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Open for Business

Trainers preach a new gospel of self-empowerment, even in the most collaborative of art forms

A discussion moderated by Janice C. Simpson

It seems that everybody is claiming to be an entrepreneur these days. And why not? The concept is no longer defined just in terms of some business guy or gal with a new idea and a knack for selling it. Chefs, scientists, journalists and artists of all stripes are now devising innovative ways to do, fund and market their work.

Of course, theatre people are no strangers to this DIY approach. Coming up with smart new ways to tell stories is what working in the theatre has always been about. And creating strategies to get that work before audiences has usually been part of the job description, too.

But that task has become tougher over the past few years. The recession has made it harder to get funding from both public and private sources. Audience tastes—and audiences themselves—are changing. Technology has emerged as both a rival for the public’s attention and an ally that has the unique ability to engage it—and even to raise money from it (Kickstarter, anyone?).

The techniques that artists used to learn in the conservatory, or later pieced together on their own, are no longer enough to navigate this changing terrain, and within the past few years, schools around the country as different as George Mason University, the Juilliard School and North Carolina State University have introduced courses and programs to prepare their students to deal with these new realities.

Spurred on by money from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a major promoter of entrepreneurship in all fields, some schools have retooled the arts management programs they already had to focus less on the stewardship of existing organizations and more on identifying ways to shake things up.

“Arts management creates structure for an existing place,” says David McGraw, who has run the University of Iowa’s arts entrepreneurship program since 2003. By contrast, “Arts entrepreneurship is looking for opportunities to challenge the status quo.”

In that enterprising spirit, other schools have built new programs from the ground up, and focused them on teaching artists how to take better charge of their careers, be it learning how to bootstrap their own funding or mastering the art of the elevator pitch (one of the skills taught at Southern Methodist University).

In some instances, students are taking the initiative themselves. In 2006, a group of students at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus started Arts Enterprise, an organization in which business students and arts students could share skills and collaborate on projects. The AE website now boasts some eight chapters which have organized more than 150 programs.

All these efforts fall under the umbrella term of arts entrepreneurship—and because the field is so new, the term itself is still being defined. So American Theatre brought together a panel of four of the leading practitioners of arts entrepreneurship, all of whom have enjoyed long careers as practicing theatre artists, to talk about how they define it and how they teach it in the classroom:

• Lynn Book, an interdisciplinary performance artist, is associate director of creativity for the program in entrepreneurship and liberal arts at Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, N.C. She is also the co-editor of Creativity and Entrepreneurship: Changing Currents in Education and Public Life, which will be released later this year.

• Linda Essig, a nationally known lighting designer, was the founding director of the School of Theatre and Film in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and heads ASU’s seven-year-old Pave program in arts entrepreneurship. She is also the co-editor of Artivate, a new online journal about entrepreneurship in the arts.

James Hart, an actor and director who got his MFA at Yale School of Drama, is director of the arts entrepreneurship minor in the Division of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship, which began two years ago at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. He is also the founder of TITAN, the International Theatre Academy Norway, the first school in Europe to offer intensive training in arts entrepreneurship.

• David McGraw, an Equity stage manager, is director of the University of Iowa’s performing arts entrepreneurship certificate program and a featured author in the recently released book 20UNDER40: Re-inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century.

Here are some excerpts from their discussion, which took place in early November.

JANICE SIMPSON: Could each of you define—maybe not in 25 words or less, but in a few sentences—what arts entrepreneurship means to you?

Arts entrepreneurship is about teaching artists to create their own opportunities so that they can make a living with their skill sets. I see our current model of education and theatrical training as an antiquated one. It’s desperately in need of change. One of the problems with arts education in general is that artists are trained in arts technique only and get very little in the way of real business skills, which leads to the stereotype of the starving artist—and I want to fill that gap.

DAVID MCGRAW: For me, arts entrepreneurship is looking at audiences that we are not reaching, or at how we are not meeting the needs or desires of our existing audiences, and then finding a way outside the structures that are already in place to be more nimble at serving them.

LINDA ESSIG: I agree with both David and Jim, but I also see arts entrepreneurship as a field on a continuum that runs from the traditional new business start-up model all the way through to the other end, where artists think entrepreneurially about how to manage their careers. As an educator, I try to address that continuum by doing things, like the ones David suggests, that help people to find new audiences for their work; and also by doing what Jim suggests, about empowering artists to use their creative skill sets.

