Arts Entrepreneurship in a Low-Growth Economy

It is time for the arts community to heal and abandon deficit thinking.  If the arts constitute a driving force of the economy, then let’s come together and do it as entrepreneurs.

Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk given by Tim Jones of Artscape. This session was part of the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations’ annual conference in Toronto, Ontario. Tim restated a statistic* that I had placed on Facebook earlier that week (or maybe it was the week before). The workforce is now comprised of 30% self-employed workers and growing. That is a significant portion of the U.S. workforce. What does this mean for the arts sector? Are artists (and arts organizations) prepared to keep pace with the “new” economy?   Picture of a to-do list. Says, "to do: buy milk, pay rent, earn a living as an artist..."

Traditional hierarchical structures of business are crumbling. There is a fundamental shift taking place within the American workforce. B-school experts like Michael Porter are talking about entrepreneurship as a way to redefine capitalism. We cannot be the last sector to notice this shift. How does the shift from working for a large company to working for one’s self affect those of us in the arts? How does it affect donations, patronage, etc? Does anyone in the arts community notice the shift in our economy? Tim Jones is talking about it as well as Richard Florida.

Arts businesses are poised to help create solutions for societal problems, but this is not just a trend among mission-based businesses, such as nonprofits. With the emergence of B-Corps, L3C’s and other hybrid entities, we are seeing that traditional businesses (and the people behind them) are being held to a higher form of societal accountability. Arts-businesses have the advantage of creativity and innovation, but all too often they lack the vocabulary to understand and manifest best practices in entrepreneurship. In my opinion, learning business skills is a much easier fix than learning how to be a creative thinker. After all, a majority of businesses fail because of bland, mediocre models.

Corporations are being held to a higher accountability to not just a local economy but to the entire world ecosystem. The environment, employees and the consumer are part of the new bottom line. This is a result of the inevitable pendulum shift toward a more networked society. What about arts businesses?  Where are the women playwrights? How about diversity within our arts organizations? What relationships exist currently between artists and arts organizations and why as an ASO are we asked to serve one or the other? Maybe… there are lessons we can take from collapsing corporations. If I had to sum it up in one word: relevancy. Entrepreneurship can help us stay relevant. We are not exempt from changing tides.

If self-employed, entrepreneurial businesses are going to drive the economy of the future, then how do artists fit into that context? Without essential skills and a support network…they don’t.

As a community, we must embrace entrepreneurship in the arts, in food service, in technology, in health care, and so forth. We cannot afford to get left behind. Arts organizations, as well as service organizations, should support a network of professional, business growth. Arts entrepreneurship benefits all. We know the studies about what a thriving arts ecology can do for a neighborhood, city or region. And the problem is more systemic than just lack of funding. That may be a part of the puzzle, but it is just a piece that is reflecting what is valued in our community.

After working with Board Fellows from Emory’s MBA program, surveying the arts community, and looking at trends across the board, I felt additional validation from the keynote from Tim Jones. C4 Atlanta must keep entrepreneurship in the arts as a focal point of its mission. We will continue to provide a safe place for artists and arts administrators to try new ideas, to lean on peer-to-peer learning and to envision a future for a better Atlanta. Innovation must be on the lips of every board member, staff member and funder. It is time to stake our claim and spur innovation and entrepreneurship in a low-growth economy.

*Actually, Tim Jones stated 40% of the workforce is self-employed. This number fluctuates between 30-40%, depending on the source. The main point is that it is trending toward an increase.

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