First Principles, Inadequate Soil, and Artist Entrepreneurs

On June 8, I participated in a virtual symposium sponsored by the Arts, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab at Indiana University entitled “New. Not Normal.” Some panelists were invited to pre-record ~15 minute talks, while others, like me, were invited to respond to those prerecorded talks. What follows is the prompts I was given in advance, and my responses to them.

Prompt from Doug Noonan: “In her presentation, Lucy [Bernholz] talked about the importance of first principles in thinking about our systems. She pressed us to push beyond the ‘mushrooms’ that are on thesurface and to examine the ‘soil’ underneath. I’d like to go around the panel, and ask: in light of recent crises, what are the first principles that you think are most important?”

Before I answer the question about first principles, I want to Thank Doug [Noonan] and Joanna [Woronkowicz] for the opportunity to share my thoughts with my esteemed panelists and the many others watching. I also want to thank Indiana University for allowing me to defer its modest honorarium to an artist in need rather than accepting it myself. I’m not sharing this to highlight my own righteousness, but rather because her story is emblematic of what working artists who serve communities of color are facing right now in the world of Covid-19. Martha Carrillo is a member of the Self-Help Graphics and Art Census Atelier, working toward a full count of all of the residents of East LA as well as, under different circumstances, a resident artist with their Barrio Mobile Art studio. She lost that contract work as a result of the pandemic. I’ll come back to that…but on to the matter at hand.

If it’s possible to have TWO first principles, I want to share my observations of them

  1. One. The free market economy has been our default first principle. The neoliberal version of it we’ve lived in since 1980 is the “soil,” to use Lucy’s metaphor, but it is soil that does not provide the nourishment we need as a nation; a soil that has proven to be completely inadequate to the task of nourishing us during this time of crisis; As a system, it is inadequate to the task of producing and distributing necessary goods equitably in a time of crisis. The free market, as a first principle, has not provided masks, or testing kits or even toilet paper efficiently or effectively. The current regime’s responses to Black Lives Matter protests is one the “mushrooms,” growing out of this sick soil (and I note for my colleague Tyler Cowen who in his pre-recorded comments called these “riots” – they are not, they are protests). This response favoring property rights over human rights exposes the sickness. As Marc Bamuthi points out, there is a tension between public good and private wealth. Our free market soil helps the latter grow, but often at the expense of the former.
  2. Second: the second “first principle” is the healthy soil of communities. Community-level actions really matter for community and individual well-being. Whether it’s neighbors feeding neighbors or people in a café deciding to wear or not wear a mask, individual actions in community or neighborhood settings have life-or-death consequences. We need to look to community action during this time of crisis. (And I learned from Nwamaka Agbo that we can call this “resorative economics,” a term I love.)

Later in the panel, Doug asked me about the challenges and opportunities for artist entrepreneurs. Here is my response:

First, they should keep making art because that’s what artists do. But for a dozen of the last fifteen years, I’ve been teaching artists to navigate an economic system that really doesn’t work for them. Arts incubators, crowd funding sites like Kickstater, arts business workshops are all “mushrooms” that have sprung up out of necessity in this neoliberal freemarket soil. But rather than changing what artists need to do, maybe it’s time to change the soil, the system. The Pandemic shows this clearly enough, and the recent protests point out that it is just unethical to value property rights over human rights. One of the things I’m working on now in my writing is this idea of artists forgoing the organizations that have grown up inside the capitalist system and instead connecting their work more directly with their audience. I don’t really have any answers to that…but it is what I think about, when I’m not focused on my day job as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA.

[image: Mushrooms found growing in potting soil. Photo by WDavis1911; CC 3.0]

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An Open Letter to Students: “Don’t Wait”

A colleague dean clearly articulates both the challenges and the hope…”We need the next generation to define and improve the next normal”

Sarah Bay-Cheng

Dear arts student:

You are essential.

I hope that wherever you are in the world and whatever discipline you practice or field you study, that you’ll continue your creative work this year. We need you.

