The Arts in the New Age of Entrepreneurship

The once struggling artist may now find success as an artist-entrepreneur

By Tim Alberdingk Thijm, Staff Writer

Before I say anything more than this title, I’d like to issue a disclaimer. I am not an expert in this field, nor am I a career counsellor or a long-time entrepreneur. Rather, I am an observer. Based on the experiences I have observed and the people I have come to know, I believe I can nevertheless shed some light on finding stability in the vast and competitive artistic sphere, a sphere which many young people are coming to consider in the information era.

 Of all the occupations available to people today, few are more often associated with foolhardy hopes and impossible dreams of success than those of the arts world. Artists – be they actors, musicians, authors or visual artists – are often stereotyped as missing their rent, at the bottom of the proverbial barrel, or trying to repay debts by pawning off their work onto unimpressed onlookers. Everyone today is a Vincent Van Gogh – before he died.

To some extent, one can comment that it is simply a case of “supply and demand.” The arts are astonishingly competitive, especially in the modern age of easy distribution, where anyone can be discovered through a video, a song, a poem or a photograph.  When your work is essentially the same as that of twelve other people – sometimes deliberately, other times by random chance – it becomes all the more difficult to be noticed as new or interesting.

One interesting item of note in this world of massive distribution, however, is how the Internet has essentially eclipsed the role of the distributor, putting artists in control of their work in new ways. In a sense, the web has allowed all artists who once were tied to having a publisher, a producer, an agency or a record company to become entrepreneurs. The corporate structure where artists were part of a “stable” or a body of clients for a larger business is somewhat less necessary when artists are able to work independently more easily.

For many artists, entrepreneurship, while challenging, can have valuable benefits. Artists market themselves, advertise their work and can find success without having to rely on a corporate structure that may have certain desires on how the artist should conduct their work. They are independent, rather than someone’s employee. This gives the artist-entrepreneur more responsibilities. The corporate structure provides insight, inspiration and encouragement. An artist working alone needs to be able to reflect, find inspiration, and seek encouragement or advice from friends or peers. Despite the entrepreneurial aspect, artists – and entrepreneurs in general – are reliant on opinions and criticisms which help them to explore their work and achieve greater success.

The fresh new artists of the twenty-first century – who seem to be coming younger and younger – need to find a way to achieve their goals even without support from a big corporation. They are in a massive pool, and with the incredible ease of becoming indistinguishable from anyone else on the Internet, it becomes much more important to use the web and one’s own resources to be recognized online. This is the case for many entrepreneurs: the Kickstarter ads which are well-made and advertise an interesting product are more likely to surpass their targets, as people are drawn to products that do something new or redevelop an old concept – just as in the arts.

Entrepreneurship allows an artist to accomplish his or her dreams by working for him or herself without anyone to control or direct his or her progress, save him or herself. Faced with such challenges, however, they often rely on several techniques to achieve their goals. Interviewing an artist-entrepreneur I know, and gathering stories and suggestions from across the artistic community, I have come to find that the use of any of these three techniques can have valuable benefits for a young artist-entrepreneur in our modern age.

 1. Hunting

The hardest part of any hunt – as many might tell you – is facing one failure and not allowing it to convince you that the arts are not your area of expertise, that your parents were right and that you should have become a law doctor of business like they had always told you. While a bit of business knowledge may come in handy, all you need most of the time is determination and self-reflection. Determination is necessary for a person to know that giving up will only make things worse, and that if the world is not ready for the music of ectoplasm-cleaning Roombas, then perhaps it just needs to be pitched to another part of the world. However, after a certain amount of time, when your music has received no attention for months, everyone needs to step back and evaluate their work.

It is imperative for an artist to be able to reflect on what they are doing and self-criticise. Often, an artist – especially an entrepreneur-artist – will have nobody readily available to edit, comment or critique their work all the time. An artist must take it on themselves to critique, and by doing so, improve their work. Perhaps ectoplasm just does not connect with a modern audience, and by dropping it and adding full-sized vacuums, the Vacuum Concierto Movement will find some interest where Away, Floorboard Phantoms! could not – assuming your two band monikers were as such.

The point of this absurd example is that the hunt is a humbling process. Few artists are found right away; the vast majority are still looking for recognition alone in a massive field. For a moment, consider dropping the “alone” part. I do not mean bringing someone else in to do the same thing as you – although that can be helpful for criticism – but rather getting another person to assist you from the side, or encourage you, or to bounce ideas off. All artists require a network – as we shall discuss soon. But even in the preliminary stages, it can be extraordinarily helpful to have some encouragement.

