Learning from business incubators

If art is business, then what might our arts incubator learn from business incubators? Here is what my research has yielded thus far:

1. In the business incubator realm, the residency is often offered with the stipulation that if you don’t succeed, you are out. In my research I’ve found that many arts incubators, especially some that failed, tend to shy away from stating specific expectations of residents at the finish of a residency. Arts incubators tend more toward providing resources for enabling or strengthening process without the expectation of a deliverable by a deadline.

2. Business incubators, philosophically and practically, perceive themselves to be incubating the entire enterprise. At the end of the three years, which is the average amount of time spent in a business incubator, according to the National Business Incubators Association, it is expected that the startup can and will leave the incubator with a viable business plan, meaningful mentoring, and a market ready product that has the likelihood of surviving and success.

3. Successful technology incubators like NACET often provide access to high-end technology, as well as marketing support, administrative support, and hands-on business planning. Skills training and support facilities and services are integral to the incubation period and process to meet the expectation that residents will graduate from incubation with a full toolkit to best thrive in the marketplace.

4. Business incubators not only develop skills but also serve as brokers, introducing entrepreneurs to venture capitalists or angel investors.

5. Business incubators often require a business plan as part of their application for entry. An expectation exists that the entrepreneur has given thought to the viability of the project/product and that the entrepreneur has investigated its potential feasibility in the marketplace.

6. Business incubators, more often than arts incubators, tend to have measurable outcomes that specifically and quantifiably define success.

7. The term business incubator seems to be less open to multiple interpretations than the term arts incubator. Research shows that the most typical models for arts incubators are either those that offer work spaces or residencies for artists to develop a project or to create their art or those that offer space, support services, and business training to its residents. This second definition aligns more fully with the idea of incubation, which suggests a range of support and services aimed at making a venture (a business or an artist and his/her creative output) viable and launching it into the world with a greater chance at success.

8. Arts incubators may be reluctant to hold the groups or individuals they are incubating accountable for measurable success because some long-held limiting ideas the arts carry about artistic purity and the corruptive possibilities of the marketplace. Making art, the thinking goes, is pure. Making art with an idea of selling the art pollutes the process.

At the heart of many arts incubators is the notion that artists are essential to the spirit of a community and that because they are vital, artists are in need of developing skills to help them introduce their art to a larger world and finding ways to survive as artists.

As with NACET, economic development is the prevailing idea behind developing our arts incubator. Art is not only vital to the health of our community, it is a premiere tourist attraction and a proven driver of our city’s economic engine. Our vision of an arts incubator has two principal objectives: the development of individual artists toward more robust marketplace viability through business and skills training, and the economic development of our city by building a collaborative and dynamic space where art can happen and where visitors are welcome. Our incubator has the possibility to increase Flagstaff’s vitality, cultural depth, economic health and tourism.

And it is a place where art will happen.




Have something to say?

Have something you’d like to contribute about Art Box, its purpose, its mission, its possibility?

Either enter your comment below a post or better yet: Be a guest blogger. It’s easy. Just write something, send it to Laura Kelly at lkelly@culturalpartners.org, and she will post it here.

Post links, ideas, insights, ruminations, BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals). Contribute your imagination to the cultural landscape of Flagstaff.



Dec. 11 arts incubator forum notes

Our first Arts Incubator forum was held on Tuesday, Dec. 11. About 40 people attended. The meeting lasted an hour. JT Tannous, executive director of Flagstaff Cultural Partners, introduced Laura Kelly, the project director for the planning phase of the arts incubator, a facility she is calling Art Box. What follows is a roundup of what was said by Kelly and audience members.

Kelly: We’re at the starting point. An incubator helps spark new things. I’ll be spending the next twelve months gathering information, doing research, listening to people—artists, business people, educators, government employees.

Kelly gave an overview of what her research has show thus far:

Arts incubators began in the late 1980’s. The idea of incubation was to help arts organizations build their business models and become full-fledged businesses. Nationally the figures vary as to the number of incubators. According to the National Business Incubators Association (NBIA), there are about 50 incubators that have companies that serve the arts in some form. But according to those in the arts and Linda Essig, ASU professor whose research centers of arts incubators, there are about 20-22 incubators that are specific to the arts field. Most fall into one of three categories:

  1. Structure, facility: artists create work, people watch, artists sell.
  2. Physical space where artists and arts organizations learn their craft, business models and how to build their businesses and find success.
  3. Hybrid of #1 and #2.

Most incubators earn revenue in these forms:

  1. Rent from studio or office space
  2. Retail sales
  3. Classrooms/teaching fees
  4. Memberships and donations
  5. Facility rental for events

 Kelly: Given this overview, consider these foundational questions:

  • What is the arts incubator’s purpose?
  • Who shall it serve?
  • What will happen there?


What should the arts incubator do?  What should it look like? Audience comments and questions:

  • All of what Kansas City does. Plus sell art supplies.
  • It makes the arts accessible to everyone.
  • People who have never experienced the arts to get hands-on.
  • Art Box could be a place that makes the arts accessible to children.
  • A place that welcomes and represents people of all ethnic background, so everyone feels like they are welcome and their people are there.

Kelly: Mentoring is a big component of all arts incubators. Formal mentoring programs, but also organic mentoring that happen through proximity where artists learn from each other because they work next to each other. Participants come in, stay for a period of time, get some formal training, and then go out into the world.