LYNN BOOK: The idea of open possibilities is really important—and not just in terms of finding the gaps and the opportunities as they exist for serving audiences, but also for serving the artists themselves, including the artistic collaboratives and groups and organizations that push the field forward in really dynamic ways.

All of your programs started roughly within the last five or six years. Why is there so much interest in this now?

I believe there are two major factors that we’re experiencing right now. One is a very difficult economy, where grants are less available than they’ve been before. Purse strings have tightened up. Traditional opportunities are not as available as they have been in the past. But I also believe that artists are coming to the realization that tools such as digital technology have expanded their audiences.

MCGRAW: Yes, now artists can connect with their audiences very cheaply and very quickly. But even more important, our audiences can talk back. We’ve moved beyond the idea that we have this curator who’s going to tell the audience what they should want. Instead we have to listen. We have to engage with our audience. They will go elsewhere if we don’t.

ESSIG: There are two other factors that can’t be discounted. One is that in the late 1990s, you started to see this discourse around the creative industries that positioned the arts as part of a larger ecology that includes film, video and gaming, all of which are more profit-oriented. And the other thing is the influence of the Kauffman Foundation. Six years ago was when the foundation started adopting campuses and infusing entrepreneurship education with some money. I don’t think they necessarily had arts entrepreneurship on their radar when they started doing this. But artists are inherently entrepreneurial. They make something new and put it out in the world—that’s what entrepreneurs do.

BOOK: This rise of interest in creativity and entrepreneurship has also been spurred by Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class and his whole economic analysis of the role that artists and people who support the arts play in becoming economic engines for revitalization.

Economics and the role of money is a theme that runs through what all of you are saying. So how does teaching artists to be entrepreneurial differ from the way that entrepreneurship might be taught at a business school?

ESSIG: A lot of it has to do with the means-and-ends relationship. When we teach entrepreneurship to artists, or within an arts context, we’re not necessarily teaching them business skills so that they can maximize profit. We’re teaching them business skills so they can maximize creative opportunity.

HART: This is a burgeoning discipline, and people are trying to develop models to find out what works best. It’s really important, as we develop, that future curriculum appeal to artistic sensibilities. If artists want to receive an MBA, for example, they can go do it. We need to be able to teach arts entrepreneurship in such a way that it doesn’t discourage artists, but it encourages them.

Can you give me an example of how you do that?

HART: I believe art is learned best by doing, as opposed to professorial pontificating from the podium. If you learn through experience, you come to own your knowledge. For example, in my former program in Oslo, we would give the students an assignment to create a one-person show. They had to write, direct, act and produce their show themselves in groups of two. But they also had to market it on their own. They had to create press. They had to generate a budget, they had to fundraise. They had to find a professional or quasi-professional performance space within the Oslo community. They had to negotiate contracts. If they needed any technical assistance, they had to negotiate that. In essence, they had to be entirely self-sufficient in this process. The goal was always artistic excellence, but simultaneously to make more money than they spent. Some succeeded very well. And some failed. You can’t separate risk from the definition of entrepreneurship.

MCGRAW: I completely agree. You cannot be risk-averse. That is one of the cornerstones of entrepreneurship. My program at the University of Iowa is a bridge between the arts disciplines and the business college. On day one, the students are given the task of coming up with an arts-based event to introduce new students to the campus. Once they’ve made those proposals we say, “How do you know the students want this?” So after they come up with these brilliant ideas, they have to go back and start talking with people about what they want, and what their expectations are. Then they have to do the business management side of it. Logistics. Marketing plans. And then we take it to the next level. We do crowd-sourced voting, in which the general university population can choose which of these ideas is the most appealing to them. The students really are faced with the hard fact that regardless of what their professors think, it’s what their peers think about their idea that matters. So they really are moving back and forth between the original ideas and what the market will bear, and working from both sides.

BOOK: In the arts entrepreneurship classes I’ve taught, we’ve included students from across all of the arts. So that the visual arts students, the art history students, the theatre kids, the dance kids, and so on, are exchanging lots of really different and really important information, not only about their art forms but about how exactly they do it. Another way of sharing is getting the students to become savvy with social media and other kinds of digital platforms. For instance, they create a wiki, a blog. Then they team up in small pairs to research and report back on what they’ve learned. It becomes a really important exchange.

