It’s On!

Barry Hessenius is hosting a weeklong “blogathon” on arts entrepreneurship starting Memorial Day.  I’m honored to be participating, along with Adam Huttler of Fractured Atlas, Ruby Lerner of Creative Capital, Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies, Anthony Radich of WESTAF, Richard Evans of EMC Arts, and Andrew Taylor of American University. For detailed biographies of the participants and a list of the far-ranging questions Barry has posed to us, jump on over to Barry’s Blog.

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Yes, Aaron, there IS Arts Entrepreneurship

In a recent blog post, composer Aaron Gervais asserts that “there is no such thing as arts entrepreneurship.” He claims:

Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design. Both are creative activities, but of opposite types.

I could cite counterexamples for each point on both sides that would make his argument crumble in its first paragraph, but instead I point to a section of his piece that is seemingly more accurate: that the arts fall into a “winner-take-all-model.”

The winner-take-all concept is also a theme in A.O. Scott’s thoughtful NY Times piece “The Paradox of Art and Work.” Scott notes that because of the winner-take–all model as well as technologically empowered amateurs,

The middle ranks — home to modestly selling writers, semi-popular bands, working actors, local museums and orchestras — are being squeezed out of existence.

The middle — that place where professionals do their work in conditions that are neither lavish nor improvised, for a reasonable living wage — is especially vulnerable to collapse because its existence has rarely been recognized in the first place.

Assembly,_George_Square_Box_Office,_2013And it is here, in the middle, where artists are “just doing their jobs” (Scott’s phrase) that arts entrepreneurship becomes an important tool for working artists. The mega-stars don’t need to be entrepreneurs, don’t need to proactively showcase and distribute their work to their audience – there’s someone already doing that on their behalf and making money doing so. The skilled amateur doesn’t need to find financing for their next installation and invite critics to see it because they are amateurs. It is the broad middle defined by Scott that needs to take entrepreneurial action; call it arts entrepreneurship or call it artist self-management, it is part of the work-life of the artist in the US.  It is these artists, the artists in the middle, who can serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique this system in a meaningful way.

[Image: Photo of Assembly Festival box office by Kim Traynor, Creative Commons license]

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Warning: Art

earthquake warningI saw this sign outside a little brick building in Sausalito::

EARTHQUAKE WARNING: This is an unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe inside or near unreinforced masonry buildings during an earthquake.

I read this sign and have the information I need to make a choice about whether or not to enter the building, which houses a coffee shop. If I had a five-year-old child with me, I would not even mention the sign and make a choice on her behalf. With my teenage children, I would point out the sign and say, “What do you think – do you want to go in?” (A question that would be met, no doubt, with some eye rolling by said teens.) The chance of an earthquake during the brief time it takes for us to grab a coffee or a snack is slim, even here in the Bay Area. If I were chaperoning a class field trip of teens to the region, I would probably include in the permission slip materials that are standard parental reading in advance of a field trip, “Please note that on this trip, a brief time will be spent in unreinforced buildings.”

The earthquake warning sign brought to mind recent events at my home institution at which high school students attending a music festival saw a short scene from Rent as part of a larger showcase of School of Music offerings. Neither students, nor teachers, nor parents (or even, apparently many School of Music staff) were told in advance that the scene that was shown, “La Vie Boheme,” included simulated sex and partial nudity. However, the description of the full production mounted in Tempe, is as follows:

Winner of the Tony® Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, RENT has become a pop culture phenomenon with songs that rock and a story that resonates with audiences of all ages. Based on Puccini’s La Boheme, RENT follows a group of impoverished, young Bohemian artists and musicians struggling to live in New York City’s Lower East Side. Filled with humor and poignancy, love and laughter, these voices sing out to us about the struggles we all face today. The music rocks you to your soul and will leave you singing hits such as La Vie Boheme, Seasons of Love, Tango: Maureen, Take Me or Leave Me and many more. RENT is a modern classic about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. This show is verbally, sexually, politically and culturally charged. It is meant for mature audiences only.

Adequately informed by this description, audience members — including parents or teachers acting as agents for their children — can make choices about whether or not to attend. For myself, I would encourage my teens to see a good production of good work that is “verbally, sexually, politically and culturally charged” but would provide them with the agency to make their own choice. The point at which parents transfer such agency to their minor children is a personal choice, however, and not one that should be dictated by a third party, be it school, arts organization, or faith community.

