Push and Pull, Part II: Coopetition in the New York Opera Alliance
For my MA thesis, I undertook a case study of one U.S. cultural alliance, the New York Opera Alliance (NYOA). NYOA is an outlier among American arts alliances, consisting almost entirely of opera companies. Most known cultural alliances are multi-disciplinary, mixing different types of cultural organisations. They also tend to be incubators of coopetition, as the members are simultaneously cooperating with one another and competing for a limited pool of resources.
NYOA at the time of the study consisted of 51 small opera companies, an opera podcast, a national service organization for opera practitioners, and two foundations that support the art form. Members are invited to meet periodically to discuss industry issues, award industry figures who have championed small-scale independent opera, and to produce an annual festival, the New York Opera Fest (NYOF).
I reviewed extensive business literature relating to coopetition, but literature exploring coopetition in the performing arts is scant. I was able to find only four case studies among the academic literature.
I interviewed five NYOA member company executive/artistic directors to see how their views on competition and collaboration compared to the previously studied instances of coopetition in the performing arts. The data from these five interviews suggested that NYOA looks very different to two of the previously studied instances of performing arts coopetition. It should be noted that with such a small sample, the data can only suggest areas of future study, and its results are not conclusive. However, the sample included companies of varying budget sizes, artistic visions, and repertoire choices.
Angelo Mariani investigated coopetition in the Lucca, Livorno & Pisa consortium of houses in Italy (2007) and among the regional companies of Australia (2009). In these cases, collaboration took the form of coproductions. The houses were spaced far apart geographically. In the Italian case, they were regional companies and so could have had some audience overlap, but it was not significant. Thus, they were not really competing for audience. The Australian houses had no audience overlap; the houses were in different states. Both consortia received heavy support from government funders. Coproduction allowed cost efficiencies as well as allowing the smaller houses to "scale up" and achieve a level of artistic quality they might not otherwise have been able to do. It did not matter as much - even in the Italian case - that the productions were the same or similar. What I referred to in my these as "artistic independence" - the need to sharply differentiate one's organisation's produce from that of competitors - was not as crucial. Since audiences were not shared, there was no particular risk to being duplicative or imitative.
I found NYOA to be markedly different. It was hard to precisely determine how many opera companies operate in New York City. I was able to find 85, including the Metropolitan Opera, which were incorporated. 51 of these are members of NYOA. However, this doesn't include groups that are not incorporated, and may include groups that have been dormant or no longer perform, but which haven't dissolved their company. Still, it is a pretty good estimate.
These companies are all clustered in a small geographic area. I found that while the managers I spoke with were loathe to admit that other opera companies were competing with them for limited resources such as box office share and donors, they did all agree that they compete in terms of artistic quality. In order to stand out among the proliferation of small companies and attract good artists, tech people, and audience, they need specialized, niche identities. The identities, however, become so specialized that they no longer see one another as producing even the same art form. This in turn leads to a perception that there is no competition, and also to a reluctance to actively collaborate in ways that companies spaced further apart might do (i.e., co-productions).
In these respects, NYOA is very different to the Tuscan and Australian examples studied by Angelo Mariani. Kirchner (2007) was the first author to embark on an extensive study of performing arts coopetition, looking at a cluster of 11 arts organizations in the United States. In one key respect, this cluster did resemble NYOA. The managers interviewed all showed "competitive myopia" toward other arts organizations. This was seen clearly in all the NYOA interviews as well. Additionally, while Kirchner's thesis acknowledged that "artistic ego" was a barrier to collaborative activity between arts organizations, the managers she interviewed were very eager to convince the interviewer that their organization was very collaborative, or even the most collaborative, of the organizations under study.
On the collaboration front, NYOA diverged sharply from Kirchner's findings. All of the NYOA interviewees but one expressed reluctance or outright refusal to engage in co-production. Significantly, the one who expressed openness to the idea headed an organization with a looser sense of artistic independence and was also the least well-resourced organization financially, factors which made collaborative activity more attractive.
