Into the AIR: Fort Collins arts incubator takes flight

Louis C.K. is a champion of the everyman in his comedy routines. After netting more than $1 million from videostreaming his latest show on the web at five bucks a pop, he may also be beatified as the patron saint of the arts who finally cracked the elusive creative business model.

Imagine a commune of business savvy artists to power the $1 billion creative industry in the 10-state intermountain West. That’s the aim of the new Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR)— a launchpad for professional development skills, startup training, access to capital, and administrative support to the estimated 280,000 creative pros in the region. AIR just landed a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to establish a new breed of arts incubators in Fort Collins.

Because the cold reality for any entrepreneur: Talent alone doesn’t necessarily translate into success. That’s especially true of creatives who’d rather hone their craft than than get down and dirty with spreadsheets and social media tools.

AIR’s Beth Flowers hears about this challenge a lot.

“Artists said they simply don’t have enough business skills to make it in the creative world,” said Flowers, who also heads up the Fort Collins-based arts organization Beet Street, which led the NEA grant round.

2012: The Year of the Artist Entrepreneur

Cutting out the money-grubbing arts and entertainment industry middleman doesn’t seem quite as daunting these days with Louis C.K.’s CwF + RtB video strategy and the growing success of self-published books, independent filmmaking and e-commerce sites like Etsy.

Michael Wolf at Gigaom touts 2012 as the “year of the artist-entrepreneur.” Wolf notes that artists and content creators are using the Internet to take charge of their careers—from writers using new digital publishing tools, to musicians using SoundCloud to create and share new music.

But with that newfound creative power to strike out independently as the next Jay-Z comes the need for knowledge about revenue models, copyright law and marketing. That’s where the idea of an artist-centric business center gets interesting.

Incubating the incubator

In researching models for AIR, Flowers discovered that there are no true arts incubators in Colorado.

“There are collaborative studio efforts around the state, including one in Fort Collins, but the focus is primarily on shared studio space for visual artists,” said Flowers. “There is no comprehensive professional development component.”

Of course, other start-ups and incubators do exist throughout the state, many focused on technology, but they typically involve projects or products. According to Flowers, the mission of Fort Collins’ arts incubator differs in key ways.

Our goal is to grow sole proprietors and non-profits. We’re incubating people.

In the end, arts incubators in Kansas City, Houston and San Francisco were chosen as models for Fort Collins because of shared visions, like the desire for the space to have a “community center” feel.

The incubators in Houston and San Francisco are thriving, but in Kansas City things went to hell in a handbasket last summer.

The landlord wouldn’t deal with building code violations in the space which led to Kansas City inspectors shutting down the building. The 10-year-old incubator folded.

That raised a red flag for Flowers: Secure physical space is an important component in sustaining an arts incubator. Except Beet Street didn’t have anything lined up.

Carnegie Library in Old Town Fort Collins | Carrie Visitainer for Tekhne

Then something serendipitous happened. The City of Fort Collins was undergoing a public planning process, debating the future use of their Carnegie Library, an historic building located in the heart of Old Town. Flowers spoke up and proposed that it house the incubator. The public supported the idea, and the City agreed.

What emerged is a unique partnership between Beet Street, Colorado State University’s Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Advocacy and Performance Institute for the Arts (LEAP), and the City of Fort Collins to advance the region’s $1 billion arts economy.

Show me the money

Beyond marketing and accounting 101, AIR will offer courses on helping artists access investment capital and revolving loan funds. As a precursor to the official launch of AIR courses in Fall 2012, Beet Street will host a March 30 – Apr 1 Creative Capital workshop for working artists in emerging fields, film/video, innovative literature, performing arts (including music), and visual arts.

Smart business practice courses will lead the fall agenda.

“There will be opportunities to take one-day classes or a longer series,” said Flowers. “Classes will be held face-to-face at the Carnegie Library Building and streamed to locations throughout the Intermountain West.”

Training the next generation of artists in the fine art of sole proprietorships is also a focus of AIR. CSU’s LEAP program will teach a semester-long business course for art students and then place them in internships with arts organizations, galleries, design firms or individual artists.

Ultimately, AIR’s success will be measured on its ability to shape the long-term sustainability of artists by increasing incomes, creating jobs, stimulating community involvement and promoting the regions’ creative economy. If all goes well, Rocky Mountain artists and arts organizations will be thriving instead of starving.

10 states: Artists and arts organizations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming will be eligible to participate in AIR programs.