Questions and comments from the audience:

  • Why do artists deserve special treatment?
  • Who are we serving while not serving others and why?
  • Is this just for visual artists?  That seems to be the direction.
  • The mentoring is already happening. Visual artists in Flagstaff already share freely with others and support one another. This idea came out of the recession and the death of art sales during that time… an idea to give artists another opportunity to sell their work.
  • There are lots of mentoring ways this could happen: Artist-to-artist mentoring. Business profession-to-artist mentoring. Accountant-to-artist mentoring. Marketer-to-artist mentoring. Lawyer-to-artist mentoring.
  • Are we doing this to attract tourists and collectors to buy art?  To change the dynamic of Flagstaff like an Aspen, CO, or Santa Fe, NM?  People come here for the arts.
  • The location needs to be “on the circuit” where visitors are already going in town, the downtown area.
  • Let’s have a bigger goal. Let people do art and enjoy it, not just a financial piece.  A place where everyone can come… those who want to buy but also those who want to experience and have fun.  It’s about sharing together and connecting communities in ways nothing else can do.
  • Art Box should support all types of artists.
  • It should be a place for people to have a dialogue about the arts. Why do artists do what they do, why do they create the things they create?  The arts can foster a discussion to understand the subjects of the arts world.  So it could be a meeting place, a living room, a discussion place, to better understand the arts, to better understand expression.  People who come through see the world in a different way.
  • Art Box should be a physical space for participating.
  • Arts in education should be a focus as well.
  • How do other arts organizations collaborate with Art Box?  What about “Art Box talks” in other venues that support and bring people to existing arts organizations?
  • What’s lacking is professional development. As an artist, a need is studio space.  Marketing support. How to approach galleries. How to build a website. This is a huge void in the community.
  • Do we want to do all arts? Do we bring them all together? That doesn’t seem to be the right way to go. We should pick one thing and do it well.
  • Artist residencies?  Bring in big name artists.
  • Store and coffee house and farm and library. Cross-pollinate beyond the arts.
  • The arts informs our thinking far beyond the finished product. The arts lead to “big, fat leaps” in thinking.  The development of the whole community, the whole individual.





The birth of a great idea

written by guest blogger Elizabeth Hellstern

It was 2009. Flagstaff had not yet started to feel the effects of the economic crisis, but the check was definitely in the mail. People with influence, foresight and concern—smart people all over the city—started thinking and talking about the future of artists in our town.

What if starving artists were a thing of the past? I heard that question over drinks at the Rendezvous, during a holiday party at the CVB. I heard about it in city commission meetings, university meetings; it was the question on everyone’s mind.

There really was a zeitgeist of thought going round in Flagstaff. Art and artists are invaluable to our culture and community, but they often don’t know how to build a sustainable infrastructure that supports their business needs. Instead of letting our artists struggle to learn business and entrepreneurial skills by trial and error, maybe we can help them.

This innovative thinking bred an innovative collective that consisted of business, education, and government representatives from around the city.  We identified and applied for a planning grant called “Our Town” from the National Endowment for the Arts. We were OVERWHELMED by the response and support from the county, the university, the Artist’s Coalition, the city, ECoNA, NACET, the Chamber of Commerce, and Coconino Community College, who all saw the potential of the project.

The energy was so high it seemed almost inevitable that we would get the grant. We ultimately did, the Beautification and Public Art Commission put up the matching funds, we hired our Project Director, Laura Kelly, and now here we are.

But where, exactly, are we? We are at the planning stage, in my opinion the best stage, where the potential of ideas has the ability to transform our beloved city. We are envisioning our best future, and finding the right partners, locations, models and leaders to bring it to life. This is your chance to help us decide how we can best support our local artists. This is a community project, and we need the community’s ideas and brainstorming to help bring it to fruition.

Should we pursue our own version of The Torpedo Factory? Should we provide business training and workshops such as pricing your art, marketing your business and finding exhibit space that will sell your work? Perhaps we should provide a holistic artist-in-residence space that brings together many mediums, creating a fantastic alchemy of creativity, support, and entrepreneurialism, something (I imagine) like Paris in the 20s. Another thought is to provide the structure for a more free-trade version of an Old World guild space, where Master Craftsmen could train apprentices, providing them with artistic and business training, as well as access to tools, kilns or other resources. There could be individual studios, where visitors can watch artists at work, with a retail space. Members would be part of a volunteer collective, providing their knowledge as a resource for younger artists.

However this idea is manifested, we ultimately want something that would be economically sustainable, positive and encouraging for artists of all levels. We want a creative culture that encourages them to reach new artistic heights with the support of the Flagstaff community, knowing that we are all beneficiaries of their talent.

So we encourage all thoughts, from members of the artistic, business, educational, and patron community to share what they think can be possible. If you also believe that our local artists are a valuable resource, if you can’t imagine your life in Flagstaff without beauty, if you believe that these things are worth the investment of energy, time and money, then we need your input.  Please help us formulate an “Art Box,” a structure that can provide the building blocks, the foundation for sustainable art in our community.

Let’s talk possibility

Art Box is the working title of an arts incubator in its imagining stages, its envisioning stages for Flagstaff, Arizona.

Art Box Flagstaff is the name of this blog, created as a forum for anyone interested in joining the discussion, contributing ideas, musing over suggestions, following the evolution and engaging in possibility. I’m Laura Kelly, the project director for the planning phase of Art Box. I’ve been hired by the Flagstaff Cultural Partners to continue the conversation about an arts incubator. I’ll curate this blog, serve as air traffic controller, librarian and moderator.

Join the conversation. Pass this site along to your friends. Post your comments. Click onto the links on the right side of this page to learn more about arts incubators around the country, to read opinions of deep thinkers and entrepreneurs in the arts, to be guided by tools for maneuvering through the business of the arts.

Join the conversation and become a guest blogger. Or type your comments to blog posts to make this a dialogue. Be a part of creating something vital, something vibrant.

For just this once: Think inside the Box.