Artists as entrepreneurs

Special to the Star-Telegram
July 7, 2008

With the June 2008 release of the National Endowment for the Arts report "Artists in the Workforce," Chairman Dana Gioia declared, "Compared to other U.S. workers, American artists tend to be better educated and more entrepreneurial."

American artists "more entrepreneurial" than a high-tech CEO? How can that be?

Perhaps it is because of this "place" we call America or the belief that artists are more creative than the rest of the population. When combined, "place" and "creativity" might equal "entrepreneurship." For Gioia, "place" is explicit and "creativity" seems inferred; artists know exactly what he means.

Historically, artists have always created art in, through and around the cultural systems of "place," and the act of creation is genetically ingrained in this country's founding documents.

Freedom of artistic speech, however, has a black-sheep sibling seldom and reluctantly acknowledged: entrepreneurship. The "American Dream" does not exclude artists, though it seems the arts academy has yet to read the e-mail.

Gioia's comments partially reflect the success of arts higher education.

Hundreds of colleges, universities and conservatories across the country have excelled at producing artists of all types and capacities. As the chairman notes, artists represent 1.4 percent of the total work force; the military represents 2.2 percent.

Clearly, arts higher education is meeting its quota.

The paradox is the seemingly mutual exclusivity in terminology: artistic creativity and entrepreneurship. Or is it a paradox?

We popularly equate entrepreneurship with starting a business.

But can entrepreneurship also be a synonym for the act of creating new art that also adds value beyond the business card-size price tag at the lower right corner of a painting? Can our founding documents be "entrepreneurial" and "creative" in the same sense as Beethoven's last string quartets and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon?"

Surely the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the result of need, each creating new value for a burgeoning nation -- at least as the Founding Fathers seemed to view the opportunity.

Higher education's most pressing issue in the arts is not how efficient and streamlined the production of new artists can be.

Instead, it is how to create an accomplished and successful artist with a new sense of art's power to transform society.

Artists can participate in the American Dream by applying their talents to better communities and making ends, too.

We have the "citizen-soldier." We need the "artist-citizen."

Let's envision what American artists of this new century might resemble:

First, they discover and become accountable to their education to understand how art impacts society. Second, they perceive how their art folds into the fabric of American life both now and later. Finally, they view themselves as change agents for communities, collectively acting on their knowledge and creative talent.

Higher education is addressing the problem of artist employment through entrepreneurship classes, programs, centers and institutes. Laudable as this extraordinary step may be, the academy -- again -- is in reactionary mode.

Solving the short-term issue of artist employment without seeing our young artists as community leaders, creative catalysts, artistic revolutionaries and entrepreneurs, is short-sighted. Arts entrepreneurship education without a guiding ethos is hollow.

The artist-citizen must be what Rick Cherwitz at the University of Texas has called the "intellectual entrepreneur" -- one who sees the mind as the source of inspiration and change, and who understands that the mission of institutions of higher learning should go beyond "advancing the frontiers of knowledge" to include "serving as engines of economic and social development."

Our Founding Fathers collectively leveraged their education, experience and beliefs to create a free nation. Properly trained, American artists have the same potential within society.

Arts higher education must envision young artists differently in a new century -- for without a vanguard of artist-citizens, we turn off the creative gene that forged and bettered this nation.

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Gary Beckman is a visiting professor in the School of Music at the University of South Carolina and Director of Research for their Carolina Institute for Leadership and Engagement in Music.