By Chris Auerbach-Brown
SAFMOD artists create a spectacle with costume,
light and multicultural modern dance. [Photos: Philip Borza]
Sure, it’s unfortunate that so many arts/music
collectives start out with lofty ideas only to fall off the map
into the abyss of anonymity. As a former co-partner in several (now
defunct) local art/music collectives, I can even point to the usual
causes—lack of money or lack of dedication on the part of
the members of the collective or both. What is an arts collective?
Typically, it’s a small group of artists unified by a common
purpose that may include sharing a work space, and an esprit
de corps that leads to collaboration in performance, dance,
Because so many fail, I went in search of a local
arts collective that has shown sustainable and visible success to
find out what made them tick.
My research led me first to SAFMOD, short for Sub
Atomic Frequency Modulation OverDose, an arts collective currently
managed by core trio Young Park, Neil Chastain and Ezra Houser.
Park provides choreography and dance, Chastain produces music and
Houser is a poet and stilt-dancer as well as managing director.
The collective has worked with a long list of guest
artists from other genres, including visual artists Ron Crutch and
Alexandra Underhill (a member for many years) and Sano, the graffiti
artist who designed costumes and backdrops for about five years.
SAFMOD is a multi-media performance group that has shown surprising
staying power. And yet after ten years in the business, it only
applied for nonprofit status last year—so, what gives?
It’s one of those sickeningly hot July afternoons
and we’re riding in a minivan without A/C in search of Nelson’s
Ledges. Behind the wheel, Young Park appears barely concerned that
the road map is failing. In fact, she’s handling the fact
that we’re completely lost quite well—driving, talking,
directing questions of her own to me as Ezra relaxes as best as
he can in the backseat.
HB: Why start a group like SAFMOD in Cleveland?
YP: Actually, SAFMOD was started in Ann Arbor [by]
me and Neil while we were going to the University of Michigan. We
ended up taking a class where the whole point was to bring dancers,
musicians and artists together to collaborate on a piece. That was
our first collaboration, and we continued to work together, mostly
in an improvisational way, and have different artists work with
Neil was commuting back and forth; he was in (Cleveland-based rock
band) Craw, and I was meeting artists from the Cleveland institutes
of art and music. When we graduated, Cleveland seemed like a good
place to continue our work because the city was very affordable.
There were lots of studio spaces for rehearsal, and the venues were
much more accessible than in a place like New York.
HB: What kinds of things did you do to sustain
YP: I'm not really sure if our method is any better
or worse than anyone else’s. We’ve been in existence
for ten years, and just last year we have become a nonprofit organization.
So for ten years we worked like a rock band, where we would get
gigs, and there was money from the gigs that we would use for paying
performers and travel expenses.
We didn’t get any funding from corporations
or foundations. But we were really focused on creative development—in
the sense that we experimented with every combination of music,
sound, movement, and visual art that we could think of. That really
helped in the first decade. We were refining the performance and
the artistic aspect, but the organizational structure of things
just didn’t exist.
Now that Ezra is our managing director, what we’re finding
in going to foundations for money is that they don’t really
care what you do artistically. They want to see that your organization
is sound as a business model.
HB: They want to see a fiscal history that’s
successful before they give money. Did you document that kind of
information before going for non-profit status?
YP: We have been documenting our history for the last
three years, and our fiscal history is pretty good.
HB: One of my groups incorporated right away
into a non-profit, so we had no fiscal history. Foundations wouldn’t
give any money to us because of that.
YP: I think it’s also really important to have
a clear mission statement. With your mission statement, you need
to be clear that the group of people working together is all in
agreement with its content. Your mission statement should encompass
what you’re doing. That’s something that foundations
look at also. What you’re saying is what you’re doing.
Lucky for us, we have a very broad mission statement, which is something
like, “SAFMOD is dedicated to”... ahh... help! managing
director! What’s our mission statement?
EH: It’s three parts: collaboration and experimentation
with diverse artists towards developing and presenting original
HB: How did you avoid organizational pitfalls—did
you get professional help like a board or advisers and a lawyer
to help you apply for non-profit status?
YP: We have a board which we are working on expanding,
and we got an Ohio Arts Council grant to hire a consultant. She
is helping with board development as well as other organizational
things. She gives us a lot of warnings and gives us pros and cons
to having a large board, a small board, a strong board, a weak board.
We do have a lawyer who has been helping us with [obtaining] non-profit
status, and he did it pro bono.
HB: Any juicy stories you want to share?
EH: Performing at a pagan festival, dancing on rocks,
putting down rugs for dancers who are up on stilts after 2 a.m.
over a 60-foot bonfire...
That’s the thing about SAFMOD is the stories—you just
look around and see these situations.
And just to describe the situation—it’s
an old abandoned schoolhouse at 3 a.m., you have inner city African-American
hip hop dudes, some people spinning on their heads, dancers standing
in body-tight unitards with other guys painting airbrush designs
on their costumes, a whole bunch of Puerto Ricans over here helping
to weave these different costumes and fabrics together. It’s
a mixture of so many things, and SAFMOD is sitting in the new millennium
that way. Young people are comfortable sharing difference. It’s
an entity that’s dedicated to difference and to bringing that
diversity together to make a cohesive whole.