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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

A new society is born!

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a gathering at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas, the purpose of which was to form the first professional association of arts entrepreneurship educators. More than 100 faculty, staff, and administrators from across the country came together to share best practices, commiserate, and engage in dialogue about how best to advance the burgeoning field of arts entrepreneurship.

It was an exciting conference. For one, I was thrilled to see the extent to which arts entrepreneurship programming has exploded in recent years. Five years ago when I joined the ranks of arts e-ship educators there were only a handful of programs nationwide; now there are over 100. Most of them are small or just getting off the ground. Many of them have only part-time staff assigned to them or rely on faculty who already manage full loads as classroom or studio teachers. But a growing number of institutions are adding full-time staff, creating endowments, and launching minors. Some (but still too few) are creating faculty lines exclusively devoted to teaching and developing entrepreneurship for arts units on campus. One thing virtually all these programs have in common, though, is that most are more or less inventing things as they go along. In one sense this is intensely entrepreneurial: each program creating its own unique set of offerings based on the resources at hand and the needs and sensibilities of their institution. The downside, though, is that there is no central portal through which educators can support one another, exchange ideas, develop best practices, and train/mentor the next generation of arts entrepreneurship educators. And the more I travel around the country speaking to my colleagues in the field the more I realize we share many of the same challenges and have many of the same needs, but we tend to operate in isolation (both from each other and within our institutions).

Hence the need for a society.

Over the course of the weekend as we considered our purpose, mission, and structure, a broader theme was woven into every discussion we had: Why do we need such a society in the first place? There is more than one answer to that question, and those answers in turn open up many of the fundamental issues and challenges faced by arts entrepreneurship educators as we grapple with how to develop and define this new and rapidly emerging field. Here are a few thoughts on that question that I gleaned from our weekend in Dallas, as well as from my past five years as Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at The University of Colorado-Boulder.

Arts Entrepreneurship is Different from other forms of Entrepreneurship because…

1. Our product is different

As pointed out by my colleague and friend Gary Beckman (Director of Entrepreneurial Studies in the Arts at North Carolina State University), arts entrepreneurs deal with products that are, first and foremost, aesthetic in nature. While other kinds of entrepreneurial products and services often have aesthetic components (the design, user interface, and packaging of a product, for instance), with a work of art the aesthetic element IS the product. This simple but profound truth has all sorts of implications for how we connect our product with a market, how we go about defining and unlocking value, and how things like “supply” and “demand” play out. Traditional entrepreneurial instruction in the business school tends not to deal with these issues in ways that fit very well in the aesthetic marketplace, and while there is a growing body of scholarship in this area it is scattered throughout the literature and can be difficult to track down. [One of the off-shoots of this new society is that two new journals are launching: The Journal of Arts Entrepreneurship Research and The Journal of Arts Entrepreneurship Education.]

2. Our students’ career orientation is different

I’m blessed at The University of Colorado to have a positive and collaborative relationship with our business school, and particularly with their entrepreneurship program. And every time I have occasion to walk across campus to the Leeds School of Business I’m struck anew by the perspective of the students I encounter there: a business student, after all, goes to business school with the express intent of entering the world of business; i.e., students who major in entrepreneurship do so because they intend to graduate and become entrepreneurs. That might seem like an obvious statement, but it stands in sharp contrast to the career orientation of, say, a student studying violin or theater or visual art. Arts students are in school to master their craft, and their career orientation is to make a living practicing that craft. So while the business student sees entrepreneurship is an end in itself, arts students see entrepreneurial activity as a means to a different end – building a career that is artistically fulfilling and financially sustainable. This might seem like a subtle distinction, but it makes the dynamics of entrepreneurship programs in the arts fundamentally different from those of the business school.

