By Linda Essig
Until recently – either within the business discipline of entrepreneurship studies or across the disciplines of arts and cultural policy or community development – there has been little research on arts incubators, their strategic goals, their forms and funding models, or their evaluation methods. A review of extant research suggests that arts incubators play a role in early-stage development of arts-based enterprises and arts organizations as well as capacity-building for individual artists (Essig 2014; Gerl 2000). Arts incubators may also serve a community development function (Grodach 2011; Phillips 2010). This study asks three questions: How do arts incubators of various types create value for their stakeholder communities? How do arts incubators evaluate their success at creating the value? What is the relationship between the evaluation methods and strategic priorities of arts incubators?
Through a qualitative cross-case analysis of four arts incubators of different types, the research opens the black box of incubator operations to find that arts incubators create value for client artists and arts organizations through both direct service provision and indirect echo effects, but that the provision of value to communities or systems is attenuated and largely undocumented. Despite issues surfaced through the study, arts incubators remain a potentially impactful tool for supporting cultural entrepreneurship. This article addresses potential policy outcomes of arts incubators as articulated in the literature, the ways in which arts incubators deliver services to their stakeholders, and the value that is created from that service delivery. Then, drawing on the cross-case analysis, it considers smart practices or best practices for value generation and evaluation in arts incubators.
The four case study subjects were chosen purposively to represent four different types of incubator (artist-serving, creative entrepreneur-serving, arts organization-serving, community-serving); geographic range (Pacific Northwest, Mid-Atlantic, California); and sectoral diversity (public, non-profit, private). Site visits were made to each of the four incubators, during which incubator leadership, staff, clients and supporters were interviewed and site observations conducted. Interview transcripts, published materials, observation notes and internal documents provided by the programs constitute the data for analysis.
The value proposition of Arlington County Arts Incubator in Arlington, VA is “to provide free space and services to arts organizations so that they can focus on organizational development and programming excellence.” Intersection of the Arts in San Francisco, CA has a broader range of services, including providing space for the development and production of artistic/creative products; space for the exhibition, performance or sale of artistic products; cooperative marketing; centralized business services; business classes or business training; arts business informational resources; and, most significantly, fiscal sponsorship. The Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) serves individual artists throughout the state of California from its offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. CCI’s mission is “to promote knowledge sharing, networking and financial independence for individual artists and creative entrepreneurs by providing business training, grants, and incubating innovative projects that create new program knowledge, tools and practices for artists in the field.”1 Mighty Tieton is a loose affiliation of business entities located in the small rural community of Tieton, Washington. Mighty Tieton LLC owns a renovated fruit warehouse that is home to several creative businesses and a gallery space, and is one of the few commercial (for-profit) incubator enterprises identified in the typology research (Essig 2014) and provides space and informal business-planning advice to creative businesses and other businesses in town.
Arts incubators provide services to artists, arts organizations and creative enterprises. Analysis of the four cases indicates that the value created by arts incubators lies not in the services delivered per se but, rather, in the positive effect of such services on the ability of stakeholders to achieve their objectives by lowering barriers, conferring legitimacy, cushioning risk and, in some cases, enhancing individual or organizational self-sufficiency. The incubators have some characteristics in common. In all cases, the incubator plays some part in lowering barriers to entrepreneurial action and helps its clients, directly or indirectly, to connect their means with their ends (see Essig 2015; Shane and Venkatataman 2000). Differences are observed in strategic priorities and organizational culture. These differences are evidenced in the ways in which the organizations evaluate their own success and that of their clients. There are also similarities – for example, for the most part evaluation takes place at the client level rather than at the program or organizational level.
Several themes and characteristics emerge from a look across all four cases: arts incubators are in a state of change; arts incubator affiliation provides a “seal of approval”; arts incubators provide a safety net against risk; arts incubators strive to support artist or client group self-sufficiency but are not always successful; success is defined and measured locally; evaluation is considered important but is implemented inconsistently.
Evaluating Arts Incubator Success
Business incubator evaluation tends to focus on the assessment of firms within incubators rather than on the incubators themselves (see Mian 2014). The same appears to be true of arts incubators. In general, evaluation processes occur at the client level, where the success of the incubator is measured by the success of its clients rather than at the level of the incubator programs or in relation to their strategic goals.
Recommendations and Conclusions
Arts incubators, like many small organizations, tend to look retrospectively at outputs rather than at the processes that convert inputs into tangible impacts, or means into ends. Despite these issues, arts incubators remain a potentially impactful tool of cultural policy if their processes and activities align with their strategic goals and if those processes and activities are assessed formatively and summatively. The primary recommendation is that arts incubators adopt a program of formative and summative assessment that can be used to foster organizational learning and lead to evidence-based decision-making.
My primary recommendation is that arts incubators adopt a program of formative and summative assessment that can be used to foster organizational learning and lead to evidence-based decision-making. Table 3 shows the variables that can be evaluated at the process, output and value-added levels across the strategic priorities articulated by the incubator stakeholders.
Finally, the only way to really know if an incubator is creating lasting value is to track the value-added (or “impact”) variables over time. This requires commitment on the part of the organization to build evaluation processes into its operations, gather data on a regular basis, analyze those data, and synthesize the results.
cciarts.org/Angie_Kim.html (accessed 20 July 2015)
Essig, L. 2014. Arts incubators: A typology. Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society 44(3), 169-80.
Essig, L. 2015. Means and ends: A theory framework for understanding entrepreneurship in the US arts and culture sector. Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society 45(3), 227-46.
Gerl, E. 2000. Incubating the arts: Establishing a program to help artists and arts organizations become viable businesses. Anthens, OH: NBIA Publications.
Grodach, C. 2011. Art spaces in community and economic development: Connections to neighbourhoods, artists, and the cultural economy. Journal of Planning Education and Research 31(1), 74-85.
Mian, S. 2014. 15 business incubation and incubator mechanisms. Handbook of research on entrepreneurship: What we know and what we need to know, A. Foyelle, ed. (pp. 335-66). Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Phillips, R.J. 2010. Arts entrepreneurship and economic development: Can every city be “austintatious”? Towards a psychology of entrepreneurship: An action theory perspective. Foundations and Trends® in Entrepreneurship 6(4), 239-313.
Shane, S., and S. Venkataraman. 2000. The promise of entrepreneurship as a field of research. Academy of Management Review 25(1), 217-26.
See the full article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Volume 20, Number 2, Winter 2018