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Arts Entrepreneurship, Getting It All Wrong

HeadShotIt’s been a long time since I’ve published a post here.  I’ve been writing a book on teaching arts entrepreneurship, and finding that completing it is like a dog chasing his tail:  just as I complete a section I come to understand the subject differently, so then need to revise.  My solution is the creation of a website (under construction) that will allow content to be shared, commented on and then edited (as appropriate).  Anyway, I had intended to stay quiet until the launch of this site, but I keep reading about schools of the arts adding programs in entrepreneurship, and in doing so describing these programs as providing students critical business skills.  And yes, of course they need critical business skills, but the student deficit that I’ve experienced over the past 15 years of teaching this subject is the ability to think creatively, to effectively imagine how they could create an entity, even if themselves, that can sustain itself in some fashion.

Yes, there are exceptions, but by and large students in the arts have a very difficult time escaping from the shackles of their craft.  To some extent I blame the curriculum of higher education in the arts, in that the coursework is pretty much all required, with few electives.  But perhaps more to blame is the extant pedagogy, especially in the performing arts.  Most especially, dance and music are taught by imprinting, i.e. copy me, do it as I do it.

The pedagogy of arts entrepreneurship needs to focus on idea generation first, and thoroughly before teaching “those critical business skills” that will sustain students beyond their college educations.




  1. One of the first things an independently minded, creative student might discover is that their art will never be a successful commercial enterprise unless they fundamentally compromise their aesthetic ideals. They might discover that the concepts of entrepreneurship that have been popularized over the last 20 years are in reality a form of political indoctrination that defines all human endeavor in terms of the market. They might discover that this concept of art is excessively reductive.

    It thus seems that the best students for entrepreneurship classes might be those who are bit less independent and creative, those whole values are a bit more opportunistic, those with a less committed artistic vision that allows them the detachment to formulate art around income instead of aesthetic beliefs.

    And among those more adaptable students, they might discover that even more commercially oriented visions of art still have such a narrow, transient, and small market that the faddish emphasis of entrepreneurship in art is misguided.

  2. Andrew Bales says

    I have spend many years acting in an entrepreneurial fashion in guiding arts groups, primarily in dance and music. The primary skill that I apply is to listen. (Some who know me aren’t certain that is evident, but over time that listening is proven by the design of what I have been able to evolve.) There is a need to find a marketplace and listen those those who will be your consumers. Then one must develop the straightest line between that aspirations of the art, and the desires of the public. The skill is separating yourself from the previously done and being direct in service to the consumer. The end product may look like many other groups but the internal workings may be quite different.

    While it is disappointing, few schools are turning out arts leaders with skill sets that achieve very much innovation. It is more of a nuts and bolts, get your hands dirty kind of profession. More can be learned from the mistakes, but the profession suffers from a governance problem that those who may have learned from errors, are often tossed aside before their hard learned lessons can be applied.

    Entrepreneurs in the private sector are routinely praised for the mistakes made en route to the grand wins, but the governance over site of the arts in America is more of a CYA by trustees who shy away from anyone whose record isn’t spotless or too sparse to reveal any vulnerability. It is seen as better to hire the young hotshot and hope, than to hire the experienced grizzled pro, as any bruises might reflect on the governing body’s judgement if they should reoccur. The young hotshot is seen as a calculated trial that may or may not succeed, but that choice is rarely reflected on the governing board, while any reoccurrence of vulnerability is always the headline. As a result governance works against improving the fields that they are asked to steward.

    Just a couple of cents to add to the topic…

    • Can you list some classical music groups that make enough profit that they can live from it? And can you tell us how many such groups there are? This might help us better see those straight lines between artistic aspiration and public desire.

      • Andrew Bales says

        There are always some unique outliers who capture the fancy of the market and soar out of the range of others but typically there is a gimmick in the mix. Three tenors comes to mind.

        It is serving an identified need, not profitability that I use to gauge institutional success. Doing it in a way that counters common practise is a measure of thinking differently about the issues facing supply and demand for cultural programs. In the symphonic world earned revenues hover in the 32% range while our orchestra began earning 65%. It has shifted over time, but it is still in the 60% range for core programs. But when we started you could amend the 65% in direct earned revenue with another 25% that came via donations from those who attended, i.e. those who used the product. While I haven’t run that number lately, we are not far enough off of that number to not see it is those who do attend who find ways to make this a sustainable venture.

        • The three tenors are definitely a commercial success story, stadiums and all, but of course, they were all famous before they formed their trio. They’re not a good example for young musicians looking to form commercial enterprises. Groups that comes to mind as more realistic models are the the Kronos Quartet and the Canadian Brass.

          Younger musicians have tried to emulate these groups, like Il Divo who capitalized on the three tenors scheme, though with far less success. And there are any number of brass quintets that try to make as much money as they can, though usually with limited success. There a quite a few contemporary music groups that do everything they can to appeal, but they still can’t live from what they do.

