Artist-Partners: New Directions in Artist-Driven Institutional Models

Introduction Process Impact


About International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)

The Brooklyn-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is comprised of 35 leading instrumentalists who like to call themselves “creative misfits.” Dedicated to advancing contemporary music through innovative strategies for performance, presentation and education, ICE members perform in groups ranging from solos to large ensembles and in venues from concert halls to parks, libraries, neighborhood facilities, and more. Since the organization was founded in 2001, ICE has premiered or commissioned 675 compositions, the majority of them new works by emerging composers. In 2013, Musical America named ICE its Worldwide Ensemble of the Year.

International Contemporary Ensemble

About the Project

With the goal of redefining the ways in which artistic and operational roles in arts organizations are shared, executed, transformed and sustained, ICE created a new organizational structure in which members of the ensemble act as Artist Partners who lead and manage the organization. Artist Partners have a hybrid role within ICE, performing a dedicated organizational function such as fundraising, marketing, education, programming, or production in addition to their creative roles as performers. The goal of the new structure is eliminate the traditional line between artistic and management functions in order to strengthen curatorial capacity, give ensemble members a greater voice in decision-making, and enable creativity.

Starting Conditions

By its tenth anniversary in 2012-13, ICE had reached celebrity status in the contemporary music world. Its budget had grown to $1 million; its reputation for commissioning and performing the music of living composers was widespread; its cross-genre focus was gaining significant respect; and its annual concert season had grown to more than 100 performances. Yet even before this milestone, ICE was beginning to feel the pressure of its rapid growth and success. Flutist and ICE founder Claire Chase was the organization’s only employee until 2008 when she appointed ICE clarinetist Joshua Rubin as Program Director and hired ICE’s first administrative staff. Over the next five years, ICE’s annual budget doubled.

Far from seeing their growing infrastructure a source of contentment and security, however, ICE leaders were worried. They had witnessed the difficulties of early pioneer organizations in the artist-driven movement that had suffered institutional crises and erosion of internal cooperation and public trust, and they feared they might be on the road to a similar disappointment. Despite their outward success—and almost without knowing it—they were falling into a typical institutional pattern: “For the first time,” says Chase, “we sensed a rift between the people making the music and the people producing it, and we began asking ourselves how we could stay scrappy and preserve the essential values and processes that had led us to do the work we did in our first two years—even as we grew and necessarily became more complex as an organization.” Afraid that increased hierarchy and more delineated roles might cause ICE to lose its grip on the collaborative qualities that had built the organization from its infancy, leaders decided to act.

Innovation Team meeting
Innovation Team meeting

Seeking to avoid the entrapments of the all-too-familiar institutional model, ICE leaders turned to the Innovation Lab. “It came at a critical juncture,” they say. “The dual milestones of completing a decade of activity and operating with a budget that exceeded $1 million proved to be more than symbolic as we began to face pressing questions about how capacity could be increased while maintaining—and in some areas, increasing—organizational efficiency and artistic quality.”

The questions leaders posed were numerous and significant: Could a mature company shift from functioning like most other small companies to functioning like a true cooperative? What could they learn from other failed experiments? Could a different artist-driven structure promote growth, increased performance activity, and new revenue streams? What compensation and support mechanisms would be necessary to provide adequate incentive and reinforcement? How would ICE’s artistic work change and evolve under a new structure? What would happen should the experiment prove wildly successful? What implications would arise for executive leaders, union representation, and board members?

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Chase is quick to observe, “What we do has always been weird and unusual, and there really aren’t any models out there that reflect what we do.”   So when the Innovation Team joined the Lab, members immediately undertook a number of research assignments, hoping to learn from other entrepreneurs about their experiences. They were willing and eager to apply what they learned to developing their own prototype for ICE. The Team’s investigations were wide ranging—from Google, venture partners and innovative businesses to Chicago-based incubators, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, dinner party think tanks, and others.

“Our ‘blue sky’ idea,” says percussionist Ross Karre, “was to develop a mechanism that would involve all 33 members in administrative functions in order to make them part of the curatorial conversation.” In the midst of a challenging and chaotic Lab week that Chase calls “radical and disruptive,” they emerged with an idea. The idea was fresh, but not all that new; in fact, as EmcArts facilitator John Shibley observes, it was simply “a logical, continuing extension of principles and assumptions that have been present in ICE from its inception.” However, to take the radical and ambitious steps the ICE Team envisioned, they would have to become more disciplined and systematic, and they would have to channel their creative impulses in a more robust, purposeful and strategic direction.

