Entrepreneurialism in the Arts

Isn’t it great when something lingering at the forefront of your mind is suddenly at the forefront of someone else’s? When YPIA (Young People in the Arts) announced that their next event would be a panel discussion covering the application of business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit to the all-too-mystical concept of the ‘Arts professional’, I was out of the door before you could say ‘start-up organisation’.

Anyone who is self-employed/freelance in the Arts sector, which covers most of the Arts professionals I know who aren’t lucky enough to work full-time for a large organisation, must employ a disciplined, business-like attitude to almost everything they do if they are determined to make ‘the Arts’ their sole means of income. So, I was intrigued to hear what practical advice might be on offer.

The varied panel consisted of host Chloe Booker, Founder and Director of Platform 33, Tim Foxon, Awards and Partnerships Manager for the Musicians Benevolent Fund, Ben Cooper-Melchiors, Arts Manager and Theatre Producer for IdeasTap, National Youth Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre, and Eleanor Barrett, Founder and CEO of The Brick Box. All success stories in their chosen field, but what did ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ mean to each of them in fulfilling their ambitions?

For inspirational entrepreneurial case studies in the Arts, just ask Ben Cooper-Melchiors. Informed by his work with IdeasTap, this enthusiastic American was full of positive attitudes and exemplary accounts of the creative businesses he has guided towards full realisation, mixing a little of his Arts admin insight with whatever bright idea was struggling to reach commercial success.

He asserted that, whilst the teaming-up of business minded individuals and creative types was potentially a recipe for success, there was a great deal of potential to be unearthed in the way creative people themselves tackle business concepts. I responded strongly to his idea that being an Arts entrepreneur means bringing an abstract artistic vision and implementing creative management (not creative accounting!) to develop a financially viable project.

Highlighting the differences between the UK and the USA, he pointed out that the absence of Arts Council England-style funding across the pond means that there is a greater need for creativity in finding cash for projects, something we could be embracing more at home. Whilst I agree that the Arts industry should take more entrepreneurial risks to earn its keep, I still maintain the belief that artists are able to take more risks within their art form, and experiment more freely in a country where Government subsidy still exists.

In the case of host Chloe Booker, ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ meant a question: how do you merge business with arts? The difficulty faced by some arts businesses (such as Chloe’s Platform 33) is that treading the line between a soulless, overtly business-minded operation and the somewhat cloying bonds of charity status leaves you unable to claim certain funding but also unwilling to sell-out to the highest bidder, making you more responsible for securing the necessary funds some other way.

Tim Foxon, working for the Musicians Benevolent Fund, painted for the crowd a picture of the MBF’s Dragon’s Den-style funding panel, one example of the different financial options that are out there. An opportunity for young musicians (of any genre) to compete for the money needed to avoid falling at the final hurdle post-college, attempting to jump headfirst into a successful career. The scheme aims to help artists at the stage when there seem to be so many things that must be paid for in order advance their career, including the currently controversial audition fees.

The YPIA event benefited from its discursive nature, with two audience members raising concerns that age seems to be a limiting factor for many cash strapped individuals, as they are just now reaching that jumping off point despite having checked out of Club 18-30.  As has been recently documented here, many creative types ‘bloom’ later in life (not to mention the time it takes to mature as an opera singer). So, the system’s not perfect, but MBF’s scheme is certainly a start.

One such self-proclaimed ‘late bloomer’ came in the form of Eleanor Barrett. Down to earth and gorgeously honest about her own journey to success, I particularly enjoyed her account of the many jobs, volunteer positions and mysterious past lives in cabaret that informed her decision to eventually start The Brickbox. She doesn’t consider the jobs she hated as wasted time, but as learning experiences and stepping-stones towards her eventual success.

Perhaps the clearest examples of entrepreneurial attitudes offered by Eleanor were the ideas of giving yourself permission to address whatever the ‘It’ (with a capital ‘I’) is inside of you, and, once acknowledged, just getting on with it and not being deterred from that path. When you have said yes to your own ambition, convincing others to get on board with your ideas should be more straightforward.

All of the panellists pointed out the importance of mentoring and of sustaining a strong network in the Arts. Chloe, who started out in the corporate world, was shocked at the comparative lack of support structures in place for Arts businesses, whilst Eleanor reflected that she had found a great mentoring group, although formed specifically for females. All agreed that successful Arts professionals, the sort one tends to idolise, often really like being asked for advice. They might just feel responsible for nurturing the future of the Arts industry they are so passionate about.

For me, at this point in my career, ‘Entrepreneurialism in the Arts’ means applying business-like attitudes to job-hunting and managing finance. After all, I am a product that I market to theatre companies. Whether that means networking, designing a website, or just uploading a CV to several specialist ‘jobsites’, in order to enter a crowded market place as an Arts professional, one must work harder than ever.