What Exactly is a Shared Platform?

What Exactly is a Shared Platform?

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We held an Open Source Brainstorm in the Theatre Centre Incubator as part of developing a plan for STAF’s new Shared Platform.

Eight months ago I took over as Executive Director and Transformation Designer of Small Theatre Administrative Facility (STAF). From that moment, I have been swept up in a conversation about ‘Shared Platforms’, a term at the centre of discussions on how to evolve our cultural infrastructure. Shared platform is also just a descriptor that can refer to many different models, which I think is leading to some confusion as people think about the possibilities they present.

STAF is a shared platform and is a good place to start this conversation as it is transitioning from one type of shared platform to a new one. In the old model (started just weeks after The Blue Jays first won the World Series in 1992) STAF was a shared platform for subsidized administrative services. The model allowed a number of artists and companies to share a grant writer, publicist, financial administrator, or general manager, thus reducing the administrative cost to those artists.

I am not a fan on this type of shared platform, as is probably obvious from my job title. Although it was once a very good idea, times have changed and as a community we must adapt to the given circumstances.  We will announce in early June some of the specifics of the different type of shared platform STAF is creating. These measures will give artists greater agency to follow the advice Mike Daisey tweeted to artists while in Toronto to, “own the means of production. Always.”

This means a shared platform that gives artists many more chances to do this type of work for themselves, and fewer chances to pay someone to do it for them. The word ‘entrepreneurial’ is often applied to this type of shared platform, but we will also have programs that seek a living wage. If nothing else, it is a healthier model that allows the ideals of Marx and Adam Smith to co-exist.

These are not the only types of shared platforms, and another kind has been discussed at length and is getting significant attention from funders: This week TAC, OAC, Trillium and Metcalf put out a call for “expressions of interest” regarding “shared charitable platform work”. This is the culmination of significant research and discussion around the how to deal with the infrastructure and requirements for emerging and newer artists as the RFEOI states:

“Many now question the feasibility of requiring artists to incorporate as stand-alone organizations in order to receive public and private funding, and seek alternative models to sustain their practice. One of the alternatives that has been proposed to address this challenge is shared charitable platforms.”

It also cites from the Metcalf-funded paper by Jane Marsland “Shared Platforms and Charitable Venture Organizations (2013)”, which was when I first became aware of shared platforms as a solution to barriers that many independent organizations face:

  1. It takes considerable work and expense to incorporate and set up a not-for-profit corporation with a Board of Directors.
  2. That Board of Directors can fire you from your job running the theatre company you started.
  3. The ability to give out tax receipts and receive funding from foundations requires a second more onerous level of administration along with being a not-for-profit corporation to maintain charitable status.
  4. With limited opportunities and many emerging artists, there is a trend of new and emerging artists spending their energy (in between bartending and commercial auditions) to set up this bulky infrastructure in order to have the means to pursue their craft.
  5. Registered charities have strict rules on their ability to engage in political advocacy. Recently we have seen with many environmental groups targeted by CRA regarding this aspect of the law.

*This is something we have talked about more at Praxis Theatre than something I have seen discussed in cultural industry studies or literature.

Marsland’s study, which acknowledges significant input on the nature of Canadian tax law from the David Stevens and Margaret Mason paper, “Tides Canada Initiatives Society: Charitable Venture Organizations: A New Infrastructure Model for Canadian Registered Charities“, outlines three possible umbrella models that could serve to lessen the need for emerging and new artists to go this route.

  • A) Establish a Charitable Venture Organization specifically for arts organizations.
  • B) Utilize existing administrative platforms such as arts service organizations or arts management providers.
  • C) Existing arts organizations, in collaborative relationships, acting as shared platforms.

A primary takeaway here from the report is:

“A charity must be able to show that in fact, at all times, it is carrying out only its own activities through the intermediary, and that it directs and controls the use of any resources that further these activities.”

The only reasonable conclusion I can reach from this is Option A: Charitable Venture Organization (CVO) is the type of shared platform that would best meet the standards established by Revenue Canada. Marsland lists several core characteristics of a CVO:

  • Project belongs to the CVO — the CVO takes the project in-house and it is not a separate legal entity
  • CVO is liable for everything
  • Project personnel are employees of the CVO
  • Contributions belong to the CVO — CVO reports revenue, expenses

Basically by ‘owning’ the project and being responsible for the finances, a CVO could provide charitable status for a number of projects and artists who no longer have to set up companies and boards and annual audited statements. Sounds like a good idea in principle, which is why there is now real talk about putting money behind setting one up. STAF Board President Julie Tepperman and her company Convergence Theatre is listed as a case study in the report where she notes:

“We certainly do not want a board who can hire and fire us. Nor do we want the headache of all the extra reporting and accounting. We do not want to have to pay $3,000 a year, which we don’t have, to do our taxes. We have enough headaches and accountability doing our taxes as a “shared partnership” thank you very much! The last thing we want or need is to turn Convergence Theatre into a child who will always need nurturing and care.”

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The RIser Project was front page news in METRO yesterday.

Of course these aren’t the only shared platform models out there. Why Not Theatre has also created a shared platform for The Riser Project , which brings mid-sized theatre organizations into the creative process with emerging artists as their works are created and presented, providing artistic and producing opportunities these companies could only achieve collectively. The Metcalf Foundation and Toronto Arts Foundation recently committed to funding a two-year research and evaluation study of Why Not’s shared platform as well as STAF’s new model by S.L. Helwig & Associates President and Principal Consultant Sherri Helwig.

The hope is this will provide feedback to the community and to funders about how these particular shared platforms worked and where they can be improved. If there is consensus on anything about Shared Platforms, it is that there are many different models and that we need to be rigorous in our assessment of best practices while maintaining willingness for disparate models to co-exist.

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About the Author

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Michael is Artistic Director of SpiderWebShow, which he co-created with Creative Catalyst Sarah Garton Stanley. He was previously Executive Director and Transformation Designer of Generator, where he led the transition from a fee-for-service model named STAF, to the current capacity-building model it operates on.
Since 2003, he has run Toronto-based Praxis Theatre, with which he has directed 14 plays and curated several festivals while writing for and running performance-based websites. He teaches regularly at The National Theatre School and Queen’s University, where SpiderWebShow is currently in residence.