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Tag Archives | Artist as Entrepreneur

When A Top Tier Performing Position Isn’t The Goal of Your Education

Last month I pondered if there was any worth in giving up a little time in the conservatory/university training of arts students in favor of providing instruction/experiences in career management. Instead of graduating and then seeking out instruction in accounting, contracting and self promotion, etc., they would have a base in those skills but may need to seek out “finishing” training in their discipline.

The benefit to this is that given their lengthy training within their discipline, they would have the tools to identify and assess the value of educational opportunities and resources. Whereas, they might not have ability to assess the value of instruction in accounting, contracts, marketing services, etc if their conservatory training didn’t include it.

The other benefit is that once graduates are out in the world and can better understand where their interests lay, they can complete their education in a way that is appropriate to those pursuits and market demand.

About a week after that post, you may have seen an article in Cosmo that was getting a lot of circulation throughout the arts social media community. The story was about Lisa Mara, who had a strong affinity for dance,  hadn’t pursued formal university/conservatory training, but still felt a need for dance as part of her life and ended up starting two dance companies for like-minded individuals.

Her story is something of an intersection between the idea I state above and emergence of the professional-amateur.  Lisa Mara never wanted to be a professional dancer.

I danced about five hours a week and still did all of my studies. I still knew that I did not want to be a professional dancer. I wanted to pursue a career in something that I thought would have a better trajectory of business and job security. Being a dancer, you need to have an awareness of “Are you good enough?” And I don’t think I was good enough. The dancers who pursue dance as a full-time career should be the top 10 percent. Otherwise, you’re going to just get the door slammed in your face at auditions time after time.

Yet she loved dancing enough that she got a spot as a back up dancer for Brittany Spears, she auditioned as a dancer for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics basketball teams. Even though she never became a dancer for either team, she eventually utilized the business management experiences she picked up in the other jobs she held to plan and incorporate her first dance company in Boston.

I wanted to create a dance company for young professionals who were just like me. The target audience I was reaching was high-caliber dancers who wanted to continue dancing and choreographing into their adult lives. Many of our dancers have full-time jobs. Many of our dancers are dance teachers, but this is their opportunity to dance for themselves.

The success of that company spurred the creation of a second company with the same philosophy in NYC.

I don’t think there is anything in her story that implies the dancers in her schools could replace those who have focused their training on dance as a career.  I do think it is a good illustration that deferring some training in an artistic discipline doesn’t automatically make you unemployable.

Granted, just as not everyone will be cast on Broadway, secure a position in a top tier symphony or ballet company, not everyone is going to be able to create the opportunities for themselves at Lisa Mara has.

Opportunities do exist outside of the conventional career paths. If Lisa Mara’s experience is any indication, there may be a large unmet need of adult enthusiasts looking for a creative outlet.

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Info You Can Use: When Is Your Arts Career Not A Hobby?

There was a very interesting article on the Forbes website which explored the point at which the IRS determines your arts career is actually a job and not a hobby.

Since you can deduct job related expenses to a greater degree than hobby related expenses, the distinction is rather important to an artist.

And while a taxpayer may deduct expenses of a trade or business in excess of the profit earned by the business, thus generating a net loss, a hobby may only deduct its expenses to the extent of the profits of the activity; in other words, the hobby cannot generate a net loss.

The article author Tony Nitti, lists the 9 point test that the IRS uses the make the distinction. In the article he discusses a specific case where the IRS was challenging the filing of an artist and provides examples of how each question of the test would be applied in this case.

Later, he talks about how this particular artist’s career met the criteria of each of the test questions.

Something I found notable was that usually in these cases, a person has a steady job and then engages in a side activity which they subsidize with the income from their regular job.

In this artist’s case, she was an artist for about 20 years before she was hired on to the faculty of a college. The IRS was suggesting that her artistic career which preceded the steady job was the hobby.

This is one of the reasons I feel the article is valuable. For a great many practicing artists, this will be the path their career takes. It is only when they have proven their worth after some period of activity that they may be offered work on a consistent basis.

Now I should note, as Nitti does, that the reason the IRS was looking at this artist was because of the types of things she was claiming are expenses. That issue still has to be resolved in a separate hearing. Most artists probably shouldn’t worry about being targeted by the IRS.

The hearing about whether her artistic career was a career or a hobby has been completed. Nitti’s discussion about why her activities met the criteria is an important read. Even though this case addresses the career of a visual artist, it doesn’t take much effort to see how it applies to other disciplines.

Basically, if you keep adequate records, educate yourself about the market, consult with market experts, price your work to make a profit and have an expectation that work you are currently doing (which I suspect would apply to rehearsing and practicing) will eventually make a profit, then you might have a career as an artist!

Obviously it isn’t as simple as that summary so read the article.

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Embracing The Feedback Loop

A few months back, Seattle based artist Clayton Weller, wrote a piece addressing what he feels is a self-limiting outlook held by many artists that theatre is dying and there is no money out there. He confesses to having embraced the same outlook until he worked for a start up company.

