A hypothetical outline of an artist-corporation

I've been thinking about a lot of things recently. Some of these things involve higher ed in these United States, especially the rise of “quit lit” (including this article on Vox that you've probably read that still keeps me thinking), alt-ac careers, the value of the liberal arts and humanities, and my own alma mater cutting 12 full time faculty contracts. I've also thought a lot about the situation with tenure at Wisconsin, and how that relates to the magazine that I put together this past summer (but that's another blog post entirely). Also rattling around my brain is the future of NoteForge, and just where Liszt (my school of music management software) is going.

Combined with these thoughts is the fact that I find myself surrounded by brilliant people. Many of them are in music, but all of them have talents outside their major field. And all of that led me to this thought experiment, which very well may be a bad idea.

Let's create a hypothetical company. We'll give it a fancy name, say, Atelier LLC. Atelier, like NoteForge, is primarily a software and technology company, with a flagship product that, I don't know, runs nonprofits or something of that nature. We have to staff this company somehow, and how do we do that?

Let's take a diversion for a moment. The US doesn't do a great job of supporting artists. Part of this is cultural, in that we haven't agreed on what the value of art is and we don't have a history of patronage like most of Europe does, another part is political in that the government have a priority of funding the arts. (Other parts, as well as whether this should or should not be the case is beyond the scope of this exercise). This is the world we find ourselves in for better or worse. Meanwhile, in academia, professors are afforded a certain percentage of their workload for teaching and a certain percentage for research or creative activity. Let's also throw in there the fact that (I would guess) the majority of artists that are serious about their art and are able to pursue it are working part-time jobs, either because they have to, or because they want to keep part of their time open to creating.

So back to Atelier. The powers that be there assume that all of the above is true. And so they decide to try a radical change to the standard work division. Even though all of the employment opportunities at Atelier are full time, 40-hour jobs with benefits, an full half of those 40 hours are reserved for creative activity. It's similar to Google's 20% rule that allows employees to explore other projects 20% of the time, but with the goal being the creation of art and the development of the artist rather than the creation of new technologies. In this case, Atelier's mission is shifted toward the goal of enriching artists that can hone their craft and eventually become self-sustaining artists rather than the goal of “make lots o' money”.

There are immediate theoretical issues with Atelier's theoretical employment plan. The first is that with a workforce that is only devoting 50% of their time and energy to the company, the workforce will need to be twice as large as competing companies to make the same impact. Atelier, as a software company, solves part of this problem by systematizing many functions in their own corporate software application, maintaining a flat organization, and keeping a close eye on the bureaucracy. Additionally, it is likely that a company that actively works to promote its employees creative success will produce happier, creative employees.

Secondly, there is an obvious issue with the possibility that employees would be hired and would proceed to not develop (as expected) as an artist. This would unfortunately require the use of annual or semiannual reviews where the employee's progress as an artist would be evaluated, primarily in the terms of the amount of artistic output, which I'm not crazy about. Requirements governing artistic output would need to be created and integrated, and although the management at Atelier isn't interested in saying what is and isn't art, the company is interested in saying which sort of art they will or will not fund the creation of.

Technically speaking, all of the works created through the Atelier 50% plan could be considered “works for hire” with copyright assigned to the company, but the employment contracts go to great pains to lay out that this is not the case, that intellectual property rights for the art remains with the employee, while the intellectual property rights for the software remain with Atelier.

The eventual goal of a job at Atelier is that an employee/artist is given the opportunity to sharpen their skill through the 50% plan, becoming an artist in their own right, and leaves the company. But what if it doesn't work out that way? What if, after a span of five, seven, ten years, an artist shows no signs of being self-sufficient. Do they continue working at Atelier, or are they released from service? This is a point that Atelier hasn't yet figured out. On one hand, the point is to create self-sufficient artists, but this will be problematic if the company is too successful at creating those artists and there is no linearity to the workforce, that is, no one with years of experience is around to keep the workflow and work ethic consistent and evaluate the process from a historical standpoint.

I have no idea if it would work. I like to think that it would, that if you started a company and got a group of like-minded, creative, brilliant people together, took care of them, and asked them to create stuff for you and stuff for them, that you'd be amazed with the results.

Kyle Vanderburg