Becoming an Arts Entrepreneur ~or~ Don’t Quit Your Day Job

After 100s of conversations regarding about the essence of artistic entrepreneurship over the past few years, I thought I might put together a series of posts on what that term—artistic entrepreneur—actually means.  This will be the first of a set of articles that will shed some light, based on my many years of work in the trenches, on what goes into being an arts entrepreneur.

If you’re reading this, chances are, somewhere in your psyche, you have an idea—an idea that will, hopefully, change the way people around you look at the art form which you practice or promote.  You have a desire to open the doors of your own gallery, to conduct your own orchestra, to run your own dance troupe.  You want to have the freedom to accomplish your artistic goals unfettered by a pre-existing structure’s institutional inertia.  You are a maverick, a risk-taker, a go-getter—all you want are the tools to accomplish these goals.

There is a name for the type of person that you are aspiring to be: that person is an arts entrepreneur.  An arts entrepreneur is different from the virtuoso or the impresario in that he or she not only has great ideas, but can also back those ideas up with a business acumen and unfailing determination to accomplish artistic goals in a financial sustainable way.  To use a sports metaphor, the typical artist is a sprinter; the arts entrepreneur is a decathlete.

I hope to, over the next few weeks, talk about the nitty-gritty of what goes into becoming an effective arts entrepreneur.  But, before that, let’s first have a reality check.  Many, many, MANY people get into this business for the wrong reasons.  They come to arts entrepreneurship with goals that are not the fulfilling of a need or breaking new artistic ground, but reasons that are, quite frankly, driven by ego.  These are the people whose organizations were destined to fail even before they started out.

So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of why one should start their own organization, I’m first going to list the reasons AGAINST opening your own shop.

5 REASONS NOT TO START AN ARTS ORGANIZATION

I DON’T LIKE MY JOB

No matter what gig you have right now, I will guarantee that being your own boss and starting your own organization will be 100 x’s more work and stress than what you are doing now.  Not only will you have many, many tasks to complete every day (many more than you could ever hope to accomplish), but you will also shoulder all the financial responsibility for your own paycheck, and the livelihoods of those people you employ.

The emotional and time demands on the cultural entrepreneur are immense, so simply deciding to open up your own artistic shop because you’re fed up with the grind of your current position will quickly give way to the reality of the pressures of entrepreneurial life.

I DON’T LIKE MY CONDUCTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER/CURATOR/DEAN/GENERAL DIRECTOR

You may work for a tyrant.  Your boss/director may be uninspiring and uninformed.  You may cringe every time you receive direction or comments from your current organization’s leader.  This is a GREAT reason to find another job.  It is not, however, a reason to start your own arts organization.

Arts organizations which are founded based on NOT being something else are destined to failure.  How do you convince your community, the paying public, to come to something that is based solely on being something else’s negative?  Without an original idea, a driving artistic vision, a unique way of doing things, you will never be able to find sustainable funding for your project.  Communities, when faced with breakaway organizations, inevitably respond to those organizations with “But we’ve already got one of those,” forever holding you back in both your audience reach and your fundraising activities.

I WANT MORE TIME FOR MY FAMILY

The first few “start-up” years of your new organization will demand an incredible amount of time from you.  Not only will you be faced with the gargantuan task of finding funding for your new start-up, creating and perfecting your artistic vision and product, making your community aware of your existence, and convincing the best artists and employees to work for less than their market value (you will, initially, have to convince people to work for what you can pay, rather than what they are worth), you will almost inevitably have to work small jobs on the side to be able to afford your own rent.  The combination of these factors does not allow for a considerable amount of time for your other relationships.

If your spouse thinks you spend too much time at work already, starting your own organization will only aggravate this situation.   Those who are successful at being an arts entrepreneurs either have significant others who are incredibly understanding about the amount of time an arts entrepreneur needs to spend on his or her organization, or they are single.

