The Flywheel Arts Incubator bridges the divide between creation and commerce
Contract negotiations, branding materials and business plans—for artists and entrepreneurs looking to fulfill the promise of critical acclaim and start-up riches, navigating the tricky landscape of sole proprietorship can be a grisly endeavor.
Now, Sacramento creative types have an ally when it comes to solving their entrepreneurial woes. The Flywheel Arts Incubator’s mission is simple: to nurture and cultivate local artists by providing them with an armory of tools to help establish and sustain their businesses—and get them in the public eye. Indeed, Flywheel residents are set to take over the Crocker Art Museum on Thursday, February 14, with an interactive group show.
Flywheel program manager Tre Borden says the incubator is a way to bridge the divide between art and commerce.
“Artists don’t think of themselves as business people,” says Borden. “If you’re an artist, and that’s how you make your living, you’re basically a small-business owner. You’re not just an artist who paints, you’re an artist who pays your taxes and does your marketing and your sales.”
Flywheel was born out of collaboration between Borden and the Arts & Business Council of Sacramento executive director Michelle Alexander, the latter of whom approached the UC Davis business-school grad with an idea to start an incubator as a means to engage, support and mobilize the local art and business community.
Borden says Alexander wanted to augment an existing ABC program called Business Volunteers for the Arts, which served as a bank of professional volunteers who provided pro bono services to artists and nonprofits.
Flywheel launched in June, and already the fledgling organization boasts an impressive roster. So far, Flywheel’s inaugural class supports nine creative ventures, including the celebrated Chalk It Up! festival; style savant Kari Shipman’s fashion blog, Juniper James; experimental musical-theater group New Helvetia Theatre; the hip-hop crew Project4Trees; and the community-based art, education and technology outfit Sol Collective. This first class of participants was selected, Borden says, after an application and interview process that culminated with each hopeful presenting before a panel of Flywheel board members.
“The first time around [with the application process] was difficult, because it was something new and had no track record, but we ended up receiving 40 applications,” Borden says.
Drawing from the start-up model made successful by Silicon Valley tech types, such incubators are not a new phenomenon, but have gained popularity in art and business development. These days, they’re part of the larger macrocosm of business incubators, of which there are more than 500 in North America, according to the National Business Incubation Association.
By nurturing small and emerging organizations, Flywheel endeavors to establish an environment where local artists and organizations want to set up shop and stay in Sacramento.
“We lose a lot of our top talent to larger markets,” says Borden. “You can only get to a certain point in Sacramento, in most people’s minds, before you have to depart for [Los Angeles] or San Francisco or New York [City]. … I want people to understand how they can grow their business organically … and make a living here.”
Borden says Flywheel residents benefit from myriad services, including business-plan assistance and marketing, as well as financial, legal and communication tools.
By partnering with various community organizations such as Sacramento State University, the Urban Hive and the California Museum—where Danny Scheible, one of Flywheel’s artists in residence, is currently exhibiting his masking-tape sculptures—is paramount to Flywheel’s success.
“We have partnerships that are strategic. We partnered with the California Museum, and Danny got his first museum show through that partnership,” says Borden, who also works independently with Scheible’s Tapigami project. “We’ve worked with Good: Street Food + Design Market, and we have a partnership with Sac State, where they’ve allocated staff to head up our design house—whether it’s marketing, branding, website design or photography.”
At Sol Collective, the community-based partnership whose mission is to use art, education and technology as a way to galvanize community action, director and founder Estella Sanchez says Flywheel not only helped her enhance Sol Collective’s visibility, but a recent “finance boot camp” it hosted also provided her with tools to help grow the business.
“Our vision is to provide the richness of arts and culture through workshops, exhibitions and mentorship programs,” Sanchez says. “And Flywheel has helped us figure out where we are, but more importantly, where we want to be.”
After eight years in business, Sanchez says she jumped at the chance to be a part of the Flywheel experience, because it connected her with other members of the arts community. It also opened her eyes to the idea that she wasn’t alone in her mission to bring the arts and community activism to the masses.
“One of the biggest benefits for me [with Flywheel] is discovering that there are a lot of people committed to the arts in the city, and we are facing a lot of the same issues,” Sanchez says. “It’s nice to know our organization isn’t alone in all of this.”
Flywheel’s first year will culminate on Valentine’s Day with the aptly named Local Love interactive art installation at the Crocker Art Museum.
“We want this event to be a kind of love letter to the Sacramento art scene,” Borden says.
Partnering with the Crocker has proved to be essential, he adds. The museum, for example, granted hip-hop group Project4Trees access to film a music video there in January.
Now, as the incubator’s first year comes to a close, Borden says he’s looking forward to ushering in the next class of artists-in-residence.
“The idea is that we have to do a lot of work on the front end to brand this community to say that Sacramento is a place where the arts are thriving,” he says.
“I think that the reason Flywheel is necessary is that there is a lot of creative talent that exists here, and they’re going to replace the old guard of successful artists,” he says. “We need to make sure that we nurture that talent so it stays in Sacramento.”