I digress, a bit however. The point I really want to make is about an artists’ responsibility to know, understand, and engage their audience. In a response to an online petition related to the Rent incident, my colleague David Schildkret made this point eloquently, “The students in the audience did not come to see Rent…This is not about a few offended parents. It is about the responsibility of artists to know their audience…the question is not whether Rent itself is problematic. The question is whether this was the suitable occasion for this particular performance.”

The Sausolito coffee shop (and likely the city ordinance that requires the signage) understand its audience of Bay Area residents and visitors. The sign would be both unnecessary and misplaced in Phoenix.

There is, however, a key difference between the earthquake warning sign and the production’s disclaimer. The former is a warning of a physical situation that can cause bodily harm, the latter could be considered a “trigger warning,” and trigger warnings have reached, according to my cousin Laurie writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tsunami levels, especially in academia. Art functions to change our perspective on the world or, as Anne Bogart writes, “to wake up the asleep.” If we are constantly “warning” our audiences rather than engaging them, we could end up with a bifurcated culture made up of those who view such disclaimers as information and those who view them as caution signs or, put another way, those who experience the beauty and breadth of art and those that choose not to experience art out of fear that it is too highly “charged.” If we can know our audiences and initiate two-way relationships with them, we can engage them with highly charged material in a way that benefits both artists and audiences. I close by repeating Laurie’s closing:

The world is a painful and anxiety-inducing place, and human representations of the world are often painful to consume. But rather than retreating into a world where our courses are reduced to viewings of My Little Pony, let’s all put on our big-girl panties (or big-boy tighty whities, as in the case of the Wellesley statue) and face that world together. Let’s talk about it, think about it, write about it, analyze it, and, in the end, learn to engage fully with all of it, even those parts that cause us to curl up in pain and sob. Because that’s what a real education requires, and limiting ourselves to pretty images of rainbow ponies is not enough to know the world.

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Baseball love

Spring Training

Spring Training

If you know me, you probably know that I’m a baseball fan. It’s a terrific game. People who seriously follow baseball call it their religion, or a mirror for life. People have said the same about theatre and other art forms. Baseball may not be a national obsession (that dubious title probably goes to pro and college football) but it is still a national pastime, and the arts can learn a lot from it.

First of all, baseball is available at the highest professional level almost every day and although it costs more to produce and pay for players in New York and LA (just like the arts) a fan can see the highest level of professionalism in cities as diverse as Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Phoenix. If you can’t see it live, you can access a reasonable facsimile for free or close to free. Children are encouraged to participate from a very young age – not just spectate, but to put on a jersey with a number and hit a ball off a T and run around the bases. I admit that, unfortunately, much of that encouragement goes to boys, but it’s an imperfect world. Even as adults, amateur players can actually play ball, not just spectate (I myself even had a short stint in the Broadway Show League, a co-ed recreational softball league that plays in Central Park). It’s always family friendly and, oh yeah, there’s food. Even my kid’s recreational league had a snack bar staffed by parent volunteers. There are different levels of spectator opportunities – from the luxury box to the bleachers in the major leagues to A, AA, and AAA farm teams where local performers sometimes take to the field between innings. People can even watch the training and the practice.

So, what does my love letter to baseball have to do with the arts? Baseball helps me envision a different kind of place for the arts in America.  I’m imagining an arts ecosystem that involves lifetime participation as well as spectatorship, geographic variety, multiple levels of professionalism and expertise, and, most importantly, arts participation as an everyday pastime, not just something to do on a special occasion.

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An Arts Entrepreneurship Research Query

question markA bright PhD student at another university emailed a question to me in the context of developing a paper he is writing on the emergence of arts entrepreneurship programs in higher ed. Admittedly, my answer addresses his question somewhat indirectly, but responds to it nonetheless.  I share his question and my response:

Some critics and scholars suggest that entrepreneurship cannot be taught, that entrepreneurial learning is not measurable, and that there is no consensus on educational goals. How might the emerging field of arts entrepreneurship education respond to or best address these criticisms?