Amid all the current uncertainty and planning, it is so tempting to wait for things “to go back to normal.” As the parent of someone who just finished his first year of university, I see the challenges of the zoom classroom and understand the appeal of taking a break until this current situation is all over. But it’s not clear yet what the next “normal” will look like or when it may come. Some things may resemble what we remember; others will be forever different. While this uncertainty can be a cause of anxiety, it also offers a rare opportunity, especially for the next generation of global artists.

Emerging artists, designers and scholars entering universities…

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A Covid-19 Prompt from Artivate

[The co-editors of Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts invited me to submit some “thoughts on arts entrepreneurship in light of the recent economic and social shifts brought on by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Here is that submission.]

As I work on a series of essays about artists and entrepreneurial action, I had already been considering what a post-capitalist arts economy might look like, one in which artists can connect their work directly with its audience outside of the traditional capitalist economy. Then Covid-19 hit. The current situation has made at least one thing clear to me: the market cannot solve the immediate or long-term effects of the crisis. What we see happening in the short term is a series of emergency actions including: direct payments; expanded unemployment insurance; and paid sick leave. All of these would, at any other time in US history, be branded as “socialism.” Now, however, a broad cross-section of the American public sees these steps not as “socialism” but as “necessary.” Once we get to the other side of this, I am hopeful that enough people (not just in the US, but especially here) will recognize that collective social action is a more effective and efficient way to achieve human well-being than market-based exchanges.

The other thing we see happening in the short term is a reliance on artists and their irreplaceable unique creative products to help humanity through this crisis through music, media streaming, literary arts, and online galleries. We are living without sports, but not without the content available on Netflix or Hulu. If my first hope is fulfilled, my second hope is that people will connect the value they are finding in the arts with the value they are finding in collective social action to build economic and social structures that support the arts and artists. We need to heed Arlene Goldbard’s (and others’) calls for a “Works Progress Administration for the Arts,” but in a way that does not take us back to the 1930s but instead moves us forward to the other side of neoliberal capitalism. I don’t presume to know what that will look like, but I am hopeful that it will look better for artists tomorrow than it did yesterday.


An artist prepares his graffiti with the inscription “The Corona Virus Is A Wake Up Call And Our Chance To Build A New And Loving Society” on a wall in the slaughterhouse district in Munich, Germany. Photo: AFP



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Love is in the Air (and the office)

el mac

February is a time to celebrate love and friendship. I try to bring love into the office every day: love for student success; love for colleagues and collaborators; and love for the beautiful Tongva land on which Cal State LA sits. I recently purchased a print from Self Help Graphics and Art by Los Angeles artist El Mac (Miles MacGregor), pictured above, that seems particularly fitting for the season; it hangs in my office on the Cal State LA campus.

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New Year Post 2019-20

Happy New Year! Happy New Decade!

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 1.51.28 PM.png

Since I launched this blog on New Year’s Eve 2010 it has been my tradition to offer a recap of the blog’s year, summarizing its stats and revisiting its most popular posts. As the decade comes to a close, I am going to do the opposite. Rather than look to the past, I look to the future, specifically, the future I imagine in the final essay of my forthcoming book, Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action: An Ouroboros. I decided recently to write this last essay as a work of speculative fiction in which I imagine the successful lives of three artists in the year 2050. Over the preceding three decades (starting in 2020), the United States has evolved into a social democracy akin to that of late-twentieth century Scandinavian countries, but one that sees its significant cultural and ethnic diversity as an asset and so have built on it successfully since the [hopefully] 2020 election brought the country together. I rest comfortably in retirement, knowing that there are artists who understand how to connect their work to their audiences in ways that enable them to sustain their lives. I profile three “fictional” artists:

Rey Lopez is an East LA artist and printmaker, based on an amalgamation of East LA artists and printmakers who I met in 2018 and 2019. Now in his early 60s, he maintains an active practice around community classes, political engagement, and local action. Monica Simon, age 50 sustains her artistic practice as a painter and performance artist through her membership in an artist collective, one of hundreds found throughout the country in the year 2050. Finally, Swift Z at age 30 is a media mega-star who supports both their own practice and that of others both through personal philanthropy and the restoration of the 70% marginal tax rate on wealthy Americans made possible by the election of the country’s first social democratic president.

