From Founder-led to Artist-led: shared leadership at ICE

International Contemporary Ensemble, also known as ICE, presented an incredible 50 world premieres at the Mostly Mozart festival in 2016 in honor of Lincoln Center’s 50th Anniversary. With such an outsized presence, “last year was our loudest voice at the festival,” says Joshua Rubin, ICE’s Co-Artistic Director and a founding clarinetist with the group.

Knowing that ICE’s founder and long-time Artistic Director, Claire Chase, had also stepped down from her leadership role in 2016, I caught up with Rubin to hear more about this time of big growth and change at ICE. I particularly wanted to know how ICE’s innovative, artist-led organizational model has evolved since its early experimental days during EmcArts’s Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in 2012 (watch the video profile documenting their Innovation Lab experiments below or see the profile in full here).

“Those experiments changed just about everything that we do in the organization,” Rubin says, “and really let us put our finger on the core ideas of being an artist-driven organization.”

“It’s been an aspiration of the group since the very beginning to evolve into being an artist’s collective,” Chase told The New York Times last year. “And after 15 years I think we can say that we’ve achieved that — and that it’s time to not be founder-led. It’s time for me to be a member of the band, and a supporter and cheerleader and advocate for the group’s work.”

It turns out, a lot has changed for ICE since its Innovation Lab experiments in 2012. Their annual budget has more than doubled, ballooning from $1 million to $2.2 million, and the number of concerts they present each year has grown from 100 to 150. During the same time, they’ve greatly expanded and solidified their experimental approach to artist-staff crossover.

Rubin credits the Lab experience with helping ICE to identify its priorities as a young organization—the things they loved the most—and to experiment with using those as signposts to guide them through the pressures of massive growth.

“We talked in those [Innovation Lab] meetings about finding a way to realize the vision of the organization as allowing every musician in ICE to be a true contributor to our curatorial and administrative workings,” says Rubin. “Now, every musician is an Artist PLUS. They’re playing the music, telling the stories of the pieces, and also involved in curating concerts and working with presenters and peers in presenting the concerts. That distinguishes us.”

Practically speaking, this means that ICE now has nine Artist Staff members, plus three professional staff. In addition, “there is some role for every musician at some point in the season to take on larger role,” Rubin says. “We’re always identifying folks in the organization who have incredible talents that we need to use as we grow.”  For example, ICE recently identified a saxophonist that they wanted to work with, and he almost immediately also became their Grants Manager.

video courtesy of ICE

Artist Staff are contract employees (some at .5 or .25 time) receiving staff salaries in addition to their per-service compensation as contract musicians. ICE added health insurance benefits in 2016, but does not yet offer retirement benefits. There is an emphasis on transparency; everyone has access to a database that shows what people are being paid and how much people are working. Artist Staff generally work where they are rehearsing, splitting their time between offices in Brooklyn (the original “IceHAUS”), Chicago, and Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side.

With all hands on deck, the Ensemble is flexible and can adapt rapidly and strategically to changing circumstances. Recently, they found themselves in a tense situation in Mexico with set-up for a concert going poorly.  “Nothing arrived on time, and they didn’t help us set up,” Rubin relates. “But our musicians were ready with pads of paper, they were working with the crew, and setting up microphones. Everybody knew what everyone else is doing, and they made the show as successful as possible for the audience.”

On a broader level, the deep administrative involvement of ICE’s musicians empowers them to act as “artist initiators” for the group. Rubin credits this mind-set with ICE’s ability to come up with enough artistic and innovative ideas to sustain their intense program of every-other-night concerts.

“Musicians are part of the planning conversations. We ask, ‘what composers are we interested in? What festivals do we want to be a part of? What are other ensembles doing? What are people not doing? Who are we not reaching?’ We have a broad collection of advocates for ICE, with a much greater capacity to speak for the organization than Claire alone.”

Rubin believes that this integration of art-making and administration fosters an important organizational integrity. “It has enabled us to think much bigger about how the fundamental core of the organization can provide the best artistic environment to make work with the musicians,” he says. Now, throughout the organization, ICE shares a musical language, as well as a professional one.

Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts. She continues to work with EmcArts as a writer, researcher, and program evaluator.