Art Smarts

Paintbrushes, violins, business plans and press releases-the tool kit of the twenty-first-century artist signals a new merging of art and business.

Illustration by Stephen Weigl

Illustration by Stephen Weigl

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On a bright January morning, a scruffy-faced college student stood up in a room packed with dozens of peers, academics and seasoned artists. Facing a panel of experts, he posed a question: Would it be possible to make a living from his art without feeling like a sellout?

Laughter rippled through the audience gathered at the first UW--Madison Arts Enterprise Symposium. Yet all the people who found themselves in that room on that frigid day were there because they too were grappling--in some form or another--with the relationship between art and business.

For musicians, painters, actors and many others, the merging of art and the marketplace is riddled with stereotypes and stigmas. Are you still an artist if you have a "day job" and pursue your art on the side? Are you a lesser artist if you create your work for profit instead of for "art's sake"? Are you more of an artist if you're backed by an institution, say a dance troupe, established theater group or a university?

These are not new concerns.

"The conflict is a two-hundred-year-old conflict," says Gary Beckman, a visiting assistant professor at the University of South Carolina's School of Music and a moderator at the Arts Enterprise Symposium. "Before the first half of the 1800s there was no conflict between making art and making a living."

A strong arts economy has existed throughout history, with artists earning money from their music and paintings, and often being commissioned to create or perform works. But a change occurred, at least in the music realm, during Beethoven's lifetime, Beckman says. People wanted to elevate Beethoven to more than a skilled artisan, which was how artists were generally viewed.

Soon came the notion that art should be created "for art's sake," a loftier goal than making works for financial profit. Philosophers and writers began weighing in on the value of art, that art is more than a product and can create a sublime experience for its audience.

"Over the generations since the early 1800s, there really has been a misinterpreted relationship between art and business," Beckman says.

And today, an issue is the way artists are educated. Under the current paradigm, artists graduate with excellent skills in their chosen field. But their careers don't get off the ground--or they're not as successful as they could be--because they never learned how to create a solid business plan or handle bookkeeping and taxes. Or they never thought about how to approach fundraising or grant writing or marketing to bring in audiences. What schools typically aren't teaching their students are business skills--and these are the very elements that could make or break an artist's career.

"You learn how to be an artist, how to hone your craft," says Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, a statewide arts service and development group. "Then you're released into the world with very little idea of how to make a living with your art."

Often, artists don't realize how crucial business skills are to their work, or they don't know where or how to attain them. And some hesitate to mingle fundraising or writing press releases with the higher task of performing or making art, a result of those nagging stereotypes about what it means to be a "real" artist--which typically doesn't mean being a hybrid art creator/business manager.

Remedying the notion that art and business can't or shouldn't coexist requires a shift in thinking. Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at UW--Madison, says once artists make that mental switch, they see how dangerous a lack of business savvy is to their art.

"If you don't understand the business side, you're more likely to compromise your vision because you don't know how not to," he says. "The truth is, you have to engage business if you want to protect or advance your voice."

Artists as Entrepreneurs

It's not fair to say Madison artists haven't had access to workshops, classes and programs in which they could pick up business skills. But academics, artists, students, entrepreneurs, businesspeople and, significantly, the university had never come together quite like they did at the Arts Enterprise Symposium.

Stephanie Jutt and Samantha Crownover, the artistic and executive directors of the venerable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and its annual chamber music festival, are the forces behind the symposium as well as the Arts Enterprise Initiative they started in 2008 to remedy the shortcomings of traditional arts education and create a support system for artists.

"We'd been dealing with an archaic system," says Jutt. "People were crying out for help."

They sought to offer that help at the symposium. The event's goals were multifaceted: to explore and encourage the idea of arts entrepreneurship, teach artists business tools and tactics, and provide models and mentors.

Over the course of three days, more than two hundred participants attended seventeen panel discussions, four half-day workshops, four keynote speeches, fifty mentor meetings and many discussion roundtables. They picked up tips on thinking like an entrepreneur, marketing, career planning, legal issues, contracts, how to handle success, how to be an advocate for the arts and much more.

The initiative exists thanks to a five-year, $4 million grant the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation awarded UW--Madison in 2006 to encourage entrepreneurship across campus. The grant led to Wiscontrepreneur, a program designed to foster campus entrepreneurial thinking and promote the creation of new businesses and organizations.

Since the initiative aimed to broaden entrepreneurship beyond the business school--with no academic major or discipline not open for consideration--the arts and Arts Enterprise were a natural fit, says Doug Bradley, assistant director of marketing and communications for the UW Office of Corporate Relations, the arm of UW that runs Wiscontrepreneur.

"Who's more entrepreneurial than artists?" Bradley says. "Artists are entrepreneurs from the get-go."

While Wiscontrepreneur activities have been concentrated on campus during the first two years, the aim is to extend its reach throughout the state, ultimately poising Wisconsin as a leader in entrepreneurship.

"Two years in, we feel like we're getting there," Bradley says. "We've been able to really find the sweet spot on this."
 

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