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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Too Much Art To Learn, No Time For Managing You?

One last post about the arts entrepreneurship conference I attended a couple weeks ago. Tomorrow it will be on to other things.

There are increasingly productive efforts being made toward teaching/mentoring/instilling, (whatever term you want to use), artists to manage their own careers.  I purposely didn’t use the term entrepreneurial practices because there are those that rankle at the idea artists need to measure their success in terms of economics and commerce. I have written enough about the idea that arts organizations should be run like a business to agree with that point.

On the other hand, everyone can use some sort of guidance about how to manage their lives and careers, even if it doesn’t have a commercial focus.

You Interview For A Job, Not A Career

An issue that came up at the conference was that career development offices, especially those at universities and colleges, tend to operate with a 20th century orientation on preparing to interview for a job rather than creating a career for one self. This is least helpful for students in arts disciplines where interviewing often doesn’t occupy a central role in career advancement.

The thing is, when parents come on a college visit with high school students, they ask the admissions office how many graduates get a job, not how many graduates started their own businesses or independent careers. Most parents would likely be terrified at the thought of what might happen if their defiant 16/17 year old tried to start their own company. The focus of career offices are partially driven by the expectations of tuition paying parents.

You Don’t Know You Want To Know It Until You Do

The other difficulty with trying to teach students to be more entrepreneurs mentioned at the conference is that they often aren’t in a place where they are receptive to forced instruction in that topic. One of the panelists spoke about how a visiting artist held a Q&A after conducting a master class and said she wished she had learn more about the business side in school. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t have paid attention at the time.

Once students have a project they become personally invested in, then they become interested in learning what is involved in making it a reality. That may be the advantage Millikin University has in having experiential learning as an institutional value. They put students in a position where they become invested in the success of something while they are in school.

Many people don’t have that experience until after they graduate and lack the easy access to advice and resources an academic setting affords. That was one of the central topics of discussion on a panel lead by Millikin professor Dr. Mark Tonelli. He presented a series of quotations from research he conducted with students and graduates.

Lives Are Ruined, Others Are Not

One graduate’s response reflected their perception of what their education lacked:

“We have a jazz degree, but no idea how to go about teaching private lessons ourselves, we have no idea how to adapt our jazz skills to the popular music scene (i.e. gigs that pay), having our heads buried in self-indulgent art music leaves us completely out of touch with current trends in music, we don’t know how to negotiate contracts, when to hire an agent, how much to pay people, where to find legal advice, we don’t even know how to do our !@#$%&* taxes…this is pathetic for a university-level bachelor degree.”

While my first impulse upon seeing this was to become indignant about how schools are failing to prepare students, there were others who presented a more moderated view.

“I feel I was fully prepared musically and artistically…it was my understanding that my degree would not encompass any business elements [so] I cannot hold it against the degree. I do feel that more business would be helpful to most students. At the same time, I am somewhat comfortable with the notion that it is an arts only degree and those who wish to make a living can sink or swim by learning business in the real world…I remember some professors saying that while the business was very important, there is just so much art to be learned that it is better to do a great job of that than diluting the degree with a mixture of art and business.”

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, of the respondents Dr. Tonelli quoted simply said they wished they could just play jazz and not have to worry about the business side at all.

Beauty Now, Sharks Later Is Not The Only Option

As a person who works on the business side of the arts, I was a little annoyed by the student being told there is so much art to be learned it is better to put off learning about business until later. If you are learning to be an artist, is learning about the business side a dilution or is it a holistic approach to the subject?

Is there so much art to be learned that some can’t be learned later? I am pretty sure there is an assumption you will need to continue honing and gaining skills after graduation. Performers take voice and acting lessons throughout their careers. Visual artists pick up new techniques and skills. Musicians study additional technique.

The way the student characterized those wanting to make a living as having to sink or swim illustrates quite a bit about how business skills are viewed.  Do instructors and mentors really want their charges to think they will be fully informed about the thing they are most passionate about in life, but if they want to do anything with it, they are on their own with the sharks?

A university/conservatory education provides the basis upon which you continue to develop over the course of your career. So why aren’t some general career management skills part of that, again with the assumption that one will need to continue to learn? If that were the case, the first graduate cited might be less discontented with their degree: aware of the basics but knowing there was more to know and having a sense of what they potentially needed to know more about.

