The 20Under40 Interview Series, Part 2: Brian Newman


In the first installment of the Clyde Fitch Report’s chapter by chapter coverage of 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, I engaged in a, shall we say, spirited dialogue with the editor of the anthology, Edward P. Clapp. I’m proud of the timing: the book is gaining traction in circles both large and small, and if you haven’t bought (or otherwise finagled) your copy yet, what on earth are you waiting for? If you’re searching for the vanguard — the real vanguard — of the arts and arts education in this, the start of the second decade of the 21st century, this is it. Waketh thyself up. Twenty chapter by under-4o writers who aren’t beholden to the status quo. Bliss.

And today, we bring you a Q&A with the first of the 20 contributors, Brian Newman. The chapter is called “Inventing the Future of the Arts: Seven Digital Trends that Present Challenges and Opportunities for Success in the Cultural Sector.” While the title is fairly self-explanatory, what astonishes is its clarity, audacity and breadth. I tried to deliver a sense of that through the questions I asked. Here is Newman’s bio:

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Brian Newman (Born 6-19-1971) a consultant focusing on business development projects in the cultural industries as well as on helping artists and organizations to distribute content and to connect with audiences through innovative uses of new technology. Brian was most recently CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), and previously served as executive director of Renew Media and IMAGE Film & Video Center. He held positions at the IFP and the South Carolina Arts Commission, serves on the boards of Muse Film & Television, the International Film Festival Seminars, and on the editorial advisory board for Art Papers magazine. For five years Brian was an officer of the board of Grantmakers in Film & Electronic Media (GFEM).

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

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1) You write that the nonprofit arts sector “looks like a field of zombies…unable to live or die” — that “sustainable arts businesses” are needed. Yet one could easily argue that, for the last decade, this has been the case as well. What will it really take to change the paradigm?
You’re right that this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has recently become more starkly apparent. I’ve always felt that a big problem with making paradigmatic change here is that the nonprofit sector doesn’t have the economic incentives to push for more mergers and acquisitions. Arts organizations follow the money, and a big fund to support roll-ups (and roll-downs, or closings) in different sectors would be great.

Unfortunately, the politics of changing the current system will make any real paradigm change nearly impossible from within the system. It’s just too hard for stakeholders (donors, board, foundation leaders, staff) to take a pragmatic look and institute painful changes or cuts. I think it’s going to take entrepreneurial, business-minded leaders (of any age) who create new models that can be looked upon as success stories to make real change. Remember, it’s usually difficult for an established company to institute paradigmatic shifts, so disruptive innovation often comes from a new player. I think this is true of systems, like the arts field, as much as it is for single companies.

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2) In your ideas on “with-profit” partnerships, you mourn that “small arts organizations” no longer innovate. Yet isn’t it incumbent on arts leaders to lead? Indeed, if arts leaders are yoked by a “risk-averse, highly structured funding environment,” isn’t it incumbent upon the sector to identify what — better yet, who — is stifling innovation? Isn’t the reluctance to be specific half the problem?
Probably, but I find it difficult to be that specific myself. One could easily pinpoint a lot of the blame on foundation program officers, for example, but that seems too simplistic to me (although there’s lots of damning evidence). I’ve seen many boards state that they want to bring in an exciting leader who will innovate, but then stop them from leading this change because, well, real change is scary. That being said, a lot of innovation is stifled by (most) foundation’s insistence on having a “track record” before funding and because of their reliance on program-specific support. The argument for general operating support is an old one, and when it’s in service of just keeping bloated management ranks afloat, a bad one. You can’t imagine investors telling an Internet start-up that they’ll only fund one of their functions and not the entire company, however, and that’s what always occurs in the arts. We could also use more rigor in board evaluations of leaders — mandating more innovation and holding them accountable when organizations under-perform.

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3) What regulatory instruments do we need to advance new business models for the arts? Do you see push-back from the nonprofit establishment to make it legal in all states to create a L3C? How can we promote alternate-model success stories?
This is going to be a big policy battle for the next few years. We’re already seeing many challenges to the very tax status of most nonprofit organizations, and this will likely lead to a lot of confusion about hybrid models — just when they’re needed most. While we are seeing push-back, I think that entrepreneurial leaders will continue to push forward with not just the L3C but also other new models. Many people opposed to change point out that 501(c)3 is not a business model, but a tax status. While that is true, most nonprofits effectively treat it as one and the same. I think we need challenge grants, and possibly investments, in alternate strategies. It would also be great for a city committed to the arts to partner with a community foundation and put forth a development fund for these models, be ready to accept a certain amount of failure, and publish the results online for all to evaluate.

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4) Regarding “participatory culture,” what do arts organizations fear by letting audiences “become more than just spectators”? Is “interaction” always the same as “participation”?
I think they fear what all established “experts” in culture fear: a loss of control and status. It’s also just honestly much harder to work from a participatory mindset — it’s an ongoing conversation which takes more work than just hanging an explanatory placard next to an artwork. Many people think the current obsession with participation is temporary, but I am suggesting the one-way-street model of consumption was the momentary blip. That said, no, not all interaction must be participatory. It’s about offering a range of possible interaction, from the spectator leaning back and just watching or listening to the audience member who wants to be able to add to artistic creation. Audiences will continue to sit in a darkened theater to watch a play, but there will likely be one audience member creating her own response to it on YouTube, and this just might lead to new possibilities for audience development and participation that I think can only be good for the arts.

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5) Is there a contradiction between pushing arts groups to think entrepreneurially and pushing arts groups to “take advantage of the economics of free”? If these concepts can coexist, what can we do to better help arts leaders define the balance between them?
There’s no contradiction here, and these concepts already coexist, which is why we must embrace this seeming dichotomy. In fact, many of the most entrepreneurial businesses today take advantage of the economics of free, alongside a business model that brings in revenues. Audiences now expect some free access to cultural works, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to pay for culture. The idea that this can be true is very counter-intuitive for most people, so to date it has largely been independent artists who have taken advantage of these practices. Musicians, for example, have learned that the economics have switched and they now make more money from touring (which used to be solely a promotional strategy) than from their recorded music. These stories aren’t well known, and we likely need more education about these models. Determining the proper balance between these models is the defining problem of new business practices across multiple sectors. Just look at the quandary facing both traditional and new publishers, or anyone launching a new Web-based service business to see ready examples. Perhaps we need more funding to explore and evaluate some experiments in this area; but even without it, arts organizations must begin to think more about these dynamics. As value shifts, so must their business practices.

Bonus question:

6) Will such arts as theater, music and dance ever benefit from what you call the “electracy era” during actual performances?
Yes, I think they undoubtedly will. The nature of the production of all three were greatly changed when we shifted from an oral to a literate culture. While I am not a music scholar, I doubt that symphonies would exist if we didn’t have a system of writing to help align what musicians were playing, for example. No one knows how electronic-mediated processes will change the future of performance. We do see experiments already. I’ve already watched dancers in one city performing “alongside” projections of dancers from another country, collaborating in real-time across the Internet. Such experiments are just early stabs in a new direction, but the more important changes will take place incrementally as our culture adapts to these fundamental shifts. My hope is that the arts, all arts, will help push towards these new possibilities because a creative sensibility will help ensure a more interesting era than one built without input, experimentation and leadership from artists.