For arts entrepreneurship to develop as a field or a discipline, it needs to articulate the unique knowledges, theories, and methodologies that define it as a field. Doing so requires research and knowledge-building of that field – not about its place in universities and teaching institutions – but knowledge building and research of arts entrepreneurship practice that then feeds back into the university classrooms and studios where arts entrepreneurship is taught. Academic disciplines are built on the research that unearths, explains and disseminates the unique knowledges, theories, and methodologies of a domain. This goes to explain why there is not consensus on educational goals. There cannot be consensus on learning goals until there is a consensus on what arts entrepreneurship “is.” The literature on arts entrepreneurship is disproportionately weighted with articles about pedagogy and the placement of arts entrepreneurship in higher ed. While these topics are important and I myself have contributed to them, they do not directly advance knowledge-building about arts entrepreneurship itself as a field of practice and inquiry. Research on arts entrepreneurship pedagogy contributes to the knowledge base in the field known as “the scholarship of teaching and learning” and on its placement in higher ed contributes to the discipline of “higher ed administration.”

That having been said, yes, arts entrepreneurship can be taught (in a variety of ways), and the outcomes of that teaching can be measured (in a variety of ways). For example, experiential learning in our arts venture incubator has, thus far, proven effective in increasing student self-efficacy relative to arts entrepreneurial action. (Self-efficacy having been shown to be a predictor of success in entrepreneurial activity writ large.) In the classroom setting we employ a traditional in-class self-assessment of learning objectives based on a five-point Likert scale in which students respond to the degree to which they agree with statements such as “I understand that there are a variety of business structures that can support the arts.” I refer you to a book chapter and an article that directly address the question of how arts entrepreneurship can be taught:

For a related post see: A Landscape of Arts Entrepreneurship Education (and Research Agenda)

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Audience Development Approaches

The first year graduate students in arts management are spending a couple of weeks discussing marketing, audience development, community engagement, and community arts practice.  I drew a couple of quick sketches on the chalkboard – yes, we still have a chalkboard – to explain the difference between a traditional marketing approach and a community engagement approach to developing audience.  Here on a sticky note is a sketch of the traditional approach, in which marketing is used to overcome the inherent inertia between art and audience to connect one with the other – marketing pushes past that inertia to get the two together. marketing approach

In the engagement approach, on the other hand, the art and audience are brought together into one community circle.

community engagement approach

Thoughts?

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Saying “YES!”

Donuts for sharing (flickr user Johnny MrNinja, Creative Commons)

Donuts for sharing (flickr user Johnny MrNinja, Creative Commons)

I wrote a piece last week about saying “no” to unpaid/underpaid artist labor that took off in the inter-webs like a bat out of hell with over 4000 hits/hour at its weekend peak.  I would much rather be remembered as the person who says “YES!” than the person who says “NO!” so offer this follow-up.

Just – or even more – important than knowing when to say “no,” is knowing when and how to say “yes.”  Giving builds community; giving builds friendships; giving builds social capital (although one need not think of it in those terms); giving lifts the spirit of both the giver and receiver.  We may give of our time, we may give of our money, we may give of our things, we may give of our talent.  Related to giving is sharing – we may share knowledge, share food, share an experience (good or bad), without any exchange of material goods.

Sadly, there will be those who take advantage of the generosity of others for their own material gain or, as in the case of the donut company, place little or no value on the talents of others. Maturing as an artist, an artist who wishes to work in the public sphere, to interact with the social system in which we now live, must learn not only the art of making art, but also the art of differentiation.   I wish there were a magic bullet for differentiating between the worthy project and the unworthy, the excellent professional opportunity and the opportunity to be exploited, the worthwhile and the worthless.   No magic bullet, but a few thoughts:

  • Know yourself and what motivates you to make art
  • Have values and principles and let them guide you
  • Love something [with credit to Laura Zabel for the phrase]
  • Do “good” work: work that is excellent, impactful, and ethical [adapted from Howard Gardner]
  • Look around you and ask for help when you need it
  • Always be learning
  • Remember, after Kant, that people are never a means to an end, they are ends themselves – that includes you, the young artist, trying to decide whether or not the unpaid gig is truly a learning and professional development opportunity

Ultimately, as I’ve said before, “no” is an exercise of power, while “yes” is an exercise of empowerment.

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