I WANT MORE VACATION TIME

“Vacation.”  I chuckle a bit to myself as I read the title above.  Vacation is not something that any entrepreneur, much less one who deals in an artistic product, gets much of.  For reference, in the past two years, I have been on two of what the rest of the working world calls “vacation,” and both of them, rather than the I’m-not-going-to-think-about-work sort, were more like working vacations where I programmed seasons, learned music, and wrote grants without having to answer an email or take a call every 30 seconds.  I wrote this article on a “vacation,” waking up each morning, making breakfast, then writing all day.  Not exactly the type of vacation most people think about…

If your work already takes up more time than you are comfortable spending on a project, opening your own shop is not the route for you.  There are many easier ways to accomplish this.  One in particular is becoming a teacher, either at the secondary or university level, which will guarantee you at least three months off per year.

I WANT TO BE FAMOUS

While some arts entrepreneurs are famous, it is perhaps the hardest road to travel to get to this goal.  The amount of time that great arts entrepreneurs put into their organizations means that there is, at least for a period, less time to put into one’s own professional development and personal marketing.  Building an organization takes time, and it restricts one’s mobility while in the building phase.  People who become famous quickly often are willing to move at will, often jumping from one organization to the next as each successive, possibly incrementally better opportunity arises.

To be a truly successful arts entrepreneur, you will need to commit to you community for at least the medium term and be immersed in the community-based goals that you set for your organization.  Once those are accomplished, which may be five to ten years down the road, you will have the opportunity to once again be mobile.  In the mean time, however, the geographic requirements of fame will be out of your reach.

THE ONLY REASON YOU SHOULD START AN ARTS ORGANIZATION

When it comes down to it, there really is only one reason that you should start a new orchestra/dance company/professional chorus/art gallery: there’s a need in your community that is currently not being filled by anyone else, and you are the person who has the foresight and the work ethic to fill that need.  That’s it.  That’s the only reason.  It is that simple.

When I arrived in Miami in the fall of 2002, there were no other professional choirs within three hundred miles of me.  Quite honestly, professional Classical music, in general, was itself on the decline.  The Florida Philharmonic, an orchestra of great quality led by a dynamic and visionary maestro, was in the process of declaring bankruptcy.  A few years later, Miami’s cultural mothership, the Concert Association of South Florida (led by the inimitable Judy Drucker, who first presented Pavarotti in the United States) was also to close its doors.  During a period of time in Miami’s history when we were breaking ground on a new performing arts center, the words “cultural wasteland” were thrown around with increasing frequency.  According to popular thought, it was impossible for even established arts organizations to survive, much less thrive.

It was in this climate that we decided to start Seraphic Fire.  I sat at the kitchen table of Joanne Schulte—the longtime chairman of Seraphic Fire’s board of directors, my “Miami mother,” and one of the wisest culture mavens I have ever met—and we had an hours-long conversation about the pros and cons of starting a professional choir (of all things) in this extremely challenging environment.

I also had some very heavy personal decisions to make on top of all of the institutional financial considerations—the decision to go forward with Seraphic Fire would mean that I would quit a large-budget church job that paid me a consistent salary and gave me health benefits.  Creating the institution of Seraphic Fire would mean that I would, in essence, have to live off of my savings for an entire year, so the consequences of failure would include personal poverty.

In that seminal conversation, we both traded the role of devil’s advocate, wondering if it was the right time, the right place, and the right art form.  In the end, we decided that Seraphic Fire was a viable idea, and I was willing to take the financial risk to make it happen.  Here’s why we came to that decision:

There were two “needs” that the community had: 1) South Florida did not have a professional choir, and, as such, had no one to perform the great choral masterworks of Western Music.  Pieces like Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, regularly performed with flair in New York, Boston and San Francisco, had yet to have their Florida debut.  We wanted to change this.  2) Miami needed an arts Cinderella story to cheer for.  With such a large amount of bad cultural news, there was a “need” for an organization to get behind, an organization to believe in, an organization that could develop a new business model that would not only survive, but thrive in the current climate.  We felt that if we could create an artist-heavy-staff-light organization that was both portable and instantly distinguishable, we could make it in one of the worst economic climates for the arts that the community had ever seen.

