The 20Under40 Interview Series, Part 3: David J. McGraw

In the first two installments of the CFR’s chapter-by-chapter coverage of the anthology 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, I engaged in a spirited dialogue with the editor, Edward P. Clapp, and ran a Q&A with the author of the first chapter, Brian Newman. Now we move to the second chapter, “The Epoch Model: An Arts Organization with an Expiration Date,” by David J. McGraw, who leads the Performing Arts Entrepreneur program at the University of Iowa.

The abstract for the chapter should raise eyebrows — in a most exciting way. It challenges the received wisdom that nonprofit arts organizations last (and should last) eternally. How this became the prevailing wisdom is important question, perhaps only answerable by future cultural historians. Certainly a nonprofit business model that prizes sustainability over effectiveness is one factor. As McGraw indicates, they may be other factors as well.

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Here’s the abstract:

We have designed our arts organizations to last forever without any option for graceful exits. But what if an arts organization could be designed with a predetermined end-date? How would such an approach change the way we measure organizational success in the arts? Companies that adopt the Epoch Model — an organizational structure that plans for the limited-lifecycle of an arts group — benefit not just their artists and audiences, but also revitalize their local communities and the broader arts sector.

One of the comparison that immediately came to mind for me in thinking about the “Epoch Model” is politicians who campaign on term-limiting themselves. Some elected officials carry out such pledges, others don’t, and some people pay a price for it at the voting booth, and some do not.

However one comes down on the subject (I do not favor term limits), the Epoch Model asks communities to think of such arts organizations as fleeting but impactful. Communities have to believe, though, that such organizations won’t stick around past their expiration date no matter how well they do and that, frankly, is hard for me to believe. In TV, we have examples like Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur quitting their hit shows while still on top; I’m hard pressed to think of very many arts leaders who have done the same.

But maybe, just maybe, with the right set of circumstances, they would.

Here’s McGraw’s bio:

David J. McGraw (Born 11-8-1972) leads the Performing Arts Entrepreneurship program at the University of Iowa. He teaches courses in arts management and new business formation for both the Division of Performing Arts and the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. He began his career in the arts as a stage manager and continues to be a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association. David earned an MA in Arts Administration from Goucher College and an MFA in Theatre from the University of Iowa.

If you have additional questions or comments for McGraw — or for any of the 20Under40 contributors — please feel free to leave them below or send them to me directly.

1) Your piece on the “Epoch Model” foresees the “intentional closure of a fledgling arts organization.” But if today’s arts world “is an old-growth forest with mighty institutions dominating the scene while new companies struggle to catch any nourishment,” why should young arts groups sunset? Why shouldn’t some of the “mighty institutions” give way?
Quite a few sources have noted a generational shift in employment expectations and the Epoch Model extends this perspective to an organizational level. The “Under-40” segment of the population no longer expects — and many don’t even desire — to work for the same company all of their careers. And people who started work during the dot-com boom-bust cycle are accustomed to the churning of acquisitions and mergers and short-term businesses being formed to take advantage of temporary opportunities. So the younger generations of arts leaders possess the mindset to see the Epoch Model as an exciting strategy to take on the risks of a new start-up without the long-term (and very un-arts-related) commitments of property management and stock market investments as endowments. Unfortunately many of those mighty institutions and their leaders will view a planned closure as a failure rather than a freedom.

2) How would you market the Epoch Model in an arts ecosystem in which sustainability is a basic value? What inducements (taxation, good press, etc.) might encourage “mighty institutions” to help young artists choose the Epoch Model as their own?
I tried to sidestep your first question about which organizations should “give way” because it has proven to be a thorny question with colleagues. Several friends have remarked that they really support the Epoch Model but surely I didn’t mean their organizations should close. If we want to continue the analogy of an arts ecosystem, there are quite a few communities in which giant institutions form a canopy that catches almost all the support and public recognition, followed by tiny “budget-free” groups on the forest floor that may last a year or two, but very few mid-sized organizations. Then, when one of the giants does fall, we question why that community no longer supports that art form because the general public only sees the giants and there are no other companies with the infrastructure to grow. Often we shore up some of those old institutions that truly have run their course and make them survive longer than they should because we equate an organization with the community’s interest and support for an art form. Ben Cameron has been speaking about this relationship and how arts leaders need to take a brave look at why their groups exist.

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I don’t disagree with your observation that we value sustainability, but I do question why we associate longevity with quality. What we should be judging art organizations by is the art that they create, but we are too afraid to do so. Either we feel unqualified to assess quality or we are so concerned with protecting the arts that we are afraid to admit when our local arts groups produce weak or uninspiring work. Instead we take the easy way out and we say that if a company was able to keep its doors open for 10 years, they must be good. And if another company can keep the doors open for 25 years, they must be even better. Organizational longevity may be one indicator of good management, but it is not proof of good art.

