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The Interview

How a haven for artists is uplifting a community

2 July 2024 • by David Bach in The Interview

Finance professional Jason Price discusses the potential for art to transform underserved communities, with David Bach....

Within a stone’s throw of Yale, in the low-income New Haven neighborhood of Dixwell, finance professional Jason Price and his business partner, artist Titus Kaphar, have revived a former manufacturing property to create NXTHVN, a fully funded social impact incubator and place of learning for artists, entrepreneurs, and non-profits. Price discusses the potential for art to transform underserved communities, with David Bach.

David Bach: Why did you choose this neighborhood for NXTHVN?

Jason Price: You have a divide between what I would call thriving neighborhoods and this neighborhood. There are a lot of truths here that exist in many neighborhoods in America: when manufacturing leaves, it leaves a particular type of demographic who find themselves out of work and under-skilled. In this neighborhood, it happens to disproportionately impact people of color. So, we have a drive and a desire to make sure that if we’re going to do something supporting the arts, it really impacts people we care about and identify with.

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When an artist joins NXTHVN as a fellow, what bundle of services do you offer?

They get a studio, typically larger than where they came from because that space is expensive. We can give them more space, which allows them to scale. I’m particularly proud that we give them a new type of curriculum. They’re all very talented artists and makers, but we have a unique curriculum that is all about the studio practice and the professional practice of taking their work and having that work engage with the professional art market, which is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

We think about what it means to be engaged with a gallery that, in some cases, will take 50% to broker their work to major collectors. How do you think about the documents and contracts that are necessary? How do you think about boring stuff like paying taxes? For some of these artists, it’s the first time they’re receiving cash, and then they look up and see that they have a major tax bill, but they’ve spent all the money. We talk about the practice and the canon of making work, but we’re giving them those tools that are really important for having a successful studio practice and, let’s be honest, making money because they are entrepreneurs, even though they’re serious artists.

We also give them a stipend. Each of them gets $35,000, which can defray the cost of being a starving artist, which is important, and we give them an apartment next door. They can open their door when they wake up, walk right into their studio, and be fully immersed in this community and practice. Then, we bridge them to our network – that’s the final piece – the institutions, galleries, brokers, and collectors. We encourage them to make those relationships their own, because once they understand and start to build the beginning of their network, that’s something that they can take with them and build on once they leave.

Your co-founder, Titus Kaphar, is a very well-known contemporary artist in the US. How did his experience as an artist shape your sense that a place like this was needed, influence the curriculum, and really build those business skills for artists?

He’s the creative genius who’s a really successful artist in multiple mediums. But it’s a long journey from art school and the love of art to a professional practice, especially at that level. What happens in that process is that you make a lot of mistakes, and you definitely make a lot of professional mistakes. So, the idea of NXTHVN is to be a mirror of some of the mistakes he made. We built a curriculum around that so we could give it to emerging artists earlier in their careers so, hopefully, they can avoid some of those mistakes.

Why do you believe this combination of art and business has such potential for creating social impact?

Artists are true innovators. They’re the ones that are out on a limb. They’re the ones who are proving that new forms of expression and ways of doing things have cultural importance. When you think about artists as mavericks and pioneers, typically, they are the first ones to come into neighborhoods like this one because the real estate is cheap. Then, you start to get into gentrification, and the property values go up. That’s a form of entrepreneurism.

The challenge is how to marry what is considered pure art and innovation to what we would call commercial innovation, measured by traditional metrics like net income and return on investment. That’s where the science comes in because you’re taking the theoretical and the practice and trying to mirror it and match it to your balance sheet, the way you raise capital. Who are your stakeholders? What are you accountable for in terms of how you deliver the value that people expect?

On one hand, the value of new voices in the arts is critically important, but it’s hard to put a tangible value on it. Easier to measure is the value of having those artists here first and doing the work we’re doing here with this infrastructure. I’m looking around, and buildings are going up around us, and more investment is going into the houses, and there are people who weren’t here or would not have come to this neighborhood before. There’s more foot traffic. There’s more money here now. Our job is then to say: “OK, if we’re in control of some of that value creation on both sides of that equation, can we put ourselves in the middle of it and ensure that it goes to the people that we care about, or at least some of the people that we care about?”

You have been really intentional about building bridges with the community. Can you share a little about the apprenticeship program and the role it plays here?

Every fellow that gets into our program is required to have a high school apprentice. Typically, that is a program for young students interested in the arts or already making their own work. They’re really special. Those kids come from our neighborhood. They usually come from the types of schools and institutions that don’t have the budget for art. Those kids who have a desire to create art find their people, or they take what they can, but they never really understand that art can be a pathway to a career. Our job is, once we have them in our apprenticeship program, to not only have them learn next to an artist but to give them the tools in a different type of curriculum that helps them understand that art is a profession, has real value, and is something that you can go to school for.

You hold an MBA from Harvard Business School. You had a career in finance and private equity. How is working with artists different?

The main difference is the greatest artists, the real artists, are stubborn. I say that in a good way. They have absolute conviction around what they’re making and their voice. They’re really intelligent. They’ve studied it, know the canon, know who’s come before them, and they’re building on top of it. So, working with them is sometimes difficult because you have to find the language to find a compromise among people who have strong convictions. It is very much related to the pioneers in industry that we study. It’s the Steve Jobs of the world that we exalt for having this idea of an iPod you can fit in your hand with 500 songs on it.

