The attention generated by the first essay I wrote for HowlRound on artist entrepreneurship made me elated and depressed simultaneously. It was obviously hitting a nerve of many in the live arts whose training gave them no foundation for how to actually make a living.
Although there were many college and university faculty members from various institutions that came forward in the Disqus section to demonstrate that there are, in fact, programs that prepare students for the marketplace (if there is a centralized website listing all of them, I haven’t found it), there is still a disconnect for most artists between their creative practice and the pragmatic skill set necessary to make a go of it in the real world. There are great resource documents available, some of which I’ve collected in this Google Drive folder I send to my students post-workshop. But while it’s great to have this info available, if you don’t have any reference for it, it’s not that helpful.
In 2013 I attended an Arts Policy symposium hosted by Arts Extension at UMASS. The various discussions and presentations were muted by a publication that was handed out, How A Nation Engages with Art. Click on the link and scroll down to page 17 and perhaps you’ll have the same reaction I did. In the left bottom corner is a statistic: a negative 12 percent decline in non-musical play attendance between 2008–2012. Negative. 12. Percent. I instagrammed a close up of the visual and wrote “Welcome to theatre, folks.”
The quote above by Simonet rings loud and clear. If you expect something to just happen, that you’ll be in the right place at the right time, that there is a line of people with money just waiting to recognize your talent and catapult your career into the world, you are gravely mistaken. Although we can point to the Great Recession as an instigator for the decline in theatre attendance, the fact remains that to make a life in the performing arts you have to be wicked scrappy, rethinking and revising innovative approaches of how to push your art into an oversaturated marketplace.
The word entrepreneur in my HowlRound article seemed to confuse and trigger a handful of people. When Shawn C. Harris tweeted me Jeffrey Nytch’s excellent analysis of Entrepreneurship Porn in the higher ed field, I knew I had to get more specific about what I mean.
If you Google entrepreneur, here’s what you get:
a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.
- a promoter in the entertainment industry.
If that definition (especially the part about taking on greater than normal financial risks) doesn’t speak to what we consistently have to endure in this field, I don’t know what does. The secondary definition is also striking: a promoter in the entertainment industry. Without getting into the debate about entertainment versus art, this captures what we are all trying to do.
Nytch’s clarity about pounding the pavement (the skill set necessary to make others aware of your work) vs. entrepreneurship (the strategic mindset of being consistently adaptable to the needs of others) cannot be underestimated. The workshops I teach as crash courses are about the overall business skill set artists need and how to implement them if artists are going to thrive trying to do their own work. The entrepreneurial mindset is something artists organically and intuitively bring to their art without even realizing it. When you notice that not only do you have to be forever adaptable to changes that are beyond your control but actually embrace that challenge, then the mindset is inherent.
In the comments on my first essay and Twitter chat on #howlround that followed, a few people pointed out the necessary distinction between being an entrepreneur and an entrepreneurial mindset that we need to embrace.
Artists tend to be visionary in their work, able to tap into cultural shifts and ideologies before they even come to fruition. How do we parallel that incredible futuristic insight towards the needs of an audience while simultaneously dealing with all of the production demands it takes just to get a show on its feet? That is the Achilles heel we all have to come to terms with.
First, here are some options for building a foundation for your work to get you thinking both pragmatically and creatively in directions that will benefit you and others.
Develop a cohort of trusted allies in the field to learn new skill sets.
Most people feel like they are alone in their efforts to make a go of it in the arts. Be proactive and start a cohort of trusted allies to speak with at least once a month about the ins and outs of the field. Talk about challenges, frustrations, successes, new models of audience engagement, and face-palming failures. When you speak with other artists in your field who are at the same career level, you create a fellowship which can lead to a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
Spend time developing best practices that can serve the group as a whole. Give each other homework and get yours done. Suggest that each month one person bring a unique problem or circumstance to the group and then focus on how to serve that person’s need. By addressing specific issues, members can learn invaluable methodologies.