What kind of experiment would make sense? The Team was already looking forward to a major residency at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in August 2013, and this event offered a logical opportunity to test some fundamental assumptions about the willingness and capacity of musicians to take on new roles and responsibilities. It was risky, Rubin admits, adding, “We were asking a lot of questions. How much responsibility could we give? How much would musicians take and be willing to do? At what point would they get scared? At what point would we get scared?”

In the end, the Team decided to take the leap of faith. For its Mostly Mozart residency, ICE delegated project lead roles for the first time to members of ICECore (a sub-group of eleven ICE musician-members who had been meeting regularly since 2011 to provide guidance on organization-wide issues), and to non-ICECore members. While Chase and Rubin provided collaborative support throughout, neither had a lead role in producing residency activities. Project Leaders—working in teams of two—organized and produced ten distinct events as part of an experiment to develop a new model for how the organization might function in the future.

Conversations about the new Artist-Partner proposal
Conversations about the new Artist-Partner proposal

Shift in Assumptions

Shibley notes that there was never a moment when the Team declared, “Ah-ha! This is what we’re doing.” Instead, the group generally agreed that the project was simply an extension of things that had already been occurring informally. Their conscious decision, he says, was “to look carefully at what worked and begin to systemize it.” This work included formulating an artistic development process that identified critical artistic and operational roles, articulated key decision-making moments, and noted what needed to be done and when to produce a successful event.

Key to this effort was a redefinition of Chase’s role. During the process, Shibley says, “there was a tacit shift from Claire’s role as super-manager, the person who makes sure things get done to a high level of quality and rushes in when things drift off the mark.” Once the Team began to let go of its dependence on Chase, other talents and interests began to emerge that fed directly into the Mostly Mozart prototype.

Chase says the Team “decisively and joyfully dismantled” another embedded assumption. “We finally saw,” she says, “that growing up as an organization didn’t have to mean doing anything besides being the disruptive and creative organization we had always been. Just because we were facing a capacity issue didn’t mean we had to rush out and hire people to perform traditional organizational functions. We didn’t need to be afraid to take a really radical step, and we didn’t need to be like everyone else.”

A third turning point in the discussion occurred midway through the Lab when the Team rejected the idea of changing ICE from a 501c3 to a limited liability partnership.

Obstacles and Enablers

ICE credits the Lab with providing time for the Team to sit back and consider alternatives. That doesn’t mean that things always went smoothly. While ICE thrives on running with exceptional energy and zest, things can get chaotic when curiosity is undisciplined. At best, Shibley says, ICE’s culture “creates fertile ground in which ideas can develop and from which action happens very quickly.”  In the end, a critical enabler of success was the Team’s ability to self-monitor its collective cleverness.  As Shibley acknowledges, “ICE operates in a creative swirl that most seem to enjoy and which they are loath to relinquish simply in the interest of linearity and order.  Their record as an innovative arts organization operating at a consistently high level of quality seems to argue pretty persuasively that it works for them.”

Although enthusiasm was high following the Lab, it was not easy to sell the Team’s idea to their colleagues. “Our re-entry conversation did not go well,” says Chase. “You can’t inspire trust in colleagues by saying, ‘trust me, trust this system, trust the process.’ It was all very abstract to them. The big take-away was really, ‘Let’s stop talking about this and just do it.’” The intrepid willingness of musicians to try something new provided incredible leverage during the prototyping process. In fact, Chase says, “bringing non-ICECore members into the fold ultimately proved to be a valuable part of the pilot process because it enabled us to assess how effectively those ICE members who had not participated in either the Lab or ICECore could take on increased project management responsibilities for ICE events.”

As an acknowledged darling of the contemporary music scene, ICE attracts a wide variety of outsiders who are interested in what the ensemble is doing. In fact, outsiders were both a blessing and a bane during the Lab. Initially, it took some time for ICE to identify appropriate Team members or, as Shibley says, “to distinguish between the Team and the greater cloud of witnesses on whom ICE could call for advice and assistance.” Midway through the process, non-ICE members were taking a good deal of time to give advice—so much advice, Shibley adds, that “it would have been difficult for anyone to sift through it all.” When ICE members finally took charge and the role of outsiders diminished, the process reached a critical turning point.