          Fringe markets are too easily saturated, especially when the markets are dominated by highly centralized systems of marketing and distribution. There’s usually room for one group at the top which squeezes all others out. The rest are left to local markets which can’t support them — unless they add an accordion to the group and do polkas for weddings or some such thing. And even most of those attempts fail.

          I take it you work for the Silicon Valley Symphony. It replaced the bankrupt San Jose Symphony which was situated in one of the richest parts of the world. The San Jose Opera also collapsed. There are no market strategies that will make orchestras and opera companies profitable even among in the wealthy Silicon Valley. They can sometimes increase their incomes through more popular programming and various outreach strategies, but they will never be self-supporting, and artistic integrity is significantly challenged.

          Similar circumstances also shape even chamber music, and there is little evidence to show otherwise. Groups with successful commercial enterprises are extremely rare. This is why the now popular philosophies of entrepreneurship are more ideological than realistic. In large part, they are an ineffective attempt to alleviate the problems caused by our dysfunctional, unique and isolated system of funding the arts by donations from the wealthy. The USA is the only developed country in the world without comprehensive systems of public arts funding. With ideological zeal we thus futilely turn to the market with what can’t be marketed.

          • Andrew Bales says

            You were correct I work at Symphony Silicon Valley and it was started to alter the paradigm here following the end of the West’s oldest symphony. Opera San Jose is very much still alive and making its first significant leadership transition which will test its model, but for now it very much here and with significant cash reserves.

            I agree three tenors was a facile answer and Kronos or maybe Chanticleer are better examples, but of course both of those are also public benefit entities that rely on donations in addition to earned income.

            I am not sure where you are going with your position on all this. One can work on the better mouse trap or abandon the building to the mice. You appear to feel incremental improvements are not evidence of an
            entrepreneurial approach, so be it, but the example of other countries being more inherently supportive through government support is a fading dream too as increasingly budget pressures are restricting those support mechanisms all over the world. In the end audiences are essential to a support mechanism for the arts and being responsive to, while still exploring, is the only path I find interesting enough to pursue.

            The great dilemma is not that the arts have no inherent marketplace, but that the cost structure is fixed in a way that is not able to significantly provide productivity improvements. So there are audiences willing to pay, but are those resources able to keep up with a fixed cost base that can’t deliver the same product for dramatically less. It is all revenue driven while most industries are able to also pare back expenses. A one-way challenge that requires the best minds to keep chasing it. In our case we did start with a dramatically reduced overhead, but that leaves nothing to cut next. It set out a path, but it requires continuous tailoring.

            Chamber music, by the way is in even greater disarray, it is on a shorter path to living at the edge of poetry, one of the truly wonderful but unemployable art forms. Lime poets, the vast

          • My concern isn’t that incremental or small improvements aren’t useful, but that the entrepreneurship ideology doesn’t clearly state that small improvements are about all that can be realistically expected.

            Europe’s system of public funding is not fading. For most of the 35 or so countries public arts funding has remained stable and there a few compelling reasons to expect that will change. About four countries have reduced funding, but only temporarily due to ecomonic conditions. I can provide documented numbers if you want them. (I have lived in Europe for the last 35 years.)

            Good news about the SJO. Even though San Jose is one of the richest places on earth, the city ranks 186th for opera performances per year.

            An essential aspect of capitalism is that it must constantly create more efficient systems of production. Traditional art forms can’t which is why they cannot exist solely in the marketplace. This is also why the mixed ecomonies of Europe’s social democracies are better at supporting large art forms like orchestras and opera companies.

            This is nothing new. Marx described the problem with astounding accuracy in 1848:

            “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

            I’m no Marxist, but the guy had some things right.

  3. Andrew Bales says

    No idea where the last 4 words came from?

  4. Andrew Bales says

    I engage a number of artists from around the world and I know first hand that almost all (including the rather privileged arts support countries like Germany) are aggressively trimming back and not replacing it with private funding, so there is substantial pressure there. I made my living in European arts world early in my career so I too know that world, and it is changing.

    I also think substantial changes should be considered as well. I was just responding to one of your earlier notes. Glad we clarified and agree on that point.

    I have no problem with the right ideas even if Marx was among the authors.

    • Anecdotal comments by artists are a poor source for such info. They always yammer about there not being enough money. Here is a report by the Council of Europe which shows the actual numbers:

      Between 200 and 2009 cultural funding rose in 10 of the 30 countries listed. There were drops in 9 countries — all small countries facing economic problems. Budget cuts were made across the board, not just in the arts. The small rises and drops even out overall. Economic conditions since 2009 have stressed budgets, but there is still no evidence any small reductions are permanent, that Europe’s public system is failing, or that their philosophy of public funding is being dropped, much to the chagrin of American opponents of public arts funding.

  5. Great post.

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