While NYOA is significantly different from previously studied coopetitive clusters, it isn't sui generis, either. It closely mirrors a documentary case study by Poisson-de Haro and Myard (2018) that documented a cluster of more than 40 circus performing companies in Montreal, Canada. This cluster grew up around the Cirque de Soleil, which attracted large numbers of circus professionals to the area. They in turn formed small, highly specialized companies, since imitative approaches to making art risked getting lost in the shuffle. A consortium formed that allowed these small organizations to speak with one voice, gain legitimacy by being part of a larger collective, and share information and performing schedules. Many of these companies came together to produce a festival, the Montreal Complèmetent Cirque (MCC). These collective activities raised the profile of the whole industry, thereby benefitting the individual circus companies.
...being part of NYOA and NYOF and using their branding had - at least at times - raised their organization's profile, conferred a certain amount of legitimacy on it, and led to greater public awareness of the industry as a whole - "enlarging the pie" ...rather than resulting in smaller and smaller slices.
Many of the same dynamics appear to be operating in the case of NYOA. Just as Cirque de Soleil attracts circus performers, a huge organisation, the Metropolitan Opera, along with numerous music schools, make it a tempting location for emerging singers looking to make their way.
One of the interviewees spoke of a "stigma" that attached to small opera companies - a popular conception that their work is less worthy than that of better-sourced opera groups. This is often seen in reviewers' left-handed complement "scrappy" when describing performances by indie companies.
This stigma was lurking below the surface of all of the other interviews and showed itself in different ways, but most of the managers agreed that being part of NYOA and NYOF and using their branding had - at least at times - raised their organization's profile, conferred a certain amount of legitimacy on it, and led to greater public awareness of the industry as a whole - "enlarging the pie" as it were, rather than resulting in smaller and smaller slices.
Why is all this important? At this moment, the arts in America are in deep trouble, more so than in countries where the arts receive state funding. Any information that points the way toward more sustainable business models may be important. Pooling resources and information, engaging in co-productions with artistically compatible organizations, and combining marketing efforts may be crucial tools to help the performing arts - and opera - survive the fallout from the pandemic.
One of the interviewees also put forward a great idea that cultural alliances might use to connect members with compatible visions - a sort of "match-making" service that would allow managers to put out calls for missing resources, publicize their surplus resources, and make their artistic values and aspirations known. This could help build collaborative partnerships that make sense for the individual organizations without 'watering down' artistic quality.
Of course, these are only band-aids, not substitutes for the state funding most countries provide to the arts so that artists are not solely at the mercy of market forces. But until that day comes, new and creative business models are needed to keep the lights on.
Brandenburger, A., & Nalebuff, B. (1996), Coopetition, Profile Books Ltd. London.
Byrnes, W.J. 2009, Management and the Arts, 4th ed., Elsevier Focal Press, London; Amsterdam.
Devece, C., Ribeiro-Soriano, D., Palacios-Marquès, D. (2017), “Coopetition as the new trend in inter-firm alliances: literature review and research patterns,” Review of Managerial Science. v.13, pp.207-226.
Kirchner, T. (2007); Coopetition (Contemporaneous Cooperation and Competition) Among Nonprofit Arts Organisations: The Case of Symphony Orchestras. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, Old Dominion University, DOI: 10.25777/xmpt- q015
Kirchner, T., Markowski, E., & Ford, J (2018), “Nonprofit Cultural Alliances: Initiatory Qualitative and Empirical Examinations of an Emergent U.S. Phenomenon,” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 48:1, pp.1-16.
Mariani, M. (2007). “Coopetition as an Emergent Strategy: Empirical Evidence from an Italian Consortium of Opera Houses” International Studies of Management & Organisation, 37(2), 97-126.
Mariani, M. (2009), “Emergent coopetitive and cooperative strategies in interorganisational relationships: Empirical evidence from Australian and Italian operas.” Chapter in Coopetition Strategy : Theory, Experiments and Cases, eds. Giovanni B. Dagnino, and Elena Rocco, Taylor & Francis Group.
Poisson‐de Haro, S., & Myard, A. (2018), “Cultural cluster coopetition: A look at the Montreal circus world,” Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences / Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l'Administration, 35:3, pp. 390-402.