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Cultural Entrepreneurship

A number of students whom I taught at the Eastman School of Music in the Institute for Music Leadership, and now an impressive number of students whom I teach at Drexel are not interested in entering the established not-for-profit arts and culture sector.  They have dynamic and important ideas they want to move forward.  They are committed to the arts as an instrument of positive social change.  They are the innovators who can supply the energy needed now more than ever to revitalize the impact of the arts in our towns and cities.

Sadly, my past experience in working with these extraordinary young people is that despite their personal investment (s) in their enterprises, only a handful survives.  Multiple reasons comprise the challenges and difficulties faced.  It’s worth an analysis and discussion of these reasons, so that we in the “establishment” can better enable these emerging social entrepreneurs. 

It’s advisable here for me to offer a definition of cultural or social entrepreneurism.  I choose to intentionally not use the word, arts, as the modifier.  In my experience, I have discerned a distinct difference between the creation of a string quartet that seeks to support itself from performance and education outreach revenue and an after-school creative writing program that seeks to teach literacy through poetry and story-telling.  I am interested in how to enable the latter, the artist/social activist who sees how the arts can tackle core societal challenges.  There are other, imagined cultural entrepreneurship projects that can be described as purely artistic, but that locate themselves within communities with the intent of cooperative transformation.  

The cultural entrepreneur faces challenges that differ significantly from the business entrepreneur.  A great idea well-crafted, a sound business plan that includes the formation of an LLC, fund raising for start-up capital from profit-minded investors, and talented and committed personnel form the framework for success for a business entrepreneur.  For the cultural entrepreneur: a great well-crafted idea, a sound business plan that includes any number of organizational options, start-up capital from a meager number of public or private foundation funders (most charitable foundations and government funders require 3 years of successful operation before an organization can apply for grant monies), and talented and committed personnel (who are willing to work in the enterprise for almost nothing, and who often hold hourly jobs to support themselves) form the almost insurmountable obstacles for the cultural entrepreneur.

To facilitate the transition from the well-crafted great idea to sustainable enterprise we must focus as a field on organizational and funding challenges and options, while at the same time, in the classroom additionally focus on how to build a realistic and sustainable business plan for these ideas. 

I’m working on a curriculum for a course in cultural entrepreneurship and in future blogs will present ideas and seek discussion. 





  1. I would be very interested to see the final curriculum. I have been working in the field as a cultural entrepreneur since 1969 and believe any cultural program must have a social benefit component. Currently, I have been working with Tanzanians since 2006 and will be working in Jordan and Lebanon in 2011 as well with cultural people of all ages advising them on start-up businesses and growth opportunities. The Tanzanian project website is: Looking forward to future information.

  2. So far what you described is no different from starting a new nonprofit. For all the talk about the nonprofit model being “broken” (which I agree it is), no one seems to have a better, more sustainable model.

  3. Like Martin, I too would be interested in seeing anything you produce that would introduce or further the conversation. Current/traditional academia is often more of a hindrance that a tool or true advocate for change on this matter. Many academics live by the maxim that “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” The most unfortunate part of this is that “It is broke, but they won’t admit it or support true change.”
    Perhaps the most furtile ground for growing and furthering cultural entrepreneurship among N-F-Ps will be via (non credit bearing) business institutions and programs. My feeling on this stems from the realization that the most frequent sources of change, in order of willingness and ability to do so, are Business, Government, and then Education (followed lastly by Organized Religion).
    In fact, some months ago, National Public Radio ran a Morning Edition series on Not-for-Profits and the challenges they face. The investigative reporters identified a trend that they submit will likely catch on. It is one that combines Not and For profit business resulting in small, medium, and large for profit businesses establishing their own 501 C 3 entities to directly effect the changes and causes they want to see. Of course, some are already doing so via corporate sponsored foundations. If you’re interested in the NPR series, I’ll try to locate it and post it here.
    In the meantime, I aplaud your work.

  4. Thanks — yes, I would be interested in the NPR program. Here in Philly the World Cafe Live established its own NFP,, as a means to expand their work and build their business.

  5. I am also interested in participating in conversation about this set of ideas and how they translate into curriculum. An increasing number of my students, particularly from our producing program, but also from all areas of practice at California Institute of the Arts are looking for flexible models for organizing, attracting resources to, and sustaining their creative and social change-oriented work. One notable example is the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (

  6. One model that may help some cultural entrepreneurs is the charter school. It provides funding, allows some autonomy, and provides more contact hours than an after-school program.
    This model won’t work for everyone, and it certainly has its challenges, but it offers opportunities for deep and sustained learning.

  7. You should definitely follow these folks. They are doing some great work here in New Mexico.

  8. Thank you — this site is superb, and it’s clear that the organization is doing great work.

  9. My view is that the arts, especially nonprofit theatre, started becoming more about social change twenty-some years ago when artistic directors enjoyed the benefits of superior marketing programs and personnel. It wasn’t enough to fill the seats, we needed to find the right kind of person to help bring about their agenda for social change. Major foundations coast-to-coast joined this effort and imposed it on some who might not have gone this direction by establishing “outreach” requirements or by discontinuing general support for artistic production. But I agree that the connection between the For and Non profit worlds is a more significant trend.
    Finally, if academic arts management programs want to improve, theI suggestion you find a way to attract and integrate more instructors with meaningful time spent in the trenches.

  10. Stacey Louiso says

    Being a creative professional who is about to dive into creation of an art/culture based “business” (or by “suggestion” of the IRS, a non-profit)
    I would be very interested in following this conversation to fruition and any new ideas for the creative business model.
    Also interesting in having the question as to WHY anything related to the arts/culture, needs to be categorized as non-profit? I know there are a scattering of art “businesses” (such as an arts center near Seattle that chose to be for profit) which are not and feel the option should be easier to be “for profit” especially in today’s environment.

  11. What an important contribution. I passionately believe in the continuity of the creative process and the importance of social and cultural entrepreneurship, especially in the light of the current economic climate. The traditional educational division into type (fine art, design, communication, media), medium (painting, installation, textiles, sculpture), and orientation (not-for-profit, for-profit) is stagnant and unsupportive towards equipping budding cultural professionals with the flexible and transferable skills needed so badly.
    The post-graduate management course I designed has just been validated. It offers a focus on transferable project management theory and skills, a holistic approach to enterprise. That does not in itself solve the problem outlined above, however, and I would be most interested in contributing to the discussion.

  12. Non-profit or for profit is not important. Creating and sustaining a revenue stream that makes your mission possible is what many start-ups take lightly. What about a coaching program oriented towards cultural entrepreneurs rather than a MBA program? (Like those offered by E-Myth or Action International.)
    Interestingly, there are companies that traditionally would be for profit that are forming as non- profits, such as the record labels Jdub and Livewired.

  13. I am a new arts entrepreneur. I have started a profit making arts organization in NEW DELHI , INDIA. I will follow this blog now. Please do send me all the updates. have a look to my 1st initiative
    I read the blog and I am thrilled..
    I m broke in 7 months of putting my & my partners personal funds in the venture. I am still trying hard to raise funds.
    Please send me suggestions.

  14. Dear Shikha, I will not be blogging about entrepreneurship for a while — need to get some thoughts out about organizational issues. I will, however, begin again in winter, as I get nearer to teaching my course on the topic. Check out the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY.

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