Missional Arts Entrepreneurship

I’m not certain that entrepreneurship is the right model. That still requires a capitalist approach. and capitalism in theater leads to middle brow dreck. – Comment by Uke Jackson, in Arts Entrepreneurship post

For some artists, the term entrepreneurship has negative connotations, as it is a term used mainly in the business field. For some, it means more about the focus on making money above anything else. Travis Bedard comments, in the same post as Jackson, “Folks [theater practitioners] who aren’t trying to ignore that we don’t have a widget to sell but rather are trying to adapt their model to monetizing what we DO have.” Theaters might not have a tangible product, but they are selling something. They are selling ideas and have a specific mission through which they are building relationships with their audience members. This requires innovation, creativity, teamwork, and the handling of ambiguity, all traits of an entrepreneurship mindsent. (Essig, 118)

There is a great journal article in the September 2009 issue of Theatre Topics entitled Suffusing Entrepreneurship Education throughout the Theater Curriculum by Linda Essig. Essig is director of the School of Theatre and Film at Arizonia state University and director of ASU’s p.a.v.e program in arts entrepreneurship.

The article proposes the definition of entrepreneurship to be “the spirit and process of creative risk taking”. With this definition in mind, entrepreneurship becomes mission-based, one that is designed to advance a mission rather than generate profit for shareholders. Essig links entrepreneurship to the arts by the themes of taking risks (artistic, financial, or personal) to create one’s own opportunities. “This idea differs from arts management programs which focus on how to run an arts organization, arts entrepreneurship focuses on how to manage innovation, ambiguity, and change required to launch an arts-based venture or support creativity in the performing arts.” (118)

When I was a freelance designer without academic affiliation over two decades ago, my actor friends and I used to wait for the proverbial phone to ring while waiting tables or working temp jobs. In a good year, the phone might ring often enough. But times change and the climate for theatre artists changes as well. There is more competition and fewer opportunities in traditional theatre forms in the major theatre cities of New York, Seattle, and Chicago than there were then. Yet, as small and medium-sized cities [with possibly less than 100k?] build performing arts facilities [read Don Hall’s great post on government subsidized theater buildings], new opportunities arise to produce, perform, direct, design, or teach theatre as these new venues seek community-centered programming. (119)

While Engig goes into how artists need entrepreneurial skills like marketing a freelance career, negotiations, legal and tax issues, in the light of the topic of self-producing, the starting of an arts-based business is an aspect that I want to look at in the article. Through the performance arts venture program (p.a.v.e.), this arts entrepreneurship incubator selects twelve students to form a collective board that produces a season of plays in a black-box theater. These students, with guidance from the faculty, create a season of plays and run their own theater. Each take on the speicific roles needed like general manager, marketing director, literary director, etc. The student led theater has become very popular and generates 80% audience capacity for its productions. This mindset of creating opportunity filters into the type of entrepreneurial art classes provided at ASU. The arts entrepreneurship class itself was first taught in the fall 2007 semester:

This trans-disciplinary course relies heavily on guest arts entrepreneurs, who share their start-up stories with the class. The case-study approach is a common method for teaching entrepreneurship in business schools, and is adapted here for the arts-oriented student constituency. Another focus of the class is development of mission and vision: the culminating project of the course is not a full-blown business plan, as one might expect from the business school model of entrepreneurship education, but rather the development of a thoughtful and well-articulated mission and vision for an arts-based venture. (122)

The Phoenix Fringe Festival and Progressive Theatre Workshop are two projects created by students while in the p.a.v.e. program. The students applied and received up to $5,000 dollars in seed money to start each project. I agree with Essig that entrepreneurship is not a dirty word and that a theater artist is not selling out to business interests. Instead, in a field where opportunity is low, now is the time for artists to build up their business knowledge and skills to create opportunities for creative work. Below are some other programs that teach entrepreneurship with the arts:

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