Creative work can make a person very vulnerable. An artist is sharing a part of him or herself with other people and then waiting for their criticism. Once you surmount the necessary first step of taking action, an artist-entrepreneur has to expose his or her work with poise and confidence, resisting the urge to quit or back down despite difficulty or failure. Anne Bogart, the author of A Director Prepares and the propagator of numerous valuable acting methods, once discussed “resistance” in her book A Director Prepares. In this work, she argues that the “action of pushing against resistance is a daily act and … a necessary ingredient in the creative process.”

Consider that fact during your hunt, and even as you find success: an artist’s work is as indebted to its resistances as it is hindered. Without resistance, avant-garde work would not be as profound; expressions of great frustration would not be as authentic. Most of all, a person cannot simply wait for the resistance to pass, but rather grasp it and use it as a springboard. The first step in doing so, according to Bogart, lies in recognizing the presence of resistances and their use in the creative endeavour: “Resistance demands thought, provokes curiosity and mindful alertness, and, when overcome and utilized, eventuates in elation. Ultimately the quality of any work is reflected in the size of obstacles encountered.”

When re-evaluating oneself as an artist-entrepreneur, examining one’s resistances can provide a valuable aid to the work. It is a question of problem solving, in which an artist must meet and overcome each resistance to further enhance the final piece of work. When this comes to the hunt, an artist-entrepreneur can rise above their resistances and impress their audience with their strength and confidence. A post by Jeffrey P. Fisher on the website Self Employment in the Arts also comments on the usefulness of a strong image in his first point on getting a positive reputation and attracting support. And speaking of reputation, let us move in to discussing your next step which follows tandem with the hunt: networking.

 2. Networking

Networking is a funny little modern word that originally just meant connecting computers through a network, but now also refers to people being connected through a network. This is a word that has grown clichéd the number of times it is mentioned, but somehow it still bears repeating.

An entrepreneur is doomed without a network. In a business, the network is created for you: you have coworkers, bosses and colleagues. The only thing you need to do is get familiar with everyone. It is the reverse for an entrepreneur. You have some friends from throughout your experiences – old buddies from arts school, a friend who messed around in Garageband with you in high school, your neighbour’s dad who rents out his warehouse, the cousin you have been spoon-feeding compliments ever since she became a computer whiz, if only so you would not have to pay for Geek Squad – but you lack a “business.” All of these people, odd that it may seem, form part of your network.

On a non-professional level, it is very important you keep in touch with people who support your work or are willing to help you with it. All of the people just mentioned fall in that category: they have some skills or aids or networks of their own. Once you hunt, you can find people willing to support you knowing you strictly through your professional work. They also provide skills, aids and networks. What is important about having these things is that they help you surmount resistances.

No gallery or performance space? Ask about that warehouse. Need lights and music? Learn yourself, ask your smart cousin – or best of all, invite other artists to play at the event. Networking also involves a fair amount of “polite bartering” in a sense: artist-entrepreneurs swap favours and help one another through it. Be careful, however, that you are not just giving and getting nothing – not even notice – in return. An artist needs to continue to progress and grow for their work to stay powerful and relevant. If your network is not supporting you enough, then it needs to be expanded.

Expanding a network is one of the fun parts of being an artist – all it involves is meeting people with the same loves as you! Visit every artist hangout; an ideal place to go is classes and workshops. While they can seem financially counterintuitive at times, all it can take is a few sessions to form a strong and powerful new network of friends and potential colleagues. Speaking from personal experience, I have long attended improvisation classes at the Second City. After my first instructor, Kate, left Second City to pursue her own artist-entrepreneur career, I continued to take classes when I could with a group of people made up of friends she had made throughout her years as an improv teacher.

Most recently, I worked with a very diverse group of people, all of whom were at different stages of their artistic careers. Some dip into lulls, others speak of big projects and endeavours which are coming together. What’s inspiring about the group is how varied the ages are. There is great diversity in the group, and there should be great diversity in a network. I will return to Kate’s case in the final section, as her experiences as an artist-entrepreneur are worth discussion. Lastly, as I mentioned before, an artist needs to reach and find recognition: the wider your network stretches, the more people you can touch with your work.

Networking can all the same still qualify as one of the resistances facing an artist-entrepreneur. It can feel like no matter who becomes part of the network, there is still no way to utilize the network to expand one’s work. This is a feeling to be fought; networks provide artists with the most basic essential needed: an audience. Members of a network have their own networks, and these networks will branch out to others, and so forth. It is an ideal way to spread renown as an artist-entrepreneur: people will begin to spread the word and discuss the work.

Nonetheless, without a network which supports the artist-entrepreneur, he or she will still feel somewhat powerless to complete projects with no outside help. This brings us to the third point: expanding the repertoire.

