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IOWA CITY (AP) - David McGraw, theater arts lecturer and production stage manager at the University of Iowa, knows firsthand what it's like to be a part of a dying arts organization.

While in college, the theater company he was involved with for two years suddenly closed.

For McGraw, it was a devastating experience.

``The art director wanted to take (the company) in a new direction, and the community rejected it,'' he said. ``To see that disconnect with a successful company (and its community) was a jarring reality. ... I didn't want to go through another (experience like that).''

So McGraw, 38, created a new concept for arts organizations that he believes will cure the common cause of death for many venues nationwide.

Called the Epoch Model, the idea is that a theater troupe, dance company, musical ensemble or artist collective is created and operates with an expiration date in mind. Instead of drawing out their longevity until the last dying breath, arts organizations are formed with the mindset that, once their goals are accomplished, they will close their doors on a high, successful note.

``When an arts organization closes, you think the community stopped supporting the arts,'' he said. ``That's not true. ... It's just that the arts organization ended its life cycle.

``We can do something else, make it different.''

McGraw's model is essayed in the new book, ``20UNDER40,'' an anthology of 20 essays written by emerging arts leaders all under the age of 40. The book was released in December.

McGraw's essay, titled ``The Epoch Model: An Arts Organization with an Expiration Date,'' discusses the concept that he conceived and developed over the last five years, drawing from his experience at UI and past careers in theater.

Once a year, McGraw debates the model with his students in the UI performing arts entrepreneurship program. Though they seem to react positively to the concept, he said, critics have been more negative toward the ideas presented in ``20UNDER40.''

``The book got a good deal of bad press,'' McGraw said. ``(Reviewers ask), `Why 40, why does this generation get a voice?' As a matter of fact, 20 to 30 years ago, new artists were going out to found their own companies and that now plays into this book. Artists (now) are facing huge obstacles.''

McGraw said a few companies have been founded under a similar precept to the Epoch Model, including Countdown to Zero in Denver and The Nine in Chicago. In larger cities with more established, institutional arts organizations, it's tough to garner enthusiasm for a new, radical business model, he said. But places like Iowa City are ripe for adapting new structures for their arts groups.

``Iowa City, by its nature, doesn't have the problems other communities do,'' he said. ``We're used to this churning (of artists) ... we are reborn every few years.

``We're creating in fertile soil.''

Members of the local arts community are supportive of McGraw's ideas.

``McGraw is the kind of teacher who not only educates his students, he also challenges and inspires them,'' wrote Rob Cline, director of communications and marketing for UI's Hancher Auditorium, in a review. ``His essay in `20UNDER40' offers a challenge as well as inspiration for artists and arts managers: Rethink the life cycle of an arts organization with an eye on creating art with urgency, developing future leaders and serving communities.''

J.D. Mendenhall, marketing manager for UI's division of performing arts, agrees.

``(McGraw's essay) is provocative and asks some really tough questions for people in the arts to think about for arts organizations,'' he said. ``It begins a great discussion and hopefully will lead to some real improvements in the arts community.''

As for McGraw, he just hopes his ideas will catch on over time as an aid to the success of future arts organizations.

``I've talked with groups that find this appealing. They don't want to have this sense of abandonment,'' he said. ``I hope others will take that approach, that call.''

 

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