Puppeteer Blair Thomas, Julia Rhoads of Lucky Plush Productions, and Jen Richards of Eighth Blackbird, now creative partners
Puppeteer Blair Thomas, Julia Rhoads of Lucky Plush Productions, and Jen Richards of Eighth Blackbird, now creative partners Credit: Benjamin Wardell

Four years ago, at the annual meeting of Arts Alliance Illinois, keynote speaker Ben Cameron told the assembled leaders that cooperation, rather than competition, would have to be their strategy going forward—if they were to survive.

The country was reeling under the first impact of the recession, and Cameron, now noted for his TED talks on the performing arts, warned of a wave of consolidation in which all but the strongest groups would be likely to disappear. Work together or die was the message, and the new metaphor, according to Cameron, was “two to a sleeping bag.”

Things don’t seem as dire now, but cooperation still looks like good strategy. This week three of Chicago’s most innovative arts organizations are launching a collaborative experiment aimed at solving a problem older than the ailing economy, one that’s been the death of many a “midcareer” organization. That is, how do you get the seasoned administrative help your group needs to flourish when you’re still too small to pay for it?

Creative Partners—a venture of dance theater company Lucky Plush Productions, puppeteer Blair Thomas & Company, and new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird—will test whether three disparate groups can benefit by sharing what is arguably their most challenging and competitive endeavor: fund-raising. They’ve hired a two-person development team to hit up potential donors for dance, puppetry, music, or all three, and they’ll introduce it to their combined audiences on Thursday, April 25, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in a program they’ve dubbed “The Unexpected.”

If it doesn’t work, it won’t be for lack of planning. Creative Partners grew out of the frustration Lucky Plush artistic director Julia Rhoads was feeling three years ago, after a decade of “wearing all the hats” for her company. Rhoads says she had some part-time administrative help, but couldn’t pay more than $12 or $13 an hour, which meant she couldn’t hire anyone with experience and couldn’t hang on to the beginners she trained. Then she heard about a program that had three theater companies—Thomas’s, the Hypocrites, and the House Theatre of Chicago—sharing a finance director.

“I thought, why not a higher-level executive share?” Rhoads says. With a grant from the Arts Work Fund and the help of a consultant, she spent a year researching everything from small collaborations to mergers. Then she held a series of meetings with other theater and music companies, scouting for prospective partners. Rhoads was looking for “a good fit, organizationally and artistically,” but to eliminate any intergroup competition and maximize cross-marketing, she wanted it to be interdisciplinary.

Once she’d settled on Blair Thomas and Eighth Blackbird—all doing work she describes as “genre-bending, interdisciplinary, playful, technically rigorous”—they figured out together that what they really needed wasn’t a shared executive director, as she’d originally envisioned, but help with fund-raising. Another year was spent working with Northwestern’s Entrepreneurship Law Center, hammering out a contract. (The resulting agreement specifies that the development team will devote a quarter of its time to each organization, and the final quarter to the group as a whole, “with a predominant focus on individual giving,” Rhoads says.) Then the new group sought foundation support for the first three years. So far, Creative Partners has $225,000 from the MacArthur Foundation and $30,000 from the Prince Charitable Trusts. Development director Dana Horst started work in January.

Meanwhile, the business collaboration that inspired Rhoads shrank to a part-time effort last month. Thomas, the Hypocrites, and the House had started the financial manager position as a full-time job with a competitive salary and benefits managed by the League of Chicago Theatres. “It was funded the first two years, and then we all paid for it,” Thomas says. “And it turned out to be a much higher hourly wage than anyone else [in the three groups] is getting. It was like we had a consultant on a regular basis. It just became too expensive.”

And therein, says Thomas, lies the advantage of a development team over any other back-office function: after the funding runs out, “they’ll be raising the money to cover the cost of having them.”

Jen Richards, Eighth Blackbird’s executive director, boils it at all down to the fact that “small and midsized arts organizations are typically run by artists. They have to do everything themselves, and it distracts from their ability to make art. The big bottom line here is that this kind of model allows more art to be made.”

Thomas, who says he spends 60 percent of his time on administration, agrees: “It’s challenging to be a midcareer artist. Every year you have to go seek that support again. And doing the fund-raising hustle is exhausting. It has a high burnout factor. We’re trying to invent a new way of making this work.”

One thing the collaboration has going for it is mutual admiration among the companies. Starting with the show at the MCA, Thomas says, “we’ll see if our audiences and our donors are willing to hop into bed with us.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the current status of the financial manager collaboration administered by the League of Chicago Theatres.