The Art of Business: Cascades Hub has been helping incubate local theater companies
It is often said that artists don’t make great business people.
But Donnie Maclurcan, an affiliate professor at Southern Oregon University and the director for Cascades Hub, a business incubator housed there, doesn’t necessarily agree.
In a recent phone interview with the Messenger, Maclurcan laughed when asked whether right-brained artists have the left-brain skills to be good business managers.
“They don’t,” he said with the slight twinge of his Australian accent. “But they are only one degree away form being good business people,” he quickly adds.
Maclurcan moved to Ashland from Australia nearly three years ago, and two years ago launched Cascades Hub, a business incubator at Southern Oregon University. While part of the program is providing startup companies shared office space, primarily Cascades Hub is about teaching durable business skills—and, in particular, in the first class of nine businesses, three were theatrical organizations.
As opposed to a for-profit business model which must generate most/all of its revenue from its programming, goods or services, art-focused non-profit organizations often face unique business challenges and, from large organizations like museums to small theater groups, often rely heavily on donations or generosity from patrons. But Maclurcan points out that is not necessarily a sustainable business model—nor is it necessary the way that art organizations need to function.
“When I first moved here and looked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” he explains, “I assumed they were largely dependent on grants and various philanthropy.” He continues, “I was pleasantly shocked that within their budget only a small percentage is from philanthropic sources. The point is they have sales and their membership program; it is an earned-income strategy.”
Maclurcan goes on to point out that arts organizations can generate revenue within their missions. “The trick here is to go about nonprofit business differently,” he says. “That’s a reality that’s been changing in the not-for-profit space.”
One of the theater groups within the first group at Cascades Hub was Theatre For Good, which was working to produce Dogpark: The Musical. The production was intended as a fundraiser for humane societies, dog parks and rescue shelters. Like the other businesses at Cascades Hub, there was an overlap between artistic and altruistic. (The playwrights and composers— Jahnna Beecham, Malcolm Hillgartner, and Michael J. Hume—were working with Maggie McLaughlin who attended the Cascade Hub workshop, to help produce it.) Dogpark has since gone on to be commissioned by The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin, and produced in Michigan, Colorado and at the Oregon Cabaret.
“There’s no reason not to have profits feed the theater company,” Maclurcan explains.
More specifically, Maclurcan believes in what he calls “the lean development approach to business.” Putting that idea into play, Maclurcan challenges the participating businesses to survive on $250 in the first six months. ”Typically what businesses do at beginning is look at what they need. The trick is to flip that on its head and ask, ‘what do we have?’” Using the space at the Art Building at SOU (where Cascades Hub is housed), he points out, is one way to get around paying for office space and internet services. “People are pretty blown away what can do for little money,” he says.
One of the other theatrical groups that came through the program at Cascades Hub is Basically Bananas, which hosts training programs that connect people through creative activities. As well, Ethan Gans-Morse, the Executive Director for Anima Mundi Productions attended classes hosted at Cascades Hub. Gans-Morse already had a successful theatrical production in his portfolio when he signed up for Cascades Hub, but says he wanted “to hone my non-profit admin skills.”
“We’re not really a theater company per se,” he explains. “We’re a non-profit dedicating to creating and producing original works of fine art that address contemporary social and environmental challenges.”
More specifically, prior to attending courses and seminars hosted at Cascades Hub, Gans-Morse produced The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a unique and moving two-act opera about a soldier returning home to Louisiana (right after the Gulf Oil spill) and his difficulties with PTSD. The show was first presented in 2013 in Eugene and premiered professionally in Portland in 2014, including Oregon Arts Watch calling it “one of the most exciting developments of the arts season.”
But a successful artistic production does not mean that the business-end of things came easily.
“One thing that stands out in particular is not to reinvent the wheel. As an administrator, I feel like I reinvented every wheel imaginable,” says Gans-Morse. He goes on to echo some of the lessons Cascades Hub trying to teach—in particular, about how community and collaboration can be assets that may not show up in Quickbooks, but certainly can help make a business succeed.
“We wrote the opera ourselves, produced the opera, fundraised the opera, and then took on a series of very hands-on events to involve local veterans both by including them in the opera production and by offering direct services to the community,” explains Gans-Morse. “As the project progressed, we developed some enormously valuable partnerships. The lesson we learned time and again was how much smoother things went when we worked in partnership with organizations who had already developed the expertise, connections, and experience working with veterans.” He concludes, “that was certainly the take-away: stick to what we know and do it to the very best of our abilities while finding the right collaborators to do their part.”