The idea that career management skills are something separate you pick up later if you need it seemed divorced from how artists have historically managed their careers. Worse, it places the artist in a passive role, waiting to be discovered by someone else who will promote and manage them or give them a job. Certainly at a certain point one needs managers, accountants and agents to handle one’s business—but until you get to that point one really needs to be aware of how to perform many of those tasks for oneself. To be active and in control rather than simply waiting.

Very few artists have achieved success as hermits passing their work through a partially opened door to an agent. There plenty of instances when an artist has found themselves in a difficult place because they didn’t have the skills to monitor how their agents were handling their business.

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Can’t Brag About Them And Not Invite Them To The Table

I attended a presentation by Mosaic Education Network about their efforts working in conjunction with the Barnett Center at Ohio State University to provide some entrepreneurship workshops for artists in the Columbus, OH.

One of the things that impressed me was that they seemed to have made an effort to attract a more inclusive range of artists than might usually be served by such gatherings. When they spoke about how the different artists came to realize that the challenges they faced weren’t exclusive to their discipline, they mentioned that some attendees thought it was just a problem DJs were facing and visual artists likewise thought it was specific to them.

It got me thinking, how many individuals or organizations seeking to convene artists to talk about entrepreneurship would include DJs on their invite list? If I had been a little quicker with this realization, I might have thought to follow up and ask about the range of disciplines and practices that were invited.

The National Endowment for the Arts expanded their definition of what constituted arts participation when they conducted a study a few years ago. If arts organizations are going to tout those statistics to prove what a wide range of Americans are engaged with arts and cultural activities, it is probably only logical and fair to put practitioners of those disciplines on the literal and figurative invite list.

What they planned to do was hold a Create-a-thon modeled on the hack-a-thon events common in software coding, emphasizing the brain storming practices. This creative event was meant to lead off an 8 week series of workshops people would attend.

What actually ended up happening is a combination of a cautionary lesson and a testament to their nimbleness and willingness to revise their plans.

Associating the Create-a-thon with the software hack-a-thon model resulted in unanticipated expectations among some attendees. People came assuming there would be venture capitalists present and that those who gathered would help them develop their business model. That wasn’t what the organizers envisioned.

I have seen a lot of people advocate for adopted the hack-a-thon for arts and culture. I think I wrote about it myself some years ago. This problem never emerged on my radar which probably means I don’t know nearly enough about hack-a-thons to be stealing the idea.

Clearly if you are considering something along these lines it is very important to communicate exactly what will be occurring or evoke an entirely different model so that people don’t make the wrong assumptions.

They had 40 people attend the first day, but only 20 people came the second day. The presenters clarified the drop in attendance wasn’t due to the absence of venture capital at the event. Some people already knew they wouldn’t be able to make both days.

I wouldn’t normally even bring up the drop in attendance on the second day except that it helps to underscore how successfully they ended up. By the completion of the eight week series of classes/workshops, they ended up serving 76 people. While the interest initially seemed to flag, they attracted additional people through word of mouth and continued attempts to increase awareness.

But it wasn’t just good advertising. They attributed their ultimate success to their willingness to recognize the mistakes in their initial assumptions and take action to alter their plans.

They had assumed that those who were interested in taking their workshops would attend all eight weeks. They learned it was better to think about the classes in a modular fashion and allow people to attend the sessions by which they felt they would be best served.

For example, Week One focused on the Mission Statement; Week Two on Vision; Week Three on Value Proposition the artist brought; Week Four on Marketing, etc.  People only attended the workshops they felt they needed.

While they had planned to offer the classes during the day, they quickly realized that most everyone who had an interest in the workshops had day jobs and shifted to offering them in the evenings.

The presentation by the partners from Mosaic and the Barnett Center was successful by the measure of leaving me wanting to know more.

They seemed to be both working with people and embodying an ethic which are appropriate to the times and environment.

For example, you may have groaned inwardly at the mention of the Mission Statement workshop. Everyone writes these big impressive sounding statements that they can’t remember and never refer back to.  They took one artist’s wordy, paragraph long statement and boiled it down to “I manipulate fabric for curious people.”

That may sound too informal, but it is easy to remember and probably fits more organically with the artist’s vision and value proposition than most arts organization mission statements. Just try memorizing your mission statement and the fabric artist’s. Tomorrow morning I bet you can recite her’s more easily than your own. I bet her’s even fires your imagination better than your own.

