps organizations reach the point of signing contracts.

“We’re kind of that middle step to say: Alright, here’s how you prepare to work with an architect. If you get all these five things ready, you’ll be more efficient and won’t need as much of a real estate lawyer’s time,” she explains.

Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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Tags: arts and culture

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