Fledgling arts groups always have two attributes: great enthusiasm and an inability to deal with forms and record-keeping of any kind. Enthusiasm can keep a company going for years, but sooner or later, someone is going to look in that overstuffed desk drawer that serves as the group's filing cabinet. At which point they'll scream, or cry, or take what looks like cash and leave. Most fringe theaters and small art galleries don't die because of their amateurish artistic work, but from their amateurish paper work.
That's why The Shunpike is so valuable. It began as an artists' collective back in 2001, but its members soon became less interested in creating art themselves than in supporting the work of others. They began acting as an umbrella organization for small companies that haven't yet received their nonprofit 501c3 status (which allows them to receive tax-free donations). The Shunpike essentially funnels donations through its own 501c3 status, taking a percentage as payment. It's not a new model—Allied Arts used to do the same thing—but it's been an essential boost for newer groups like Circus Contraption, WET, and Crawlspace Studio, who receive not only access to funds but help and advice on how to turn a cool idea into something functioning and sustainable. The Shunpike also offers free workshops on subjects relevant to arts administrators, from building relationships with local businesses to guerrilla marketing techniques.
"It's our basic mission: support small to midsize organizations," explains Shunpike's executive director Andy Fife. "They're the most vulnerable to financial mistakes, and the ones that in a lot of ways are the most vital to the community." Fife, who's been executive director of Shunpike since last fall, admits he's learned as much from his failures as his successes. He was, for example, previously the operations manager with ConWorks, which flamed out rather spectacularly. His says in his experience the same problems tend to occur repeatedly with fledgling groups—poor budgeting, a lack of financial accountability, weak fundraising, and boards that don't know what they're doing.
"The first thing we often do with a group is help them raise funds to pay us with," says Fife, "and sometimes, that's the first time they've thrown a fundraiser. That's great, because it gets them thinking about who really supports them. We tell them that if you want to build an audience, it's not about billboards or bus signs or blanketing an entire neighborhood with postcards. We say build your audiences one by one, so that they believe in you and believe in your mission."
Fife hopes that Shunpike's work will ultimately develop a kind of self-fulfilling quality to it. "The Shunpike wants to be the stamp of approval," he says. "We want [funders] to see that by using us, this is a group of people that are dedicated to making a real stab at becoming a professional company."—John Longenbaugh www.shunpike.org