Adaptable + Replicable = Sustainable?

by Jane Jung

in Financial Adaptation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Financial Adaptation blog salon curated by Adam Thurman for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being.”
― Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

Over the past few years, Ping Chong + Company has ventured into new territories through the expansion of our documentary theater program, Undesirable Elements. We’ve grown creatively and organizationally while adhering to our fundamental values, but this process has raised broader questions for us about new models of revenue generation in the theater.

In 1975, Ping Chong started a theater company in downtown Manhattan amidst a milieu that espoused the breaking down of traditional boundaries in the arts and the birth of interdisciplinary arts.  (Click here to see a photo of Ping in his Art School days in New York City.) Flash forward to 2013. Ping Chong + Company is an experimental theater company still based in the East Village in New York City, which has produced and toured interdisciplinary theater productions around the world and developed the innovative community-specific documentary theater series, Undesirable Elements. In just the past five years, our scope of activity has enabled us to work with partners and venues as diverse as Syracuse University and the Congolese Refugee Community of Syracuse, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Shaanxi Performing Arts Group and the People’s Theater in Xi’an, China, New York City Public Schools in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, El Museo del Barrio, and Vanguard Financial Group. With each project, we are required as a company to be flexible and adapt to different organizational cultures. Each partnership and opportunity is unique but our founding values of beauty, innovation, artistry, and collaboration are connecting threads between all of these diverse projects.

Undesirable Elements (UE) originated in 1992 as a performance to accompany a visual arts installation that Ping Chong created for Artists Space, a gallery in lower Manhattan. (Click here to read more of the backstory.) Since then, the company has been in residence in nearly 50 communities all over the world.  UE is a spare, structured theatrical frame that allows for individuals to present their stories through a script based on interviews. Being an adaptable form, UE has allowed for unique types of partnerships between our company and many types of organizations and communities.  Over time, our ability to replicate this form has been repeatedly affirmed and we are a stronger organization because of it. But a clear answer to a separate, but related question has not yet emerged – whether it is financially sustainable over the long term. How do we utilize this socially engaged, community-based form, aesthetically daring in its simplicity, to continue supporting the company and the vision of Ping Chong?

In 2008, Ping Chong + Company was awarded a 5 year grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Leading for the Future program. Funds were put towards testing out new program activities generated through the methodology of the Undesirable Elements program that we normally would not have been able to. We took risks outside of our usual line of work with the goal of generating new revenue through our activities.  We undertook several new initiatives and partnerships with non-theater organizations, developed an education program, and an annual training institute. At the end of the grant period in 2013, we have seen great new programmatic and organizational developments, which we look forward to sharing at the TCG Conference, but we continue to ask the following questions:

  • What is sustainability in the arts?
  • Given constantly shifting economies, are there dependable revenue streams in the arts?
  • Is there a way to generate new revenue streams without laterally expanding?
  • How do you work in multiple environments and what are the benefits and costs?
  • As a company, how do we uphold values of integrity and artistry while pursuing new ideas?

We look forward to delving deeper into each of these questions and sharing lessons learned, triumphs, and challenges at the TCG Conference in Dallas.

JANE JUNG is General Manager of Ping Chong + Company where she oversees financial management, operations, and marketing endeavors. In addition to her work with PCC, she produces new work with Little Lord, a Brooklyn-based theater company and is a Time Warner Foundation Fellow of the Women’s Project Producers’ Lab. She previously held positions at Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, Leveraging Investments in Creativity and New England Foundation for the Arts. She has an MFA in Theater Management from the Yale School of Drama.

  • Jim Hart

    Fantastic! Thanks for a great post and I hope to attend your session. To further dialog around this important topic, I have attempted to respond to these topics above in 1 or 2 sentences, each. Perhaps we can begin a discussion before the main event? For fun, I urge others to try to do the same. Here are mine:

    A fluid and diverse series of revenue streams

    No. Dependability is an illusion. Few saw 2008 coming.

    Go digital via the web and find a niche service you can promote internationally through like-minded groups.

    Benefits: Assumption of new skills, ability to synthesize developing skills. Costs: Time, energy, learning curve, cash (at times).

    Create from meaning and passion while serving others’ needs.