Contemporary Art: Clash of the Business Models

One is a music celebration that is staged by a for-profit event management firm. The other is a sculpture festival that is organized by a group of non-profit artists. Both were launched in the late 1980s, and have become fixtures of the contemporary art scene.

The music celebration is South by Southwest, managed by SXSW Inc. in downtown Austin, Texas. And the sculpture festival is Burning Man, initially founded on California’s Baker Beach and now held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. SXSW brings tens of thousands of registrants to Austin each year, while Burning Man has experienced attendance as high as 56,000 participants.

Both events have thrived while adopting very different business models. SXSW, for instance, presented a Lady Gaga concert this year under the sponsorship of Doritos tortilla chips. Burning Man, on the other hand, creates “social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.”

Rarely do we enjoy an opportunity to observe how such different business models succeed or fail to meet similar goals. It does appear, though, that both business models are currently experiencing the strains of success.

This year, for instance, SXSW was heavily criticized for Lady Gaga’s appearance, drawing charges of a “tasteless” performance for a “capitalist trade show.” And the founders of Burning Man have been locked in a lawsuit over the management rights to the event.

These challenges appear to be exacerbated by the very business models that have been chosen by each event organization. For profit organizations, by their very nature, may expect to draw charges of commercialism. And non profit organizations, when founded by artists with no business expertise, may struggle to manage large and complex events.

If you were the mayor of a city that is planning a community arts festival, would you select a for-profit or a non-profit organizational entity to manage the event?