By taking a risk based on the needs of the community rather than our own personal ego or vanity, we had a chance to capitalize on an unmet want of the community.  That risk paid off, and ten years later, Seraphic Fire is one of the major cultural institutions of Miami.  By playing to our specific community, we not only were able to thrive locally, but also grow to the point that we now have a significant national profile.  Multiple GRAMMY® nominations and various accolades later, I can, with confidence, tell you that if you stick to a plan based on need, and follow a few basic tenets, and work harder than you ever have in your life, your idea can also transform from a spark in your mind to a cultural force that can change your community, and possibly even the country.

Next, the basics of the startup…  Stay tuned!

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10 thoughts on “Becoming an Arts Entrepreneur ~or~ Don’t Quit Your Day Job

  1. Hi! I’d like to follow this series, but I can’t find any way to do that on your page. Any ideas? I might just need to update adobe or something, but I don’t see any way to subscribe to this blog. Thanks!

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  2. Maestro, thank you so much for this wonderful article! I’m in the process of converting my nine-year-old opera training program/concert opera into a 501(c)3 and it’s equally exciting and terrifying. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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  3. Very thoughtful look at the world of choral music and the valuation of choral groups and the vocalist in communities. Traditional choral groups have it tough, but there are audiences out there. In Minnesota Vocalessence and Cantus are two groups that appear to have a successful foothold in the Twin Cities market, but of course one can oversaturate the area.

    Five By Design, a vocal jazz quintet based in Shakopee MN for 20 years have performed with over 200 symphony orchestras from the Boston Pops to the Vancouver Symphony. The group recently has been in the process of rebranding and recently launched http://www.BehindTheMic.org, a site dedicated to choral educators and aspiring artists from around the world. BTM features video interviews with Bobby McFerrin, The Manhattan Transfer, Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet, Sweden’s The Real Group along with educators and music industry specialists. The artists found a niche that is specialized and reaches a global audience with subscribers from 37 countries.

    Getting back to valuing choral music and anything that isn’t in what is termed as pop music today. It seems like a cultural pit, but one can transfer a few concepts to the traditional choirs that are struggling today. And I’ll get to that in a future response.

    Again thanks for the dialogue. It is indeed a time for a discussion.

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  4. Thank you for sharing. And more importantly, thank you for not saying “the only reason to start something is if you absolutely have to do it!” The simple question “Is there a need for this art here” is entirely different from “Is there a void here where art is not being created?” One projects onto the community, while the other is informed by the community. I look forward to reading further in series!

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  5. Such an insightful article!! Bravo! My team and I have been building from scratch a festival upstate New York, a true grass root operation in a village of 300 inhabitants.. the ” meeting the need of the community” comment is so amazingly true! Sandy and Irene have devastated our area which is beautiful in nature ( the Catskills) but because we are on the watershed very few industries can develop , hire etc..except in arts and tourism, in 5 years ( still with no $ or very little , ah!) more than 5,500 people are attending these 5 days , 23 events in 7 venues, people like Frederica Von Stade, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, Lucas Meachem , Barry Banks, have come ( or will come), performed and supported.. an amazing adventure, but indeed… our team has deleted the word ” vacation” from our vocabulary 🙂 we keep telling people to come discover us before we become a huge thing or before we totally die , but the passion the community is giving us ( 189 volunteers, 55 houses welcome artists..) keep us moving! wishing all “art Entrepreneurs” great success but most importantly discern the PEOPLE we surround ourselves with.. they make the whole difference!

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  6. Pingback: My Social Media Success Story | The Cajun Conductor

  7. Pingback: Excellent Article on Arts Entrepreneurship | Solfa Sounds

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