I look forward over the next year to imagining the world inhabited by these three artists, a world in which entrepreneurial action is not driven by a desire for wealth creation but instead by a drive for social profit and cultural equity.

Have a creative, equitable, and peaceful 2020 — and beyond!

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Post Chanukah Thoughts

Hours after I posted my “Chanukah Thoughts,” tragedy struck. As I was considering the lessons of Chanukah, the persistent resistance to oppression and the collective action of Tikkun Olam, tragedy struck in two ways, intellectually and violently, and in two different milieus, the newspaper of record and a rabbi’s home in Monsey, NY. The rabbi’s house just 3 miles from the house where I spent my earliest childhood years in neighboring Spring Valley.


Anthropometry, while used legitimately by physical anthropologists, was exploited by eugenicists to support their fake “science” of racism

The intellectual tragedy was that the NY Times Opinion editor chose to publish a racist eugenicist screed written by conservative commentator Bret Stephens. In it (and no, I won’t link to such drivel) Stephens asserts that Ashkenazi Jewish are better thinkers than other races and ethnicities because they “think different;” that their tradition of debate and discussion of Torah and Talmud – as well as a genetic proclivity cited in a 2005 pseudo-scientific study of IQ testing, later removed by the editor – causes the group, a group to which I proudly belong, to count more “geniuses” among their numbers than other groups. I was so appalled that, while still in my pajamas, I dashed off the following letter to the editors of the NY Times, unlikely to ever see the light of day in the newspaper of record, but available now on social media platforms like this:

Nothing breeds antisemitism quite like false claims of Jewish superiority. Bret Stephens’s recent column will do much more harm than good and you should not have published it.

Where I work, in a minority serving institution where Jews are few and far between, I regularly see students who are the first in their families to go to college soar to intellectual and artistic heights (often while juggling two jobs and supporting a family). While I appreciate the Jewish tradition of questioning and discussion, the abilities of the boys and men in the yeshiva to do so were privileged by and because of the hard work of the women at home, women like my own grandmothers and great grandmothers. Study was a privilege, one that is now shared by millions of students of all races, religions, and ethnicities thanks to public higher education. When we all (men, women, Jews, gentiles, Whites, and People of Color) have access to quality public education, then we’ll all have, to use Bret Stephens’s metaphor, a soccer ball of our own.

The second tragedy is the sadly logical outcome of antisemitism: the murder or attempted murder of Jews because we are, somehow, different. Genetically, we are not any more different than you, dear reader, are from your neighbor, whether of the same race or ethnicity or not. A 37 year old man searched “German Jewish temples near me” and “why did Hitler hate the Jews,” before breaking into the home of an orthodox Hasidic rabbi and stabbing the family there, gathered to celebrate the lighting of the Chanukah candles. While there is no obvious causal relationship between the Stephens column and the hideous act of violence in Monsey, there is at minimum a correlative link between the rhetoric of hate in our current time and the increase in hate crimes against Jews, Blacks, and other people of color or minority religions.

It is the tradition of debate, discussion, and questioning that keeps me marginally interested in Judaism (as well as all the greasy, fattening holiday foods (e.g. latkes) that I grew up with). Questioning can itself be a form of resistance to oppression, and we must never stop questioning why someone would stab a family of Jews lighting candles, why the NY Times editors would publish and reference the work of eugenicists, or why the current regime is insistent on reducing access to healthcare (e.g., the decimation of the ACA) or food stamps (e.g. changes to TANF rules). To repair the world, our shared “temple,” we must work together with love and not hate, in the spirit of togetherness rather than difference.




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Chanukah Thoughts

IMG_1101 I am not a particularly observant religious Jew, but my Jewish identity is still very important to me. Chanukah is a festival holiday, one that commemorates an historical event, rather than deeply spiritual holy day like Yom Kippur or the Sabbath. When I was a teenager, my pacifist self was disturbed by the hanukiah my mother dug off a bottom shelf each year. It depicted a line of heavily armed Maccabees entering the gate of Jerusalem to save the Jews from oppression. I’m not an expert on either the history or the religion, but it is unlikely that a group of religious zealots who had been camping out in the wilderness would look this put together. Like so much of religion, this view of Judah and the Maccabees is the stuff of myth. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something important in the Chanukah celebration, which seems more relevant now than ever before in my life.