3. Growing

Think of yourself as a circus show. What sorts of things can be seen at the show? Do you have trapeze artists? Wild animals? Unicyclists? Clowns? Is there a musical element, or an interactive part? Is it one particular specialty, or several? What is the demographic at your show? Much of the entertainment one sees today is designed to appeal to a very wide demographic: gritty superhero movies that stay PG-13 are a testament to this desire. For the circus, some people might come for clowns, others for trapeze artists.

As an artist, you are not entirely meant to be specialized. While having one particular talent at which you are stellar can be good, it is always safer to be versatile. Thus, growing is the title of this section. An artist blossoms from one medium to excel in another. For many, this blossoming will be out of necessity, a natural reaction against resistance. Anne Bogart realized after leaving undergraduate school that, though her aim was to direct, she would have to produce as well if she wanted to direct, as “no theatre in town was willing to take a risk on a young untested woman director.”

A repertoire which boasts a wide range of talents and techniques is invaluable in all artistic pursuits: many actors with whom I have spoken at the Stratford Festival have talked about a “toolbox” of techniques, of acting being a trade. Actors who sing, dance, play instruments, write their own work, produce their own shows, or hypnotize their audience all have an advantage over an actor who only acts. Always consider what more can be learnt to develop and expand your repertoire.

For an artist-entrepreneur, there is an obvious one: business knowledge. Fisher comments on the value of good bookkeeping and doing your taxes properly for an artist-entrepreneur, but it goes beyond that. The arts are highly competitive and highly creative, and a savvy businessperson can do both as one. There are a plethora of examples of interesting and unique attempts at self-promotion online for artists, and a Google search of the resumes and CVs of graphic designers can yield some very enjoyable time-wasting as one trolls through the many examples.

One artist-entrepreneur who has achieved great success that I know is my friend and instructor Kate, who now runs her own improvisation academy in Toronto. Kate began at Ryerson, where she learned about an opportunity to work with kids in a drama therapy program. Following her acceptance into this position, Kate discovered a love for teaching as well as acting which would serve her greatly over the following years. After some time, Kate came to Second City, where she pitched the entirely new idea of teen classes at the Second City Training Centre, something which had not yet been done at any Second City location.

After many years working with teens and adults at the Training Centre while at the same time forwarding her acting career, Kate, with the help of a documentarian and the support of her many students and friends, founded her own improv academy. Because of her huge network, she quickly found many students who followed her from Second City. She recommended, “When you want to do something entrepreneurial, align yourself with a team that will help you,” a fact which reminded me of the importance of networks. Networks, I should correct, are not trees with fruits to pick, but teams, each of whom bring something to help you as an artist, and whom you can help in return.

As of now, Kate’s classes are completely full and occur regularly, but she still finds time to continue acting. Part of what keeps Kate so content is that she is “chasing fulfilment and fear and risk and what makes me happy and is fun …and creativity and freedom.”

This is something to remember as an artist-entrepreneur: being an artist means you can take big risks and not be afraid of failure. Kate embraced these risks and did not let money alone motivate her. While Kate’s experiences may differ from those of a young artist-entrepreneur nowadays, they nevertheless emphasize that an artist-entrepreneur still has an artist’s motivations; they are just in the hands of a savvy and business-smart person.

With a functioning network and a diverse set of skills, all that is left in these preliminary steps is for an artist-entrepreneur to begin to advertise and publicise their work. As mentioned in the introduction, work can get published everywhere online, and all that is necessary then is to advertise that work. This is certainly a valuable part of an artist’s repertoire: a strong knowledge of what makes for a good banner, quick video, compelling presentation or write-up.

Part of this relies on the earlier steps: deciding what the demographic wants, finding an effective way to market your awesome concepts to that demographic, and then success! Modern advertisers tend to use fun, interesting and unusual methods to garner attention for their product. The best way to do this is to expose yourself to the work of artists with unique advertising ideas, and to consider what choices made by advertisers encourage you to check out their product.

With these ideas in mind, think carefully about what areas you can develop to better excel as a starting artist-entrepreneur. Remain optimistic and push yourself to keep working, and never neglect a class or workshop where you can hone your techniques and expand your network. As an artist, you are a creative and imaginative person; as an entrepreneur you are challenging yourself to harness that creativity and imagination and expose it to the world to get them intrigued. Use your wits and grasp opportunities, and the doorway into the arts will swing open for you to step through. And remember, you did it all without the faintest notion of law doctorology.



Tim Alberdingk Thijm is a staff writer and artist-entrepreneur at Arbitrage Magazine. When he is not writing witticisms and giving unnecessary advice, he bides his time at the University of Toronto, where he studies English and Drama, among other things.

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