In a marketing project they spoke about, an artist had been updating his Instagram followers about the progress he was making on a visual art piece. When it was done, he told them it would be hidden somewhere at a festival and provided clues about where to find it. This helped the artist promote his work and helped build a relationship with the festival when he was able to show how he had driven attendance to their event. Of course, it also contributed to the relationship the artist had with his supporters.

Finally, one of the things the Mosaic Education Network and Barnett Center presenters emphasized for those planning to do Art Entrepreneurship training for their communities went right to the heart of the big debate about paying artists.

Don’t talk to artists about how their art should be profitable and how you are teaching them to be successful, while simultaneously asking those who are helping you provide the workshops to do so for free/the exposure.  No one doubts it is difficult to find funding to support training programs like this, but the people who are helping you should profit from working with you.

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Why Is This So Tiring If The Students Are Doing All The Work?

Yesterday I wrote about the exciting things happening at the student-run ventures at Millikin University. Something I should mention, all these ventures are being run at the undergraduate level. You might naturally assume that students in the school’s MBA program were the impetus behind some of these efforts, but they are all undergraduate run.

While these programs are certainly worthy of emulating, one thing to be aware of is that when you are in the role of the supervising faculty member, it can take as much effort to restrain yourself from interfering or “fixing” things for a student venture as it does to teach the subject in a classroom setting.

Julie Shields, Director of the Center of Entrepreneurship, oversees the Blue Connection gallery located in the Decatur Arts Council building in downtown. I asked her if the software the information systems class developed to help Blue Connection I mentioned in yesterday’s post was used after that initial semester. Among the things the software did was cross reference sales records with weather and social media campaigns to help the gallery staff make decisions about marketing and inventory.

She said that every semester she has the students write a page of advice and wisdom for the next class. At the start of the next semester, she puts the paper in the middle of the room and tells the students it is available for their use so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel or repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. In all the years she has been teaching the class, no one has picked up the paper.

She said that it is difficult for her not to step in and fix things. When she has fixed things, she has regretted it because it was difficult to get the students to assume the degree of responsibility they should. She said students have often thought she was mad at them because she opted to bite her tongue and walk out of the room rather than submit to her impulse.

Coming from a performance background, my first inclination is to attribute the decision to eschew the advice of the earlier classes to the fact that visual artists often work alone versus the more cooperative theater environment. I am pleased as heck that the students in the Pipe Dreams Theatre company I spoke about yesterday engage in long term planning.

A visual artist vs. theater artist comparison isn’t really fair because the gallery is run by both business and visual arts students, creating an entirely different dynamic than that of the theatre company.  Not to mention, no two businesses ever operate identically.

Both the visual arts students and business students start out expressing stereotypical sentiments. The visual arts students wonder why they need to know the business stuff and the business students want to know why they have to be involved with art.

In addition, each has different working habits. The business students are ready to leave at 5 pm while the visual arts students may get inspired and come in at midnight to rearrange the displays. However, they have to work together to establish plans and procedures, including operating hours during which they will staff the gallery. I didn’t ask, but my guess is that there is a minimum number of hours a week they are required to be open. The one mandatory period of operation is during the First Friday gallery walk.

Julie Shields has some anecdotes about semesters where things gelled well. One business student admitted he didn’t know much about artistic quality, but he was able to provide a great analysis of sales trends that lead to one of the more financially successful periods.

Again, I think Millikin University is doing a lot of great work in enabling these student run ventures. The emphasis is definitely on Work.  I am not going to even try to tackle how they establish criteria for grading except to say there isn’t a direct relationship between financial success and a passing grade.

One additional case I wanted to mention which is not a student venture but taken along side them might be an indication of a burgeoning arts industry in Decatur, IL. During the conference, we visited the Heroic Age Art Center which is planned as something of an arts incubator. The original intention was to develop a video production center in the bottom floor and then create artist space upstairs. There was so much interest and demand, they ended up renovating the artist spaces first and all that space has been rented. Millikin plans to have a presence in the center at some point, but they will have to wait for the rest of the renovations to be completed first.

