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]

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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9 Responses to Yes, Aaron, there IS Arts Entrepreneurship

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  5. The problem I have the concept of arts entrepreneurialism is the subtle melding of the otherwise important gap between what is the practice of art and that of business. Most professions need business skills but should artists actually use business skills as the basis of a creative decision? When diagnosing a medical condition or performing a surgical procedure do doctors employee business skills or medical training? It’s easy to say the answer is both but it can’t be. One or the other needs to lead.
    Artists, architects, mechanics, and even doctors have to consider the everyday effects of costs and material availability but if entrepreneurialism is taught as being part of an artistic practice, without being protective of the gap between the two, there is a danger of pure creativity being compromised.

  6. Aaron says:

    Except that, mostly due to technology, the “middle” is fleetingly small and shrinking—even Lady Gaga needed a Doritos sponsorship to stay in the black at SXSW this year. There are amateur and “emerging” artists, jobbers, art teachers, and then various regional stars and superstars that fall into a winner-take-all position.

    So what do you tell the emerging artists and jobbers? If your advice boils down to “work hard, network, and try to get more gigs,” then you’re not advocating for anything beyond generic career advice that applies to pretty much any profession. That’s not entrepreneurship, that’s learning how to become employable. Maybe you’re asking artists to become art promoters for themselves? If that’s your approach, then so be it, but it’s not a very efficient solution. Most artists are terrible at that stuff—you may as well be telling poetry majors to join the varsity football team.

    • lindaessig says:

      Aaron: Thanks for your comment. Teaching artists to be more entrepreneurial in their practice ranges form helping them to change their perspective about entrepreneurship as a concept to teaching them how (and why) to file for incorporation. To assume that poets can’t be arts entrepreneurs or that “most artists are terrible at that stuff” is selling poets and other artists short.

  7. Blake says:

    An interesting discussion. In your view is arts entrepreneurship a distinct concept that ultimately leads to types of work that are different than “traditional” art work?…or is it rather the instilling in artists a set of entrepreneurial skills and ways of approaching their existing work? Or some of both?

    • lindaessig says:

      This is a great question, the short answer to which is “the latter.” I use the following working definition of arts entrepreneurship: “Arts entrepreneurship can be understood to be the application of entrepreneurial action in the service of art and thus is inclusive of a continuum of activities from individual artists acting to recognize, create, and exploit opportunities for the creation and dissemination of their art through the formation of nonprofit and commercial ventures that support the production and dissemination of art. Entrepreneurial action itself can be understood as a universal form of human action in which an original idea is actualized so as to create value, be it cultural, financial, intellectual, or social value.”

      Next week, Barry Hessenius is hosting a “blogathon” on the topic of arts entrepreneurship on his WESTAF blog, so there will be more on this topic form a range of perspectives. Stay tuned.

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