The story is, in its essence, about a fight against an oppressive regime that sought to coerce Jewish assimilation into Hellenic culture. And it is about repairing something that was broken (more on that below). Growing up in New York, I had not been aware of this particular form of insidious coercive influence until my 10th grade English teacher required a paper due on Yom Kippur (and he would accept it neither early nor late). Now, living far from New York in a predominantly Latino and Asian/Asian-American part of LA, the signs and symbols of my culture are few and far between. My cultural practices are tolerated, but poorly understood: “Why can’t you celebrate Christmas? It’s not really a religious holiday.” (I’m sure that practicing Christians of all denominations would likely disagree.)

While the coercion is subtle, the oppression – or attempts at it – are not. Something shifted for me when right wing demonstrators in Charlottesville two years ago chanted “Jews will not replace us.” How can I list my race as “White” on demographic forms when there are large groups of White people who don’t consider me such, while also acknowledging that I benefit from the appearance of Whiteness? We live in a country where oppression is more rampant now than at any time in my life: Black people are profiled (or shot) at traffic stops; people of color are stopped at the border and some held in cages; and women still earn just 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. So…this part of the lesson of Chanukah need not be about Jews at all, but about persistent resistance. As a Jew (as a human, really), I resist this injustice where I see it through words, actions, and the Jewish notion of Tzedakah – not “charity,” but “justice,” — sharing what I have to try to “balance the scales” toward the oppressed and less fortunate than I.

For me the other important lesson is that of repair, in Judaism “Tikkun Olam” or “the repair of the world.” The Maccabees made it into the Temple to find that the menorah was broken and most of the oil was gone. For me, the miracle isn’t one in which God makes the oil last for eight days, but rather one in which a community of people work together to keep the light burning and repair the Temple. It is only through community collective action that we can repair the world – and boy does the world need fixing now!

IMG_1102So…I light my candles, using not my mother’s militaristic hanukiah, but this more neutral one that I bought when I was in Israel forty years ago. I light the candles to remind myself and my family that only if we work together can we resist the oppression of all people and repair the world.


Please consider supporting the organizations that will benefit from my own family’s commitment to “Tzedekah” this season:



Byte Back

A couple of posts of interest:


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Building Community Cultural Connections

Analyze > Listen > Formulate > Ideate > Prototype > Evaluate > Iterate

My November letter to Cal State LA College of Arts & Letters focused recent activities that support building community cultural connections. I share it with you here.

Dear Arts & Letters Community:

The past month has been a busy time for the College of Arts & Letters and for me as its Dean. The “big event,” was on November 1, when we hosted a day-long professional development event for students, “Connect the Dots: Pathways into the Creative Industries,” about which you can read more in Kathleen Sanchez’s story by clicking, here. It was also a month when we focused a lot on the College’s strategic priority to “Build Community Cultural Connections.”

I attended the annual convening of Imagining America in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with department chairs Mike Willard (Liberal Studies) and Linda Greenberg (English), faculty members Kathryn Perry (English) and Tanya Kane-Parry (Theatre and Dance), graduate student Jose Cubias, and undergraduates Ashley Robles and Sam Ortiz. Cal State LA joined the Imaging America consortium last year as part of its effort to expand on its mission of Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. Imagining America focuses on “artists and scholars in public life;” thus the convening includes not just traditional academic panels, but also sharing of smart practices around community engagement, workshops, performances, and exhibitions.

Following on work begun by Professor Emeritus Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Professor Kane-Parry has been working with the Glazer Family Dreamers Resource Center and students in her classes (including Robles and Ortiz) to develop a performance script about immigration to be performed in schools and community centers. With the script still in development, she and her two students used the Imagining America convening as an opportunity to workshop the script-in-progress and receive feedback from other community-engaged artists. I was privileged to be in the room when the reading took place and be a small part of the conversation that will help advance the project. Kane-Parry is collaborating with the Center for Engagement, Service, & the Public Good to book the community-based performance tour.