Now he advocates for every artist to work for a start up in order to adopt their more nimble outlook. (my emphasis)

When you say the word “business” to someone, especially an artist, they automatically assume you’re talking about something stuffy, rigid, uncompromising, and [insert horrible adjective].

You say “business” but they hear “bureaucracy.” THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING!…

To eschew something because it can be done poorly, is a disservice to yourself, and might rival einsteins famous definition of insanity (look it up plebes!).


Talking directly to people, iterating ideas before execution, creating a feedback loop with measurable data; it all makes perfect sense.

By doing this you create a real connection with your customer (audience) and develop a product (art) people will not only tolerate, but will clamor for. In terms that an artist would use: your art becomes relevant.

That’s a big deal.

The average artist does NONE of these things. Not only that, they intentionally avoid them. They lock themselves away to pursue their secret “vision.” When they receive negative criticism, they blame their audience (customer). WHAT?!?

For me this addresses some age old debates about artists being more business minded and selling out vs. thinking you know what audiences/customers should like. (the most negative extremes of the spectrum)

Obviously, I like his point about not dismissing options because other people don’t do it well.

I think the complicating factor is the fear is that you too won’t do it well and the process will dominate your time and take you away from your creative work. Or worse, make you resent your creative work for making it necessary to become involved in the business side. For some it may not be a wholly irrational fear.

Still, I think regardless of your fears and regardless of your views about what constitutes selling out and remaining true to your art, the feedback loop Weller mentions is a useful process.

Failure and missteps are things you will face, especially when you are working in the arts. Proper feedback can help minimize this over time. If nothing else, the process can help you identify the proper people to solicit for feedback.

If you start a flow chart from the simple proposition that you want to support yourself with your art. You can ask, do people say nice things about my art? If the answer is yes but they don’t pay for it, you either need to find other people to get feedback from or figure out a different way to monetize your art from the people giving you feedback.

Likewise, if there are a lot of people who criticize your work, but still won’t buy it after you make the changes to the areas in which they say you fell short, then you may need to find other people to solicit feedback from.

Obviously it isn’t as completely clear cut as that. The problem may lie in your execution not being very good. My point is that you can’t depend entirely on your family and friends or trolls for feedback. It is necessary to identify people with the level of discernment you seek whose feedback you can trust and work from there.

You just need to recognize and own the potential implications of appealing to 1,000 versus 100,000. You can make a lot of money from those 1,000, but you need to be producing to a certain standard. Meeting the expectations of 1,000 can be just as burdensome as that of 100,000.

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The Apprenticeship Option

Recently Marginal Revolution blogger and economist Alex Tabbarok linked to an article he wrote a year ago suggesting that the United States would be well served by adding a focus on putting students into technical apprenticeships to the current push to get kids into college.

He starts out by applauding the now familiar push by governors in many states to provide incentives to students pursuing STEM fields over Liberal Arts. “We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees.”

I particularly oriented in on the part of the article where he notes,

“In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.”

Wow, that is pretty great, huh? But he goes on,

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

I initially felt a little indignant at the idea that graduates in the arts aren’t spurring innovation. But then I started wondering if the arts sector needs to take a little responsibility for this. It seems this might be a result of a lack of training and good public relations.

There is an on going conservation about training arts students to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their work so there is already an acknowledgment that this is an area to be improved. Perhaps part of that training should emphasize not undervaluing your work so that people don’t undervalue the work that artists do.

In terms of public relations, I think there is a lack of circulation of stories about successful creatives like those I recently cited about the winners of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition (one with a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese Lit., the other with a BA in Aerospace Engineering) and the Rotman School of Management’s design competition.

The main thrust of Tabbarok’s argument isn’t so much to diminish the liberal arts degree as to advocate for apprenticeships. He notes that some people are simply not suited for college but vocational education programs have a stigma of being the dumping ground for high risk kids. He points to the model of Germany (among other European countries) where students normally opt for technical training and apprenticeships that provide real world work experience while the students are in high school.

What appealed to me about this was the idea that if there is room in the day for a high school student to receive vocational training, then you have to allow that there is time in the day for arts classes.

But I am not suggesting that some kids be allowed to paint while the other kids go learn to weld. I think high school vocational training should seek to provide opportunities for students to train and apprentice at local arts organizations as well. Who says you can’t take some of your welding classes in a scene shop or art studio or that you have to do your apprenticeship in a shipyard?

Apprenticeship programs like this could strengthen ties between schools and arts organizations and reinforce the idea that vocational skills don’t have to be applied in purely practical ways.

On the other side of the coin, I have a vague recollection of reading an article that suggested many visual artists today don’t have a good understanding of the materials they use because they haven’t had a lengthy exposure working/playing with them. Even if my recollection isn’t correct, the opportunity to work with materials still exists.

The reality is, four years of college isn’t the entire key to becoming an artist either.

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