Three business lessons from the New York performing arts scene

April 20th, 2012

by permission from AMA Shift

by William F. Baker and Evan Leatherwood

The American not-for-profit performing arts scene is as cut-throat as any commercial market in the world. Rich patrons and demanding audiences have long rewarded talent, but tough times are defining another prerequisite for artistic success: entrepreneurship.

Faced with a sharp decline in government grants and private philanthropy, dancers, singers, actors, and musicians have been forced to fight hard and innovate just to stay in the profession they love. Here are three concepts from the performing arts world that would play well in any industry.


Alex Lipowski, founder and executive director of the contemporary classical music group The Talea Ensemble, credits his success to a singleminded and relentless approach: “I came to Juilliard as an 18-year old kid knowing that I wanted to play new music and that I would do anything it took.”

In addition to his solid musical credentials, like a degree from Juilliard and collaboration with classical music legend Pierre Boulez, Lipowski says that his career would never have materialized if he hadn’t been willing to learn how to run a business. He isn’t afraid to use words like “product” and “marketing” when he talks about his art. And on the road to success he has done things he never dreamed of as an arts student, like learning how to read budgets, negotiate deals, fundraise, and manage part-time staff.

In addition to a full rehearsal and performance schedule, Lipowski works full time at Talea’s newly opened office space. When asked how he does it all, he replies “You learn to rehearse faster.”

Along with his business-minded approach, Lipowski says he has learned to love another value usually associated with the for-profit world: competition. It helps performers and their organizations make better music, and hone their sense of mission. At Talea, says Lipowski half jokingly, “We’re bloodthirtsy for art. Bloodthirtsty for the desire to be in the foreground, at the cutting edge.”


The idea for dancer and choreographer Lonnie Landon’s successful contemporary dance venture The Playground came to her in a coffee shop while she was talking to her peers. She noticed that there seemed to be a big population of dancers who had all gone to great schools and had experience with excellent dance companies in Europe, but who couldn’t gain a foothold in the New York scene.

Dance classes, the normal way for freelancers like Landon to keep in touch with the profession, were too expensive for most. And contact with influential, job-bestowing choreographers was restricted to dancers who were already members of established companies.

Wouldn’t it be great, thought Landon, if there were a way for freelancers to to get training, exposure, and experience all at the same time and at a low cost. She and her partner Gregory Dolbashian turned the idea into The Playground. For five dollars, any dancer can be part of a session with a visiting choreographer, who is entitled to half the profits, and gets the benefit of a a sort of ad-hoc, low stakes troupe. London’s idea is so new that there really isn’t a word for it yet, but it has caught on quickly.

In the short time since it’s founding in 2010, The Playground has expanded to Los Angeles, and has become a node in the New York dance world, known as a place to see and be seen, discover and be discovered.

A big part of the The Playground’s success comes from the way that social media acts as a megaphone for word of mouth. The idea might not have worked in the pre-networked performing arts world. Because she identified a unique need and paired it with new technology, Landon has found a place not only for herself, but for many other dancers as well.


Claire Chase, flutist and executive director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is not afraid to talk about failure. “It’s the elephant in the room,” she says. “We never talk about it as artists and we certainly never talk about it as business people, but failure is so marvelous because it teaches us to be successful.”

Chase might sound cavalier, but her attitude toward failure is pragmatic. She sees it merely as one of the necessary components of any innovative organization. She explains: “As an organization, when we are building models that don’t yet exist, and we are setting goals that are higher than anything we’ve seen in the field, of course we need to fail the first few times out. It’s how we pivot from those failures, and how we go into them and ask one another and ourselves questions that we find rich material for enhancing our goal and enhancing our process.”

Chase’s fearless approach has lead ICE, which she founded in 2001, to premiere over 500 new pieces and press recordings on seven different record labels. What started out as a way to make music with her friends while they supported themselves in other ways has turned into a major international force in contemporary classical music, and is Chase’s full time job.

ICE’s concern at the moment is no longer with staying afloat, but instead with keeping its focus on promoting new, experimental classical music. Chase says that success can endanger an organization by making it value self-preservation above mission. There was a moment, she explains, when ICE was in grave danger of getting bogged down by its success. “We were hiring more staff, holding more events, paying people more. Doing all the things that define success,” says Chase, “but I realized that if we went that route, and if we turned this tremendous energy and momentum into something that already exists, we would be missing an opportunity.”

So she put her money where her mouth was, and set aside half of ICE’s budget for a totally experimental program called ICElab, which is currently finishing up its first year. So far, the program has been a success, challenging new artists to grow, and keeping ICE lean and close to its core mission. “The results are fantastic. We’re having a blast,” she says, “we’re creating more new material than we ever have in the past, and at a faster pace. We’re learning more, and we’re growing. At the speed of light.”