Dr. Greenberg, Dr. Perry and Jose Cubias presented on the various ways that our Department of English is working toward becoming an engaged English department. This includes the work they already do with students at Lancaster Prison as well as curricular developments that will include an “Engaged English” requirement for all majors. Internships that can fulfill this requirement are made possible in part thanks to The Dr. James Garrett Pathways to Professional Success Program Fund.


Poet Alice Lovelace meeting with CSU deans at the CCAS annual meeting in Atlanta

Following on the heels of all of this activity, I led a workshop for other CSU deans of similar colleges as a part of the pre-conference activities at the annual meeting of the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences. We had two guest speakers: Jilo Tisdale of Spelman College’s Bonner Office of Community Service and Student Development, and Alice Lovelace, poet, arts advocate, and director of Atlanta’s Arts Xchange. Ms. Lovelace talked with the CSU deans about how the arts can be a powerful force for economic as well as cultural development. I then led my colleagues through a small group exercise to get us thinking about our various institutional contexts, the communities we serve, and how we might listen even more effectively to these communities to develop successful community-engaged programming. This is an important area of the College of Arts & Letters’ work already, and one that necessitates ongoing development as well. Look for announcements soon of new partnerships with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and the LA County Museum of Art, as well as deepening relationships with local high schools.

…I note that the Thanksgiving holiday is just around the corner. Regardless of whether or how you celebrate this, I hope your time away from campus will be filled with warmth and love.

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Back at it (Finally)

After a summer vacation and some less fun issues (now completely resolved!) that unfortunately coincided with the very busy start of a new semester, I am back at work on my collection of  essays on the relationship between artists, money, and entrepreneurial action. The seventh essay in the collection explores what entrepreneurship means to artists, develops several case studies that illustrate these entrepreneurial principles, and then describes and analyzes several resourcefulness strategies artists employ to enable them to thrive including the development of the “portfolio career” and web-enabled patronage. As in the past, I’ll dribble some teasers out one paragraph at a time, admittedly to incite interest in the project, but also to collect feedback from you, Creative Infrastructure‘s readers. Here’s this week’s entry:

            The very term “entrepreneurship” is distasteful to many artists (and other people) for its neoliberal and/or brashly capitalist implications both historically and recently. Nevertheless, asking artists what the term means for their practice supports the perspective taken throughout these essays: for artists, entrepreneurship means directly connecting their creative work to other people, their audience. Of the forty artists who participated in a Tremaine Foundation phone survey, the plurality (nine of the forty) indicated that being an entrepreneurial artist means connecting their work with other people, while an additional three said it means keeping the buyer in mind and two others noted it means making their work accessible. Only seven said “thinking about yourself as a business” is what it means to be an entrepreneurial artist. Although I note that overall the survey was not analyzed for statistically significant correlations, those seven as a whole are younger than the rest of the group, which may indicate a shift in thinking among artists who have been exposed to arts entrepreneurship as a concept earlier in their careers. Such artists, unlike artists of earlier generations, have been, at minimum, introduced to the idea that being an independent artist means being a sole proprietor of a business, even when generating revenue is not the motivation for the creative activity of the artist.

Because I mentioned that summer vacation, I offer some eye candy:

eye candy 2

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Arts Entrepreneurship 11 through 15

Four years ago, I created a series of short videos for use in my class Foundations of Arts Entrepreneurship. I’m no longer teaching the course (and the videos themselves admittedly could use some updating) but for those of you looking for a primer on arts entrepreneurship or some supplemental material for use in your own classes, I’m making these available to the public. For expediency’s sake, I’ve decided to post the remainder of the course, modules 11 through 15. You can find modules 1-10 by scrolling down through the pages or via the search bar.

Module 11: Business models and business forms/types.


Module 12: Business plans and the business model canvas


Module 13: Professional communication


Module 14: Grantwriting and fundraising for artists


Module 15: Public policy and intellectual property basics

I hope you’ve enjoyed Foundations of Arts Entrepreneurship!

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