Is ‘arts entrepreneurship’ training really just career prep?

Over in his State of the Art blog, James Undercofler wonders if most of the ‘arts entrepreneurship’ initiatives on higher education campuses are really just mis-named career prep efforts. He identifies two tracks of business training that seem to be running separately:

One relates to enhanced student preparation for careers or potential careers after graduation. The other mirrors “true” entrepreneurship, the creation of new ventures and enterprises.
After exploring many of these programs myself, I’d agree with Undercofler that the majority of them are really career preparation and professional practice initiatives — helping students craft their resumes, polish their interview skills, and understand the basic business issues required of a life in the field. But I’m still stewing on how far from ‘true’ entrepreneurship these efforts are.
There are many definitions of ‘entrepreneur.’ The definitions that capture the word with some clarity tend to read like this: ‘An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of a new enterprise, venture, or idea and assumes significant accountability for the inherent risks and the outcome.’ Back in the olden days (last year, or the year before) that ‘new enterprise, venture, or idea’ manifested in a separate entity from the individual — a corporation, LLC, or the like. And third-party capital, cash, or debt provided that venture the fuel to run.

But in a world of increasingly distributed business structures, more networks than independent entities, entrepreneurship and life as a working artist seem to be growing toward each other. Both require ‘portfolio’ strategies, building multiple income streams and constituent networks that somehow all cohere toward a singular vision. Both require a broad and deep understanding of business and contract relationships to foster the tiny margins that combine to make businesses (or careers) cash positive.

Undercofler suggests that organizational design and innovation is the future of entrepreneurship in the arts (rethinking the 501c3, and such). I’m wondering if the organization will lose some energy in the coming arts world, and become more of a tool among many tools rather than the only tool in the box. We’re increasingly organizing activities without organizations (as Clay Shirky would remind us). And in that world, creative careers are solutions to be designed, not tracks to be followed.

I completely agree with Jim about the need to define, with some clarity, what outcomes we’re looking for in our ‘arts entrepreneurship’ efforts in higher education. For students who want to become employees of arts and culture organizations, we need career development and professional practice support (and we need to call it that). For students who want to design their career — either through multiple simultaneous part-time careers, or through new organizational ventures — ‘entrepreneurship’ training, sensitive to the arts industries, seems the better word and the better path.


  1. says

    However, I’m still up in the air about whether or not these artists in ‘arts entrepreneurship’ should be taught to sway to the whims of the market… or just follow the rabbit hole that is their work, and let the market warm up to them.

  2. says

    There is a burgeoning movement of artists who are thinking more like entrepreneurs., Hugh McLeod, and several other artists have done a great job teaching artists how they have an ‘unfair advantage’ in business – being uniquely creative.
    With the right business training, it’s been my experience that artists create careers that in and of themselves are works of art.

  3. says

    Great post!
    As a life and career coach working with conservatory-trained musicians, I see a lot of creative thinking out there about how to change the paradigm of classical music and make it relevant and engaging. This is true entrepreneurship: having a vision, making a plan, seizing opportunities, overcoming obstacles and having the confidence to make the vision a reality. Conservatories and universities who provide training, skills and opportunities to develop entrepreneurship are doing our students and the field of classical music a great service.

  4. says

    Thanks Andrew for a provocative post. Your idea that entrepreneurship has become more personal is convincing to me. Trending phrases like “personal brand” reflect this transformation.
    The big shift for most art students (at least in music where I work) is just what Adam describes — using school as a kind of rabbit hole which protects the artist from the outside world / market for a time to allow him/her to develop a craft. It takes a lot of time and effort to become a violinist capable of winning a job in a full-time symphony. School creates an environment where that work can happen.
    What’s tricky is the transition after graduation, usually a time when the artist needs to keep developing, yet requires enough cashflow to subsist. This is when a mental shift is required, rather than the perennial “starving artist,” the developing artist can benefit from the notion that he/she is a business that sells multiple products and services to a variety of clients. These products can be private teaching of young violinists, or doing graphic design for the Web, or writing/performing music for commercials. So-called “day jobs” can be helpful as well in establishing a broader network and developing skills.
    Art schools have a responsibility to prepare young artists for this transition. But it seems to me that what’s needed here is not so much the ability to create a resume or write a cover letter, so much as the ability to imagine oneself as a business. This is a big leap for many artists and what entrepreneurship education can assist.
    Yet this work happens not just in the classroom. The power of Arts Enterprise, a national student organization of extracurricular clubs, is simply that it puts students in leadership positions and invites them to action. By experiencing life outside the rabbit hole, even within the overall safety of an academic environment, students can be better prepared for life after graduation. It’s not so important what they do, but that they do. When traditional career development is passive, when it relies on t he market to present opportunities, it fails to inspire students to action. Not every artist needs to take this approach, but if many do artists can be a more powerful force for job creation and, I think, art will be better—will become more vibrant, diverse, active and engaged in our communities.

  5. says

    At ASU we’ve defined AE as creating one’s own opportunities for creativity. That involves a holistic approach to training in one’s own discipline, in the skills of career development, AND organizational design (with a little new venture creation too). The issues are not only of what to teach, but how to teach it to develop the entrepreneurial habits of mind students need to support their future successes.

  6. sandra says

    I run a program at Arts Alliance in Ann Arbor, MI called “Art Meets Business.” I individually coach artists, musicians, writers, actors, and other creative entrepreneurs on the business side of their business. These people are wildly creative and committed to practicing their art as a vocation, but they typically have little understanding of the tools that can help small business owners succeed, from marketing to finance to the uses of technology. There are almost no programs I know of at colleges and universities to prepare artists for self-employment or entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have distinct perspectives and personality traits that set them apart from corporate employees. Yet, few business school offerings are geared to entrepreneurs, and almost none to artists. Seems like a major gap in higher education that needs to be addressed!

  7. says

    This is a thought provoking post, Andrew. I have to agree with Undercofler regarding most arts entrepreneurship programs being career preps. However, I also think that there are services like this today that prepare students for the real world. Thanks to the efforts of the people who understand the common ground for business and arts, there are many artists today who are now thinking more like entrepreneurs and are making their artworks not just as mere displays, but also as profitable opportunities.

  8. says

    My name is Jim Hart and I founded and serve as Rektor of The International Theatre Academy Norway, a full-time conservatory in Theatre Entrepreneurship. TITAN is located in Oslo, Norway.
    We offer a unique marriage of both a high level of artistic technique (acting, directing, writing and producing), as well as entrepreneurial classes.
    TCG (Theatre Communications Group) has recently published an article in which I call for a new standard in arts education, with arts entrepreneurship being that standard. Please check it out.
    Jim Hart