One outsider, however, had a major impact on the Team’s deliberations. Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor law from Rutgers University, helped the Team overcome its concern about how the American Federation of Musicians might view their plans. Working with Givan, the Team was able to develop a realistic vision of what the union might or might not do, and what ICE could and could not do legally. “Right-sizing the threat” was a real turning point, says Shibley.

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By the Numbers

Rubin notes the overwhelming success of the Mostly Mozart prototype. All concerts were sold out, and the press attention was glowing. The effort resulted in “ten of the most satisfying concerts we’ve ever had because so many people were involved,” he says. In addition, says Chase, “relationships were strengthened across the spectrum—with composers, musicians, Board members, presenters, funders, other music professionals, audience members and friends.” The experience also strengthened the ensemble itself. Following the residency, participating ICE musicians and production staff reported that the residency had been a positive, affirming and valuable creative opportunity by increasing ensemble cohesion helping them not only navigate the busy Festival schedule, but also excel in it.

During Spring 2013, ICECore members for the first time made a collective final selection of the six composers who would be awarded commissions in 2014, and momentum throughout the organization for the new structure continues to build. The goal, says Chase, was to have 75 percent of the company run by artists by the beginning of the 2014-15 season, a goal she proudly says has been met.

Chase and others maintain that it was, at least in part, the work undertaken as a result of participating in the Lab that led to ICE being named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America. Chase is often invited to conferences to speak about the ICE model, and the organization recently received a grant of $100,000 from the New York Community Trust to support the full roll-out of ICECore capacity-building initiatives. This grant will enable ICE to extend the successful practice of pairing project leaders with ICE projects throughout the season while at the same time sustaining the dual role of ICE entrepreneurs in digital programming, education, fundraising and social media.

New Pathways to Mission

ICE members believe they are achieving a new model for how musicians can manage their artistic lives. “Our mantra coming out of the Lab,” says Chase, “is that there isn’t any decision that isn’t a creative decision, and there isn’t any decision that isn’t a collaborative decision. That doesn’t mean we decide things by committee; it just means that a decision is an evolving, living, breathing thing that has many different hands on it.” By sharing authority across the organization, the pressure on Chase and Rubin has diminished. Now serving as Co-artistic directors, Chase and Rubin join others in the ensemble as both creators and enactors, a shift that they say has been “really exciting.”


International Contemporary Ensemble
International Contemporary Ensemble

The project has “exceeded expectations,” says Chase, noting that others are stepping quickly into new roles. The contributions of percussionist Ross Karre, who is taking the lead on DigitICE (ICE’s free online video library), were so vital that he was hired as ICE’s first director of production. Rebekah Heller joined ICE in 2013 and has taken on fundraising duties; pianist Jacob Greenberg is now director of education; and cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman has taken over as production manager and manager of recordings. To support them in their new roles and sustain the new operating structure, ICE members have established a number of important new support mechanisms, including a computer-based review process to assess the successes and failures of each evening’s concert, as well as a new database to be shared across the organization.

Following the successful launch of the project at Mostly Mozart, awareness of the precise nature of the Project Lead role has risen considerably among ICE musicians who did not take part in the Lab, and it has become firmly embedded in ICE’s working culture. “This is just what we envisioned when we embarked on the Lab,” says Chase, who adds with relish how she “showed up at a concert and everything was already done.” She realizes, however, that the new model doesn’t work for everyone. There has, in fact, been some attrition, and Chase says “it will be a challenge to find the right balance for each participating ICE musician.”

For current ICE members, the possibilities of working within a fundamentally adaptive system are enthralling. Karre says it is what he always dreamed of: not only to be a performer, but also to have a say in the artistic decisions that are being made. It can be a messy process, but the rewards are worth it, say ICE members. “The question,” says Chase, “is not how do we do a program perfectly or design a perfect system, but how do we keep learning and deepening the work?” Shibley agrees that it all seems to work for them. “ICE members believe they are inventing a model for classical music and for young classical musicians in the 21st century, a model that will produce better music, more satisfied musicians, and a more committed public. Are you going to argue with them?” he asks.

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