Keeping Art at the Center

citycouncilmeeting960x280I received a writing prompt recently from actor/writer/artist Aaron Landsman who is spending some time on my campus developing his new collaborative and socially engaged performance work City Council Meeting: “how do you be an arts entrepreneur without losing sight of the art?” A recent blog “conversation” about the field of arts entrepreneurship suggested the concept is “ill-defined.”  I respond to both: arts entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship that never loses sight of the art; it is entrepreneurship that keeps art-making at the center of what is otherwise a “big tent.”

One thing I do in my classes is attempt to differentiate “arts entrepreneurship” from “entrepreneurship.”  I really don’t like to define anything by what it is not; it is far stronger to define it – whatever “it” is – by what it is (see Jaan Whitehead’s great article from 2001 about this definitional conundrum in the nonprofit theatre community). Thus, I can’t just stand up in front of my class of 35 students and say “well….it’s not just new venture creation….” Instead we keep the art at the center of the discussion in a positive way.  For example, in our unit on marketing, begun earlier this week, I explain the classic “utilities of exchange” (form, time, place, possession), but remind the class that they also read about the utilities of exchange as defined by an artist, in our case, Anne Bogart, whose book “And then, you act” is one of two required texts. Her principles of magnetism — empathy, entertainment, ritual, participation, spectacle, education, and alchemy — are an artist’s utilities of exchange.  Bogart’s chapter from which these are drawn is titled “magnetism.” In other contexts, it would be called “audience engagement” or “customer development,” but in the arts entrepreneurship classroom, we begin with an artist and how an artist defines the utilities of exchange – that is, as with the “principles of magnetism.”

I spoke recently with someone from another arts entrepreneurship program, one administrated through its university’s business college.  Artists in this program learn how to sell their commercial products – many students have etsy shops or other e-commerce portals to sell jewelry or prints. They have business models drafted on Osterwalder’s “lean canvas,” a very useful tool for business plan generation.  I argue, however, that while this may be “entrepreneurship,” it is not necessarily “arts entrepreneurship.”  The bottom line of the business school approach is profit back to the maker or return on investment to the investor; the bottom line in arts entrepreneurship is the opportunity to make the art one is driven to make while also making the rent and, as Aaron reminded us recently in a series of comments on the issue, the health insurance payments.

[Side note – if you’re interested in arts entrepreneurship and how keeping arts at the center of a community leads to community vibrancy, consider attending the Third Biennial Pave Symposium: Entrepreneurship, the Arts, and Creative Placemaking, April 12-13 in Tempe and Phoenix AZ]

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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11 Responses to Keeping Art at the Center

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  6. I think it’s problematic for art students to be taught that to survive they need to think of their work in established business models. If art was easily assimilated into the business world it wouldn’t be so hard to have every new company be the next Apple. The reality is that it is not easy and there are damn few companies like Apple.
    It’s not easy because what is valuable about art is that it doesn’t think or act like our business models. In fact the best art reacts against them. This is how new forms are created.
    I think it doesn’t serves students well to suggest that their success as an artist is dependent on their business acumens.

  7. Interesting piece. But I think you dismiss the lean canvas tool a little too easily without providing an alternative tool or approach. I’d suggest that using that tool with some tweaks that factors in or weights the passion around art-making or creativity would be useful (for instance, considering the internal artist a customer as well).
    Finding a path or projects, etc. that pay the bills while engaging higher levels of creativity might not maximize material wealth, but it could also work in a more satisfying way for more typical business ventures as well.

    • lindaessig says:

      I don’t dismiss the lean canvas at all — I use it with my students in the very way you suggest. We spend a lot of time discussing the concept of the value proposition and that the art they make can be for the artists but must simultaneously be for the audience/client/customer.

  8. IBPA says:

    As a successful software entrepreneur who almost went into Art as a degree and as a Chairperson of a community revitalization 501(c)3, my observation of failed 501(c)3’s is this: if you don’t run it with some business concepts in mind, it will not sustain i.e. fail.

    • lindaessig says:

      Thank you for your comment. It is not at all my intent to suggest artists run their practice without business concepts in mind but rather that when artists run their practice or organizations as businesses, they keep the artmaking central to their activity.

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