Develop a board of advisors.
Mentors who have been in the field longer than you have an immense amount of life experience and deep understanding of the field that you need to access. From arts presenters, directors of service organizations, to retired faculty, gathering together an advisory board of people who are passionate about your vision will not only give you insights into your five-year plan (yeah, you need that too), but stop you from going off track. People who honor your creative process will also be served by being exposed to other colleagues on your board. Relationships can bloom from this cross-pollination of unique and strategic insights and can end up leading to small and large changes in the field; it all starts with challenging conversations that come from a place of deep caring.
Research other models of income for the live arts.
Ticket sales aren’t enough. The field freaks out about this on a regular basis. Duck! Here comes another panel on community engagement! How do we find alternative methods of reaching audiences and monetize that impact? From livestreaming to temporary pop-up stages, there have been many experiments how to go about this but there is no concrete solution, because what will work in one community will backfire in another only five miles down the road.
It’s important to understand the needs of each community and assess for yourself whether you even want to consider innovative methods of engagement, or whether you’re just in it for the potential funding. The passion and the need must align. What models are you using, how can they be tweaked, how can you measure the changes to benefit as many people as possible?
Secondly, here are things that we all need to advocate for in the field. We need to shift the landscape dramatically (no pun intended) to break down the hierarchy of artist/ funder/ academic institution/service organization.
We need to face the academic hurdles of access to this skill set head on.
Nytch’s post should make us take heed. Are arts entrepreneurship programs getting thrown together in order to compete for student dollars while appropriating the wrong language to sell basic skills under the premise of being your own boss? We need the fundamentals of marketing, fundraising, publicity, and identity-building being taught as early as freshman year in the university system, but we need to make it apparent that this should be an integral part of the curriculum and not an add-on, nor a certificate outside of the regular program. (Also there’s nothing special about being an entrepreneur. It’s fucking hard.)
The skills necessary to do well in the world are just as important as stage time. A weekend crash course like the one I teach is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough. Access to this knowledge needs to be more readily available and a system to measure and report metrics needs to be implemented. Students will feel empowered to see how entrepreneurial skills are transferable in many fields besides the arts.
We need a nationwide call to arms of all alumni and current students of arts programs at the BA level and up to make the faculty and administration aware of this critical issue. They need to get it on a cellular level. Careers will perish without the knowledge to make the work visible and sustainable. How do we get our voices heard in this context?
All the programs that currently exist for arts entrepreneurship and skill building developed by service organizations and academic institutions need to work together for the betterment of the field instead of being siloed.
Service organizations and academic institutions who currently teach ongoing skill building in the areas of arts professional development need to work in tandem, and come to agreements on best practices that can be shared as part of an educational commons. Proprietary methodology creates competitive resistance that has no place in the field. Let’s create the reality of overlapping support structures that bring everyone up to the same level.
The field changes at a rapid pace. It is to the benefit of all local, regional, and national organizations and institutions that serve artists to be building an infrastructure that works for the betterment of all involved instead of making decisions based on the fear of funder/donor requirements. Transparency is the name of the game here. Being a service organization goes back to the simplicity of being of service.
Are your local and/or regional service organizations working on a national level to make this information accessible, sharable, and updated as needed? Are you a part of one of these organizations? We need a call to action for advocates to work together so that we all can benefit.
Things to leave you with:
Are you getting yourself in the mindset to take your career by the horns and create effective change that is sustainable for yourself? Don’t isolate. Reach out, create cohorts and advisory boards that can assist you in thriving.
Are you learning the skill set necessary to get your career in order? Does your college need to know where they failed you? Are your go-to art service organizations working towards systematic change or are they stuck in the fear-based comfort of funder-approved educational tools?
Be an advocate not only for yourself but also for the field as a whole. An entrepreneurial mindset is not one of autonomous isolation but altruistic noncompetitive transparency. It is possible that we can all succeed beside one another.