ESSIG: We also take an experiential approach. Often we’ll have teams of business students, computer science students and arts students working together on projects. A lot of time and learning happens outside of the traditional course. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to support an incubator program, so a lot of the learning has happened experientially through that incubator.

How does that work?

ESSIG: Students apply to develop a project—to receive funding and mentorship, and the business services that a business incubator usually provides. One of the things that universities can do is help students recognize opportunity, recognize risk and then help them to minimize that risk. Student teams fortunate enough to be accepted into the incubator have a year-long or two-year-long process to launch their idea. There have been several successful projects to come out of that—the Phoenix Fringe Festival was launched out of our incubator.

But what if I’m a student who wants to go to a drama school because I simply want to perform? I don’t want to be an arts manager or start a festival. How would this entrepreneurial thing work for me?

HART: If you have entrepreneurial training, you’ll better understand how the market functions. You’ll be better able to compete. You’ll understand your type and you can use that knowledge in such a way to gain additional work. You’ll understand how to fundraise so that if you want to simultaneously pursue commercial work and pursue original work, you’ll have the skills to do that. The SMU program offers a minor degree. All of the students have their majors, but every first-year student is now required to take the introduction to arts entrepreneurship. So in addition to the high degree of artistic technique that they’re learning and the experience that they’re gaining in artistic excellence, they have the option of simultaneously gaining these skills in the way of the minor. It’s important to stress that we can never sacrifice the artistic component. But at SMU, some of the other skills that the students gain are really valuable: collective brainstorming, understanding how an idea doesn’t exist just in a bubble, building on ideas collectively for a common purpose.

BOOK: Wake Forest is a liberal arts institution and there is no arts entrepreneurship major or minor. The students are not taught or encouraged to become specifically arts entrepreneurs, but rather they are given dual skills. They’re given a discourse so that they can analyze and understand social entrepreneurship, which I see as a 21st-century way of exploiting the independent risk-taking and development of an idea that is geared toward the good of the people, and that the business model will serve. We’re not graduating entrepreneurs; we’re graduating students who can actually critically combine their knowledge and make some kind of impact on their own personal life, and also in the world.

MCGRAW: When I arrived at the University of Iowa, we actually had a full-out major in arts management. But we found that students were coming in with the impression they were getting half of an arts major and half of a business major, and not going far enough in either. A bigger problem was that these students were no longer seeing themselves as artists. But you cannot simply be a performer nowadays and believe that someone will take care of you. So now we offer a certificate, so you still earn a full degree in theatre, dance, music, cinema—but, regardless of which artistic pathway you choose, the classes you take for the certificate will equip you with the tools to understand your own personal brand, your ability to get work, and the process of fitting in at all of these levels.

ESSIG: Like at Iowa, our students major in their arts discipline and then can, starting next year, get a certificate in entrepreneurship that helps them to create their own opportunities. One of the most important things we can teach any artist is to have the habits of mind to proactively put their work out into the world. That’s sort of another definition of arts entrepreneurship: developing these habits of mind for proactive creativity. If students are thinking of themselves as artists, they need to know what that is going to mean in terms of persistence and resilience and communications skills—and a sense of humor in dealing with the world. What drives our curricular structure is the question: What is it going to take to help artists to create their own opportunities and sustain their careers? The answer could be as simple as the actor who doesn’t just have a headshot and a résumé, but actually goes out, develops a website and networks so that artistic directors and casting directors are driven to that website. They can do the work that they want to do because they understand that to do that—to get there—you need the skill set to get your talents out into the marketplace.

All of you have mentioned technology and social media. Why is that so important?

ESSIG: There’s the marketing piece, which I just mentioned. But there’s also the distribution piece. Because creators can be their own distributors, that’s a huge effect that technology is going to have. How many of us have used something like New Play TV or streaming to see the work of our colleagues across the country? It’s exciting.

HART: Generation Y, this generation that is in college right now, grew up digital. In fact, they created social media. With social media you can develop an audience, however freaky-deeky your ideas are, however original your visions are. [Wired co-founder] Kevin Kelly says that you don’t need a million fans—you need a thousand true fans. And if you have a thousand true fans, those individuals are going to show up at your performances. They’re going to share information about you. They’re going to help distribute content for you. You can begin to create with that audience in mind, and that’s a very powerful tool to have in your creative arsenal.