3. Few of us are educated in the business school or have had formal training in entrepreneurship

While some arts entrepreneurship educators may have degrees in business or related fields, the vast majority of them (myself included) are artists educated in our respective arts fields. For us, entrepreneurship has been something we first learned “on the street,” and only later did we augment those experiences with our own self-guided studies in entrepreneurial theory and pedagogy. Once again this stands in sharp contrast to the business school, where PhDs in entrepreneurship fill the ranks of teachers and scholars, and even adjuncts from the world of business likely have business degrees and/or MBAs. This is a sword that cuts both ways. On the one hand it means that if we artists are serious about entrepreneurial education we have a lot of studying to do (fortunately there’s lots of literature to pull from and helpful mentors to be found in the business schools of our institutions). Furthermore, if we wish to publish in the established business journals of entrepreneurship we are likely to face an intimidating (and perhaps unrealistic) challenge. But on the other hand, folks in the arts are likely to have a different relationship with the theory vs. practice predicament that is as prevalent in entrepreneurship as it is in many other fields. Usually one is trained in theory first and then learns how that theory squares (or doesn’t square) with our experience “out in the real world.” For the vast majority of arts entrepreneurship educators, however, our “real world” experience came first, meaning that we bring a more critical eye to theoretical constructs and are able to (I think) more easily adapt those concepts to the needs of our own students. So overall I view this as a strength, though it begs the question of how we go about training the next generation of arts entrepreneurship educators: at what point does our field need to “go the distance” and become an academic discipline of its own? How might that discipline be defined, and what are the pros and cons of that?

4. Our field is usually misunderstood by students & colleagues alike

Once again I can illustrate this point by my proverbial walks across campus to the business school. There, entrepreneurship is viewed as an integral part of a solid education in business, co-equal with marketing, finance, management and so forth. This is not true outside the business school: in arts units across the country, again and again, entrepreneurship is viewed (at best) as a useful elective add-on or (at worst) a dangerous distraction away from the student’s practice and artistic development. Put another way, entrepreneurship educators in the business school don’t spend any time justifying their importance to their colleagues or deans because the value of entrepreneurship education is a given. Would this were the case in the arts.

Why is that the case? I think it’s partly resistance to change, especially from an older generation of artist teachers who came up when the marketplace (both within higher education and without) was very different from that of today. But I also think it’s because there is not a common understanding of what entrepreneurship is or what it seeks to do for students. This last point was my focus during a panel discussion that wrapped up our conference in Dallas. When asked about challenges I faced as a director of a long-standing program in arts entrepreneurship, I answered thusly: “While I could talk about specific institutional challenges we face at CU, I think it would be more productive for me to speak to an issue I’ve encountered over and over again when I speak at and visit arts entrepreneurship programs across the country. And it’s this: most of our colleagues and students don’t really understand what it is we do or what it is we’re trying to accomplish.”

One hundred heads nodded in agreement.

I went on: “Our students often assume that ‘the business side of things’ is something they don’t/can’t understand; oftentimes students and faculty alike assume entrepreneurship is just a fancy title for the traditional career services of resumes, job placement, and the like. Lastly, there is the fear that ‘entrepreneurship’ means compromising one’s artistic integrity. That it’s about ‘selling out’ or ‘selling yourself,’ two terms that make my skin crawl.

“So a big part of our jobs as educators is to first address this gap in understanding. We have to constantly find new and engaging ways to talk about the nature of entrepreneurial thinking, and we have to offer examples of arts entrepreneurship in practice. Parenthetically, I’ll add that this is why I think it’s critical for directors of programs to be faculty members who are active practitioners of entrepreneurship within their artistic field, because how can we effectively illustrate what it means to be an ‘arts entrepreneur’ if we’re not demonstrating it ourselves?”

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And so after a decade of emergent energy around this topic, a professional community of arts entrepreneurs is coalescing. The formation of a professional society will be an important part of this emergent process, as it will help address the issues I’ve discussed above and a host of other issues as well. The society will provide a bona fide forum for discussion and dissemination of ideas as well as being a vehicle for the development of a common language around the meaning and purpose of arts entrepreneurship theory and practice.

Of course, we had to come up with a name. After a vote on a variety of possibilities we landed on this one:

The Society for Arts Entrepreneurship Education

So it’s official: we have a society! I’m looking forward to what comes next: an entrepreneurial adventure of its own, and an exciting resource for the next generation of educators and artists. Onward!

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