3) Geographically, where might it be best for Epoch Model arts organizations to flourish? In modest cities (where they’d need to resist “big fish, small pond” syndrome) or in major metropolitan areas (where good press is a force multiplier)?
Ultimately, it all comes back to mission statements. I am a firm believer in achievable missions by which you can assess your progress. I have little interest in vague mission statements about “bringing the best possible art to the community.” With the right mission, the Epoch Model could succeed in both the communities you describe. Smaller communities can use this model to attract up-and-coming arts leaders or even celebrities seeking a break from big-city life. Metropolitan communities can benefit by the press that “supplies are limited” when it comes to experiencing this specific collaboration. Artists will find this model appealing in either location as it offers the freedom to experiment coupled with the security of several years of employment (great for partners and families). Communities could even create arts incubators designed to support a rotation of Epoch Model organizations.

4) If the Epoch Model idea caught fire and many short-term arts groups arose, how would audiences assess value? What specific approaches would marketing directors have to take to stand out? What if audiences disliked the work — and the word about bad work caught on?

Too many Epoch Model organizations would be an interesting problem to have, because again it would force us to look beyond the novelty of an organization structure and actually assess the quality of art and our belief in an organization’s mission. The newness of the organization is an important strength of this model and a sudden surplus of new arts organizations could confuse the general public. I live in a college town and there is a constant turnover in arts groups, which makes for a very vibrant arts scene but few “safe bets” in choosing what art to experience. Would the Epoch Model revitalize the role of the arts critic? Frankly, if audiences disliked a work, then perhaps that limited lifespan should be even more limited. But I suspect that bad press would be less of an issue than no press.

5) For decades, politicians have pledged to be term-limited and gone back on their word. How would arts groups and leaders be dissuaded from similar types of reneging?
Assuming a nonprofit or hybrid organizational model, we could rely on the articles of incorporation and by-laws. The organization would limit itself to a specific period of time — say, seven years — restrict board membership to that period and disperse its assets on that expiration date. What is entirely possible, and what I will hope will happen, is that some board members, artists and administrators will want to continue to create art in that community. And, unlike politicians, they won’t be run out of town. So, at the end of the Epoch Model, those that want to stay can take all that they have learned and create a new organization from the ashes (we’ll call it the Phoenix Model). But everyone must choose to make a fresh commitment and agree that it will be a new organization. I believe in the Epoch Model because it fights what I hate most in the arts community: stagnation. Founders and board members never want to abandon an organization or see it decline in someone else’s hands. And who dreams, “One day, I will take over someone else’s arts organization…”? Even if 80 percent of the team from the first organization “re-enlists” in a second company, it gives a graceful exit for the other 20 percent and a chance to change how things operate, not because the old way was bad but there is the opportunity to try a something new. And art is all about creation.

I caught Michael Kaiser on his Arts in Crisis 50-state tour and I asked in the Q&A session if he knew of any limited lifespan organization and what he thought of the Epoch Model. The nature of the event meant that he had to respond immediately, but he wondered if there was value in the arts leaders choosing the end date but not publicizing it. And this, frankly, happens on an individual level when a new hire starts for a company already knowing that she or he will stay for just a couple of years unless they really fall in love with the company. And I suspect that Kaiser thought it might happen with the Epoch Model: the leadership, if successful, won’t want to leave. So publicizing the end date, even incorporating it into the organization’s name, is critical, so that even a commercial company will be obligated to at least address why it is not honoring its original promise. The good news is that you will be able to advertise your next project like so many new movies: “brought you by the producers of…”

Bonus question:

6) You cite the L3C model as perhaps more suitable for arts groups with expiration dates. Trouble is, relatively few states allow L3Cs to be created. Why aren’t more states on the bandwagon? How can popularizing the Epoch Model popularize the L3C idea?
Technically, you do not need your state to have L3C legislation since there are ways to incorporate in another state. But since so many L3C’s are designed to bridge the gap of serving a local community while offering a long-term opportunity for profitability, it seems disingenuous to incorporate outside of that community. I do think that we need several high-profit L3Cs for the movement to really catch fire at a national level. And the great press angles of an Epoch Model organization could make it a lightning rod for discussions about the larger L3C movement. As the lines between nonprofit and commercial ventures blur, an increasing number of companies are pursuing hybrid models that offer the flexibility and growth potential of a commercial venture with the lower personal risks and foundation support of the nonprofit structure. In our arts ecosystem, organizations are starting to evolve.

CATEGORIES: Interviews

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