I have been thinking about and working in and around the role of capital in arts and creative enterprise for over 40 years. I have watched the rise of the terms creative economy, impact investing and creative placemaking. We may finally now be reaching a critical place where we can do away with the artificial distinctions between enterprises rooted in what often are arbitrary or historical decisions on legal corporate structure—nonprofit, for-profit, independent artist—and consider creative enterprise as a sector that encompasses all these structures. And we can then look at sources of capital — equity, debt, philanthropy—based on their appropriateness for the project or organization.

The arts sector is filled with many for-profit activities. Broadway and dinner theatre; most community dance schools; many music venues (and related music businesses such as producers, recording studios, music publishing, promotion); art dealers, galleries, framers and art handlers; lighting and sound supply companies; literary publishers and agencies—just to name a few.

It has long concerned me that in both the government and philanthropic arenas we have treated “the arts” as consisting purely of nonprofit arts organizations. The truth is that the arts is a fluid ecosystem that includes individual artists and for-profit creative enterprises. By focusing on only one segment of the sector, funders and policy-makers miss significant opportunities to build a holistic, thriving creative community and industry, at both local and national levels.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2017 reported that the arts and “cultural production” contributed $764 billion to the U.S. economy, representing 4.2% of GDP (based on 2015 data), more than such other industries as construction, transportation/warehousing, travel/tourism, and agriculture. The analysis includes both nonprofit arts enterprises as well as such for-profit industry areas as advertising; interior design; landscape design; “arts support services” like lighting and sound rental, framing and art handling, etc.; publishing; motion pictures and broadcasting; and musical instrument manufacturing, just to name a few. In some states and localities the percentages can be much higher. Clearly there is enormous opportunity to drive economic growth and employment through coherent, broad-based strategies to invest in this space.

An Evolution in Thinking

Perhaps my perspective on this issue is shaped by having moved fluidly during my 40-year career in the arts between the for-profit side and nonprofit side, government and private philanthropy, actively producing and presenting art, and working more behind the scenes on advocacy and policy.

My jobs included serving as an aide to a US Congressman, managing a cabaret/musical theatre program at a nonprofit theater (that was actually structured as a largely earned income supported enterprise), directing programs for an arts service organization, producing commercial theater, serving as managing director of an Off Broadway theatre, running a facilities grant program for a state arts agency, leading a nonprofit theatre on Broadway, and then for over ten years serving as CEO of the Arts & Business Council in New York, up to and through its eventual merger with Americans for the Arts.

In 2008 my growing belief that we needed to change the paradigm of “arts = only 501c3 arts organizations” led me to take a position as the first Chief Cultural Officer for the City of Philadelphia, directing a newly created Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. While exact statistics are hard to come by, I believe that made me the first major city “arts agency” head to report directly to the Mayor and be part of the Mayor’s cabinet, AND the first to head an agency with an explicit creative economy focus. We commissioned a Creative Vitality Index study over a three-year period, which was the first time Philadelphia had looked at its “creative sector” including both for-profit and nonprofit businesses. The study methodology was not perfect, but it helped advance the conversation. We also used case studies that helped “tell the story” of creative entrepreneurs—including a maker space, an individual artist who worked in both nonprofit and commercial settings, a commercial manufacturing and cultural hub operating out of a former textile factory, and an innovative partnership between a commercial music club and a public radio station.

At one point we were able to access a significant allocation of the City’s Community Development Block Grant funding (CDBG) to support the creative economy in lower-income neighborhoods, and we created a program to invest in creative workspace facilities projects. This was open to both for-profit and nonprofit projects. That seemingly small detail made it groundbreaking. We did away with the artificial distinction and looked at our underlying objective: securing affordable space for artists and creative enterprises. Why should it matter that this was being executed by a business or entrepreneur marrying our capital with other sources, such as bank loans and tax credits, versus a nonprofit perhaps using entirely philanthropic capital?

The Challenge for Foundations

And now here I am in Denver, serving as President of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which has a philanthropic focus on the arts in our local community.  How do I bring this more expansive definition of creative enterprise to the work we do? As a private foundation we cannot make grants to for-profit creative enterprises, but we can explore utilizing impact investing with our corpus as a vehicle for helping to foster a robust creative sector. And this is what has led me to explore the role of impact investing in the arts and creative enterprise. My interest is on behalf of my own foundation, but is also based on my conviction that there are investment opportunities in this area and many other investors like us eager to deploy capital in pursuit of both reasonable financial returns and an arts and creative economy mission return.

While we have engaged in Program Related Investments within the arts—significantly below-market loans that from an accounting standpoint count as grants even though they are returned (one anticipates) with modest interest—we have yet to implement an impact investing program. Why, given our keen interest? Here are the questions we need answered:

  • As a foundation with a mission focus on the arts, how do we do impact investing just in creative enterprise? There are targeted vehicles for other sectors like affordable housing or the environment, but not yet for the arts.
  • Like most funders (and even many individual impact investors), we have a specific local focus —how do we do creative enterprise impact investing that is targeted to a locality or region?
  • Again, like most foundations, virtually all our investment portfolio is deployed in funds or other investment vehicles that spread risk across a wide array of investments in companies within their investment category (emerging markets, mid-cap, etc.). We do not have the scale to do the due diligence of investing in individual companies. Can funds be created with a creative enterprise sector focus, one that will allow investors to make a single investment which is then aggregated with capital from other investors to support a diversified array of investment opportunities?
  • And if such dedicated funds are not available, but are in fact part of a larger impact investing fund that includes creative enterprise, or if a creative enterprise fund is created but is only national in scope, how do we persuade boards and investment committees that a partial mission return is better than none?

It is my hope that research and education efforts like this publication can lead to greater understanding and awareness, the creation of new creative enterprise investment vehicles that meet what I believe IS a significant enough market demand, and ultimately the deployment of capital into creative enterprises that will help fuel creativity, innovation and vibrancy in our communities while also generating market returns that can satisfy boards and investment committees. Interest in impact investing in general is growing, and evidence of its efficacy now exists. What we need is the cultivation of comparable interest, tools, and evidence in the creative enterprise space. We, and many others, are poised to act.

This is an excerpt from Cornerstone Capital’s report Creativity & The Arts: An Emerging Impact Investing Theme.

Photo: Gary Steuer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where a Bonfils-Stanton Foundation-led PRI was part of a package of capital that resulted in dramatic debt service savings. ©Kelly Shoads.