BOOK: I’d like to pick up on the technology piece from one more angle: We should be training our artists in both artistic innovation and entrepreneurial innovation. The piece we haven’t discussed much yet is the innovation piece. Wrestling with the technology in a deeply artistic way—and you cannot not do that today—is also a way of innovating. And that, in and of itself, is a very powerful idea for students to understand and embrace. It’s quite different from marketing for particular audiences, or marketing period.

ESSIG: I agree completely. You have the marketing piece, you have the distribution piece, then you have the innovation piece, all related to technology.

There’s been a lot of talk about creating to meet the desires and needs of the audience, but isn’t it the job of the artist to take the audience to places where they never dreamed of going? Is it really a good thing for artists to be so focused on what the audience wants, instead of what they can give the audience?

ESSIG: There’s a difference between pandering to the audience and creating for a specific audience. I think plenty of artists make art just for themselves and for their companies. What I try to teach my students is that an entrepreneurial artist is making art for other people to see.

HART: You’re right, Linda. Artists very often say that art is a deeply personal experience. But you can create art for art’s sake, and you can create for others simultaneously. Any good playwright understands that the audience is two steps ahead of them. If you create with that notion in mind, you don’t pander to your audience. You don’t assume that they’re less intelligent than you are.

MCGRAW: I agree—and moving the audience away from being passive receptors is a good thing. It’s not that we’re training audiences as much as we’re making them aware and getting them engaged early enough so they’re part of the journey instead of following us.

How have your students responded to these courses?

HART: I find students love it. They love it because we look to them to come up with original concepts. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, said that creative minds play with what interests them. We try to identify: What makes you tick? What motivates you? What causes you to lose all track of time when you’re doing an activity? Focus on that.

MCGRAW: We’ve been seeing tremendous growth at the University of Iowa in this program for the four years it’s been running, and a lot of it is that students have more control over their destiny. Also, they see for themselves, and rightly so, that they’re far more complex as artists than a job title that we might give them reflects. This allows them to approach all those layers of complexity and really pull each of the strings. It’s been great moving forward here.

BOOK: The entrepreneurship and enterprise minor at Wake Forest is in its sixth year; within three years it was the largest, most popular minor on campus. What I tell students on the first day of class is, “You all are researchers here. You are all on the front lines of transforming higher education.” And this is very empowering, because they really understand that they have a stake. They are co-creating not only the class, but they are contributing to this larger emerging field of arts entrepreneurship, to creativity and innovation strategies. They are all interlinked.

If there were one thing you wanted your students to take away from your programs, what would that be?

BOOK: I’d like it if they could walk out thinking: “No, I don’t have to go work for the man, nine to five.” Or: “I don’t have to be moping around not being able to perform my work in the way I thought I wanted to.” They should know, in fact, that they are empowered. That they have the capacity to be agents in the world in shaping not only their own personal lives, but that sense of what could happen in a public space. To me, that self-other relationship is very powerful.

HART: I would say “liberty,” in a word. What I mean by that is that liberty is a form of self-sufficiency. Not having to rely on others for all one’s creative opportunities, not waiting by the phone, not relying entirely—and I emphasize entirely—on agents and managers, directors, casting directors, producers, all of the people who hold up the job carrot; but working with them, and simultaneously knowing how to create one’s own opportunities.

MCGRAW: We’ve been talking a lot about new ventures and new components, but I think that so much of our industry is in stagnation right now. With the birth of the NEA back in the ’60s, we had these pioneers founding all these theatres. Now these theatres have reached middle age and are functioning in a much different way than the founders originally envisioned. It worries me that some of our theatres have grown so large, and so many people depend upon them for their livelihood, that they are less able to take the risks that they did in the beginning. So I want my students to be able to reexamine and reinvent the existing structures—I hope that’s a takeaway they have.

ESSIG: Our takeaway is summed up in the motto carpe futurum—seize the future. We want our students to not just look down at their feet and seize the present, but to look out at the landscape in front of them and have the skills and the mind-set to follow whatever path they choose.

Janice C. Simpson is co-director of the arts journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the author of the theatre blog Broadway & Me.