But What Does Arts Entrepreneurship Even Mean?

Arts Entrepreneurship is nothing new. It is fair to assume that artists have always been entrepreneurial. Educators in higher education have been earnestly addressing this topic as early as the 1970s, first at the Eastman School of Music. However, what is new is a formalized system of education that teaches artists how to, specifically, act entrepreneurially. Today, there are over one hundred colleges and universities addressing the topic, and at least 33 Master’s programs around the world focused on arts, creative, or cultural entrepreneurship.

But What is Arts Entrepreneurship?

In academic literature, there is absolutely no consensus as to what “entrepreneurship” means, much less “arts entrepreneurship.” Similarly, there are no agreed-upon definitions for “creativity,” “imagination,” or “art.” These phenomena are complex and subjective. Regardless, at Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU), where I teach Arts Entrepreneurship, students are taught that entrepreneurship is defined as follows: “the creation of opportunity and value with intent to profit financially, socially or otherwise through the assumption of risk and effort.” In the context of arts entrepreneurship, the value created is art.

SMU MPower. Photo by Kim Leeson Photography/Meadows School of the Arts

In this post, I will address the key components found in this definition (see words in bold) and speak to the importance of arts entrepreneurship and its potential to help artists make a living from their creativity, artistry, skills, and talents. I will speak to increasing chances of success while decreasing risks associated with a career in the arts.

Creation

Entrepreneurship is a big-vision act of creativity. It is one that has an experienced and felt impact—both for (arts) entrepreneurs and those they serve. One (or a team) is creating opportunities for self and others, jobs, economic stimulus, products, culture, and services—such as art. Like artists, all kinds of entrepreneurs principally create value for others.

Value

Value in the arts can be intrinsic or extrinsic and is often both. Example of extrinsic value: “That Picasso painting is worth $10,000,000.” This refers to the monetary value of the painting. “That Picasso painting stirs my soul.” This is intrinsic value—a feeling, an experience, an impression that is subjective and has nothing to do with monetary worth. Extrinsic value can lead artists towards income generation and, potentially, sustainable careers in the arts. The intrinsic value created is the art itself—which, hopefully, creates an experience and evokes a response for those experiencing it.

Public Works Dallas’ “The Tempest.” Photo by Kim Leeson/SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

Profit

For varied reasons, some artists associate profit with “selling out.” However, arts entrepreneurs are not selling out—they are selling art. In my own experience, I find the unemployed are typically those who speak about selling out. Those paying their rent through their artistry, usually don’t speak in such terms.

More artists need to be taught that profit is not a dirty word, but critical for sustainability. With resources, like cash in hand, one can take additional and, at times, more significant risks, enabling artists to scale, to grow their business, and continually deepen their work. Profit can also be viewed as communication of value on the part of audiences, who vote with their credit cards. Profit is the one necessary element to having a viable and sustainable business.

Risk

The word “risk” should not be omitted from the definition of entrepreneurship, as entrepreneurship is a risk-based endeavor, just as a career in the arts is. One does not know if their efforts will be fruitful, if an audience will appreciate what was created, if the creators will attract donors or investors, if a show will profit or have a long run. There are no guarantees.

Arts entrepreneurship skills increase the likelihood of artists succeeding—based on their own definitions of success. Such skills “up the odds,” so to speak, by teaching artists how to strategize. Such skills also teach artists how to differentiate themselves from other players in the market, to budget, fundraise, and sell what they have created. They know how to develop a fan base of loyal followers, how to find their artistic voice, to reduce the certain risks of a career in the arts through research, to be highly adaptable, and to know how to protect their own intellectual property. Niche identification and creation is an entrepreneurial skill that artists often utilize—a practice that can often lead to market dominance, and consequential profitability, within a niche. By reducing risk, the potential for success rises.

Effort (that is service-focused)

I built an accredited theatre conservatory in Oslo, Norway. In the building process, I was often asked two questions by journalists and government officials: What makes what you are doing 1. different and 2. necessary? I struggled with the latter for a time. What I realized is they were asking me to differentiate myself from the other players in the market, but to also be of service to the community. Service, I learned, is the only way to become necessary as an artist. Being necessary (needed) can lead to profitability, as people need their needs fulfilled.

Choosing a Muse

Art for art’s sake has unequivocal value. Example: Emily Dickinson wrote poems in private, only occasionally sharing with family and friends. Over 1,800 poems were discovered, and later shared, after her death. However, if one wants to make a living from their art, it is important for artists to serve not just their own instincts, impulses, and desires, but also be aware of the needs, desires, fears, and problems of their audiences. This knowledge requires engaging with and understanding, ideally empathizing with, one’s audience. Artistic value that is created with an audience in mind has a higher likelihood of resonating for an audience as the work was created for them. In this respect, one’s audience becomes a muse. Artists have been inspired by muses throughout time.

The Value of Arts Entrepreneurship

Arts Entrepreneurship training offers no guarantees. However, it does increase the likelihood of artists’ success. Many of our students go to school, in part, to increase their odds of working professionally. However, the current standard in arts education in largely one of “all arts technique and no real business skills,” which contributes to the starving artist stereotype. To help artists overcome this stereotype, it is critical that they are offered the “missing puzzle piece” of arts education found in so many schools around the country.

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