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.
And 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]