The Shifting Storefront Landscape

The Shifting Storefront Landscape

Hypocrites’ executive director and PerformInk contributor Kelli Strickland’s musings on performing arts management.

The Chicago storefront theater scene is in a period of transition. With the boom of storefronts in the early 80’s to mid 90’s, those who remain – and there are a lot – have come of ‘a certain age.’ Many still have founder leadership, but are looking to the next phase. Others have made that difficult transition and are trying to clarify identity without their founder. Some are closing up shop. Of course, there are always new companies developing and dissolving along the way. But I’m talking about the generation of companies that Richard Christiansen described as occupying “The Vast Chicago Theater Market” in the chapter of the same name from his seminal book A Theater of Our Own. It is no accident that there are an awful lot of 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries to be celebrated in the foreseeable future.

To my mind, there are three significant developments to consider in reflecting upon where we are today.

1) Storefronts coming into that ‘certain age’ means that many of the people in those companies aren’t twenty-five anymore. These companies can’t operate on the same strategy that they used to – the strategy of blood, sweat, tears and sheer force of will. We have acquired a taste for health insurance, there are children and aging parents to be cared for, and let’s face it…we just can’t run the hustle that we used to. Not to mention, storefront has built its reputation on the backs of artists sometimes working for nothing at all or pizza and beer. As a company develops the ability to earn and raise revenue we struggle with how to invest those resources. How much can we afford to pay to our artists who have ten or fifteen years back pay coming to them? Or do we spend more on the long game, building some infrastructure in the hopes that the whole ship rises?

2) This period of transition coincides with another trend – that of professionally training arts managers. When these storefronts were founded, no one had heard of a master’s degree in arts administration or arts management. Our storefront leaders (like small arts organizations across the country) learned how to run a company by doing.

In addition to the proliferation of M.B.A.’s, M.A.’s and even undergraduate degrees in Arts Management, the professional development opportunities in arts management are aplenty. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a board development or fundraising training. There are also programs that live somewhere in the middle like the fellowships offered by a number of arts service and training organizations. (Full disclosure, I am the product of one of those fellowships and this probably isn’t the last time that fellowship will come up in this blog.)

And an extension of 2) but deserving of its own treatment, 3) Our sector has turned its attention with laser-like focus on capacity building (see above rock throwing reference). When was the last time you were asked to get together with your colleagues and peers to talk about art and producing plays? But I’ve seen loads of you (AD’s, ED/MD’s and staff from every function) at capacity building trainings of all shapes and sizes in the last few years. At our national conferences, sponsored by our local service organizations, our funders…we are talking capacity building. A lot.

All of these developments have me thinking about topics that I will cover here. I will invite some of our colleagues to chat with me about what’s on their mind, I’ll share some of that conversation with you and then I’ll write a bit about it. That’s the plan. If that sounds interesting, check back in two weeks. Next week I’ll try to use fewer parentheses.

Next Up: Capacity Building: Are We There Yet? or Exactly How Big Are We Supposed To Be?

About author

Kelli Strickland

Kelli Strickland is the Executive Director of The Hypocrites. She completed the Devos Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 2013 and returned to Raven Theatre as Executive Director where she had previously served as Director of Education. Kelli has twenty years experience as an arts educator and consultant in program development, program evaluation, and arts learning assessment. Kelli is an instructor at Loyola University in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.