We’ve read the books, and he’s like, “No, it’s going to look like this. It’s going to be this way.” So that’s very similar. We’re valuing art in a particular way, in the way that it creates a new voice and culture, forcing us to think differently about our position in society and culture. Business professionals are the same way. They’re maybe not doing anything new, but it’s enough of a nuance that we begin to move through the world in different ways, and they’ve created value that makes life easier or more enjoyable. So, in that way, it’s the same. We just have to find a common language.

What might NXTHVN look like a few years from now, and how will the pieces fit together? 

Hopefully, it looks like a small, bustling community, and we can build in the interaction between all those different nodes within the model. There’s no real wide shot, but we can invite entrepreneurs and even non-profits to use our space for no money, or very little money, to get their ideas off the ground and have a place to meet that’s in their community. When you have a place with all these nodes that we have, then we have power. That power is really about the ability to say: “You have a good idea, and I know it’s expensive for you to incubate that idea, or maybe you don’t know how to incubate that idea. Come to us, spend some time here ruminating on it.”

Whether you’re a maker or an entrepreneur, somebody who wants to have an event, or wants to sit and have coffee and have a dialogue with someone, this space is built intentionally to have all of those offerings so that we get to that bustling ecosystem. In some ways, we already have it, but we want more. We always want more. 

What do you think will happen when you have entrepreneurs next to artists, artists next to entrepreneurs? Are there real cross-pollination opportunities?

There are, and it’s happening. We have a graphic design firm here, and there is cross-pollination between what they can do from a graphic design point of view and what our artists are doing in terms of marketing their work, thinking about brand imaging, websites, and that sort of thing. Then, other businesses here are more non-profit-oriented, where they can begin to think about how art spills into the community.

Last summer, we partnered with [NXTHVN creative director] John Dennis. He is very much focused on how basketball and art combine. Basketball is a very big part of some inner-city culture, especially in America. With this artist, they had a project to revitalize the park next door, the basketball court. They got an image, they painted it, they brought out the community, the community painted the courts, they announced it, they had a dedication ceremony, and they brought in new goals and new nets. Art has transcended these four walls into the park to create a change for the positive, to revitalize that basketball venue through art. That all came out of collaboration in this space.

Are you working on these two dimensions at the same time: helping artists reach the very top of their field and making them more accessible to the public?

Yes. Some of that is personal, in the sense of, philosophically, where do you come out in terms of how you make change in America? These artists are engaged and participants in a multi-billion-dollar industry. Historically, there hasn’t been enough equity between the institutions, the industry, and the artists. Artists get taken advantage of. We understand capitalism. I went to business school. I worked in finance. I understand that there’s power in positioning themselves as somebody who’s an entrepreneur, while they can also be someone who is artistic and really leaning heavily into that voice.

At the same time, I also know that art is a pathway into neighborhoods like this one. If we’re good at picking the best and finest artists, that can be a magnet that then has an impact on everything else that it can touch: the community, what happens in this building, the collectors who come in to collect the work, and again, back to us – meaning Titus and myself, as co-founders – our ability to take all of those multiple stakeholders with varying levels of intention and bundle it in a way that both the community and our artists get the value that they deserve. We can go down a whole list of ways to make an impact. We believe that art can change the world and, by leading with art at the highest level, will attract the capital to make a change that lifts everybody.

What leadership traits have served you particularly well as you’ve put this together?

I’m intellectually curious. My friendship with Titus turned into a partnership, but it really came from the fact that I admired him, and I just asked a lot of questions about what it means to be a professional artist and who you engaged with, and, “Oh my God, why did they take this large of a percentage when you work through a gallery?” That sincere thirst for knowledge and information is something that most good leaders have. I’m not saying I’m a good leader, but I think it’s a good trait. The other piece is risk tolerance, the ability to say, “I think I know what kind of risk we’re taking, and I can band it and get my hands around it, and it’s worth taking that step forward.”

Then, you really do have to have vision. You have to be able to see this as much more than just a place where artists make work and you can come to buy and see art. You have to think about this as a place that one day can change the neighborhood, change New Haven, change the entire art world, or play a part in changing some of what’s in the art world and can extend beyond North America. You have to be ambitious in that way. You have to want it. You need that desire to want to be able to say: “I can do this.” Most good leaders have that.

Expert

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Jason Price

Partner in Exaltare Capital Partners

Jason Price is a partner in Exaltare Capital Partners, a private equity investment firm, where he specializes in investments in lower middle market firms and family-owned businesses seeking growth capital to professionalize operations.

Over his professional career, Jason has served on the advisory boards of more than 12 private equity partnerships. Jason received his BA in Business Administration from Morehouse College and his MBA from Harvard Business School.  

 

Authors

David Bach

David Bach

Professor of Strategy and Political Economy, and Dean of Innovation and Programs. IMD

David Bach is Professor of Strategy and Political Economy, Rio Tinto Chair in Stakeholder Engagement, and Dean of Innovation and Programs. He will assume the Presidency of IMD on 1 September 2024. He is the Program Director of IMD’s Shaping the Business Environment for Sustainability program. Through his award-winning teaching and writing, Bach helps managers and senior leaders develop a strategic lens for the nexus of business and politics.

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