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Why I Was So Excited To Spend The Weekend In Decatur, IL

As I had mentioned yesterday, I had been looking forward to participating in the Society for Arts Entrepreneurship Education conference at Millikin University for a year due to their student run venture program which include in music publishing, a visual arts gallery, a theater space, a printing press, a publishing house, a printmaking studio and a radio station.

These are part of the Arts Entrepreneurship program, however the university has long had a philosophy of experiential learning.  The essence of what many university faculty and staff members expressed over the weekend was that students were told not to wait for someone to give them permission, but to jump in and try an idea out.

The work the students are doing and the results being accomplished are very impressive. As you have probably guessed, I was very excited to see it all first hand.

While ideally the decisions and responsibilities for each of these ventures would be borne by the students, the extent to which this happens seems to range between ~80%-98%, dependent on the program.

For example, one of instructors in the music publishing area spoke of how much time running the music label took and his efforts to get the students to bear more of the responsibility. On the other hand, he noted students worked very autonomously in other parts of the music production program.

There was a session in which an information systems professor spoke of a project his students had done with the student run gallery as a client. His classes worked on many similar projects for other departments and some external clients. Noticing that these clients were left without software support at the end of every semester, students created a venture independent of any class to service the software.

The conference was held during the university’s Fall Break so unfortunately we really only got to speak with students involved with the Pipe Dreams Theatre venture and the Blue Connection visual arts gallery.

I brought my camera with me so I could take pictures of what I experienced, but looking at the images I realized that these places look like any other theater or gallery space you might find anywhere. There is nothing to distinguish them from any other such place. That is probably to the students’ credit that you can’t easily discern that they are in charge.


I did want to share this one image from a presentation the Pipe Dreams students gave. They made this sign so I don’t know if the course objective is officially “To run the company in the general direction of not into the ground.”

The work load is the same whether you are taking the class for one credit or three. Everyone does get paid. According to the instructor Sara Theis, the most people have been paid is about $120. Other times she has cut checks for around $2.50. This is all determined by the students.

Pipe Dreams seems to be the venture in which students are more involved and invested.  They hire staff, they buy the equipment, do the marketing, write the grants, choose and cast the shows.

The space they occupy is slightly off campus. Other than the university covering the heat and the salary for the instructor, the students are responsible for everything in the building.  When one season loses money, the next cohort needs to deal with the deficit.

What probably impressed me most was that the students involved with Pipe Dreams are mindful of what the next group will inherit and make long term plans for the viability of the organization. For example, I thought the requirement that a student be involved for three consecutive semesters before they could be part of the managing board was dictated by the instructor, Sara Theis. She assured me that was entire the students’ decision because they saw the need to ensure continuity.

These long term plans include replacing aging equipment. One of the things they mentioned was that it took about three cycles of students before they were able to get ETC to grant them new dimmer system for their lighting.

There was a disagreement about whether the theatre seating was acceptable or not. After learning from an audience survey that people were uncomfortable, they created a plan to purchase new seating.

When they do midnight shows for students, they conduct a risk assessment in advance and institute bag checks.

In a separate panel of current students and alumni of Pipe Dreams, the students were well aware of the value of the experience. They appreciated the opportunity learn to fail and fail a lot in the relative safety of a university setting. They were also pleased that they could walk into a job interview with some realistic experience on their resumes.

Another young woman said that the experience over the years completely disillusioned her about a career in the arts. She said she was grateful because she might have spent 7-10 more years pursuing a career and ending up miserable. I think it is to the program’s credit that they put students in a position where they can really come to that realization as a consequence of choices they freely made for themselves rather than through the direction/requirement of faculty.

They were proud of what they accomplished. One spoke of the way the cohorts he belonged to gradually changed the dynamics of the Pipe Dreams company from safe, pandering programming to the more challenging content they produce now.

Some of their marketing campaigns caused the university to institute new rules about how student events can be promoted. One of students said they make no apologies for trying out new ideas.

They also have gotten some flack from the Millikin Theatre program for snatching up valued members of the campus acting pool which I think is awesome.

While turnover of students impacted continuity, they said it also brought new perspectives and skillsets to address problems the company faced.  They hold retreats every semester to help orient new students and one of their recent projects has been to create procedure manuals in each of the areas of responsibility to hand down to future generations.

Since this post is getting a little long, tomorrow I will offer some insights about some of the other student run ventures. The Blue Connection gallery provides a good contrasting examples to the Pipe Dreams venture.

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