“We launched something that nobody had ever done before,” says Damon Runnals. “There are only three other all-access programs in the country, and all of them are at houses that produce their own work. Nobody had created this kind of collective.”
Kicking off in the 2015 calendar-year season, the Southern Theater’s ARTshare was a bold initiative. Runnals, who was the Southern’s executive director until stepping down last year, envisioned the program as a subscription service that would allow patrons unlimited access to performances at the theater by 15 different groups for a fixed price of $18 a month.
Runnals asked each of the 15 participating companies for a commitment of three years, and while a few dropped out, most remained in the program through the third season. Now, as the Southern continues its search for a new leader, a panel of four curators (Shá Cage, Jon Ferguson, Joe Horton, and Kaleena Miller) are choosing from among nearly 90 applications for next year’s ARTshare season.
“We really wanted to make the Southern more accessible, bring some diversity into our season,” says Jamie Schumacher, the Southern’s interim executive director. “We thought the way to do that was to bring people to the table as part of the planning process and as part of the curation process.”
Runnals considers ARTshare a success, despite the fact that numbers have fallen short of the hoped-for 500 subscribers. After some ups and downs, membership is now around 300. “In light of trying something completely different,” says Runnals, “I think we can mark it as a success.”
One of the founding companies was Theatre Novi Most, whose Lisa Channer says she was glad to be part of the program’s first cohort. “It was an experiment, and we knew that going in.” She says the program provided useful marketing and design help, and Novi Most saw its audience grow.
Staff at the PIM Arts High School (formerly known as the Main Street School of Performing Arts) say that ARTshare generally worked well for them also. “My experience was pretty positive,” says John Mark, who directed the school’s ARTshare shows. “It has to be a challenging thing, creating that kind of membership model from the ground up.”
Participating ARTshare companies pay no upfront costs, sharing proceeds with the Southern in a split that tilts increasingly toward the artists as audience numbers increase. It’s a relatively low-risk arrangement, but it also limits companies’ potential revenue: paying to rent a space can be a better deal.
Over the past few years, ARTshare has seen some tweaks. For example, an initial distinction between “resident companies” and other participating groups has essentially fallen away. Next year’s process is an experiment, and the theater’s next artistic director will lead the process of deciding how to move forward beyond 2018.
Channer says Novi Most has submitted a show proposal for next year, with optimistic expectations about the new curation process. “It just seemed like, ‘Why not?’ I hope it’s a really good step forward.”