Let’s work together – Rhizome Arts Consulting

Could new cooperatives provide a better business model for the arts? IAM spoke to the partners at Rhizome Arts Consulting – who have joined together to form a hybrid collective – to find out.

COVID-19 has got artists, presenters and venues across the world exploring new ways of doing business. Switching from physical to virtual performances; producing hyper-local content; moving from one-off ticket purchases to monthly subscription models like Patreon – all of these are suddenly up for consideration.

Now three arts professionals and one arts presenter are coming together to try their own alternative approach: a cooperative model. Together KMP Artists, Sheffield Global Arts Management and Ping Pong Productions will pool their talents through Rhizome Arts Consulting.

So what are the benefits of doing this, how will it help the companies survive COVID, and can others learn from their example? We got in touch with the partners and put these questions to them.

IAM: Where did the original idea for Rhizome come from?
Kristopher McDowell: Rhizome Arts Consulting has been in the works for a while – myself and Theresa Yvonne actually filed for a business licence back in 2019. We are all very collaborative people by nature and began discussing how we might be able to work together and deepen the connection of the artists to the communities and facilities that they traditionally toured.

Following COVID-19 it became abundantly clear that working together was the only way we were going to make it through this time period. So I approached Francine Sheffield of Sheffield Global Arts Management to become a partner, and Mengtong Guan from Ping Pong Productions as Rhizomes’ strategic non-profit partner. In 2021 we will be welcoming a few more partners from Asia and the Americas.

The end result is that KMP Artists and Sheffield Global Arts Management have become a division of Rhizome Arts Consulting. We believe that with our distinctly different backgrounds, as a collective we are capable of taking on a broader scope of work in the arts, cultural and entertainment industry.

IAM: What were the obstacles in the way of creating such a collective, and how did you overcome them?
Theresa Yvonne: The main obstacle was recognising that our previous business model – based on the presenters-artists transaction – is not going to work in the current global environment. Instead, we needed a new hybrid model.

To create this model we took part in a six-day digital work retreat where we worked out our mission, vision, and core values (for those of you who have never done a digital retreat, it’s a day full of Zoom calls, which also includes meditation, yoga and shared meals.) We made an agreement to discuss our agenda items until each one of us was satisfied with the results. It is imperative to include everyone in the conversation and value one another’s opinions and perspectives, and truly listen to one another. It was a very productive process.

Clockwise from top left: Kristopher McDowell, Mengtong Guan, Theresa Yvonne and Francine Sheffield
Clockwise from top left: Kristopher McDowell, Mengtong Guan, Theresa Yvonne and Francine Sheffield

IAM: What are the advantages of working together in this way?
KMcD: Working as a collective is essential in this new pandemic time. At any given time, one of us could be out for weeks in recovery, so having business partners to support one another is critical to the clients we work with, and the success of the entire organisation.

Theresa mentioned that we have to move away from the transactional presenter-artist model. What it needs to be replaced with is a dialogue model, where arts presenters, artists, funders and other partners are all involved. It is conversational rather than transactional; we’re delving deeper into how artists, presenters, artist representatives, funders, and partners can engage audiences digitally and continue to deepen the relationship beyond the COVID pandemic.

We also want to have a deeper engagement with communities, so that artists can have an impact on equity, inclusion and diversity – rather than just simply presenting a work. We also believe there is a need to expand beyond the arts world, so we’ll be engaging with science and technology companies too.

IAM: And are there any disadvantages to such a collective?
Mengtong Guan: The most obvious disadvantage is also in some ways an advantage: we have to work remotely and online. For some this might seem strange, and they miss the personal face-to-face connections, but for others it feels like a luxury. The current partners are globally dispersed and work closely together in remote locations, so while this might feel foreign for some, our team is used to it.

IAM: How can the arts help the world cope with current global crises?
Francine Sheffield: Let’s face it, we are all struggling in our own way, individually, as a society, and globally because of the new stresses both from the pandemic and racism. The arts industry is no exception, but we are creative people, we have survived upturns and downturns before.

I just had a friend say to me there is nothing like a live performance, and people miss it, but we also have a very unique time to discover a different way of communicating with our audiences.

People that may not have ever been to a live ballet performance will be able to watch it online. They may not pay USD50 (€42) to come see a live performance, but they may pay USD5 to see an online performance – and through that experience become intrigued enough to continue the venture to a live performance when we reopen.

There is also an entirely different population that will not be able to continue their love of live arts for a myriad of reasons, be it health, finances or location. These people would relish the opportunity to continue viewing their favourite performances from the comfort of their home.

IAM: For your clients/potential clients, what will be different now – or will it essentially feel like business as usual?
FS: There is no ‘business as usual’ at times like this. Instead, it is about working together and finding solutions to problems through digital engagement. It is not about opening channels to stream recordings of performances on the internet – it is about creating channels for more connectivity.

Our work could take the form of helping to integrate technology in artistic works (such as Company-E’s development of augmented reality dance), or curating programmes our like Artists’ Connectivity Series, which brings artists together to have important conversations, supporting artists as they expand their boundaries and form deeper relationships.

IAM: Can the performing arts follow online streaming models that have been successful for TV and film?
MG: It’s critical that as artists move online that there is an awareness that film/cinema is such a different medium. You need a slightly different skillset – even something like lighting for film in comparison to live performance is distinctly different.

What is distinctive is the hybridisation that is needed. We’re not able to go fully live yet, so we have to be strategic – that’s why we’re looking for a deeper connection and we’re looking to use the artists expertise and craft to be able to work across industries in helping with equity diversity and inclusion.

Dance Iquail © Dance Iquail
Dance Iquail © Dance Iquail

IAM: What advice you can share with people who might be thinking about creating similar collectives?
TY: Spending time together to make sure everyone is aligned – even if it’s digitally – is invaluable. Even if we didn’t agree on everything we made sure we found a healthy solution.

Everyone is allowed to disagree and give us their perspective. It’s such a healthy way to do business together, and it’s a breath of fresh air for me personally.

IAM: In your core values you list “Diversity Equity, Inclusion” and “Historical Mindfulness”. How do you plan on promoting these in your work?
TY: Equity, diversity and inclusion should be top of mind in everyone’s work, across the board, in the arts and every other industry. It needs to be infused into everything we do. We need to correct ourselves moving forward as we have done such a poor job learning from our previous transgressions. That’s the “historical mindfulness” – we cannot ignore the past. It’s difficult to move forward if we don’t know where we currently stand, or learn from our past. Rhizome aims to do that in all of our relationships.

IAM: Talk us through some upcoming projects – what’s on the cards?
KMcD: In April 2020, Rhizome launched Artists’ Connectivity Series, which is part of a larger collective. Our goal is to create safe open space platforms for topic-based dialogue in an episodic format accessible by video and audio.

Last week, we kicked off season two of our Artists’ Connectivity Series, and on the Halloween weekend we will curate an online dance party with Beijing Dance Theater at Shanghai International Dance Center backstage. Stay tuned – there is more to come.