Skip to main content

The business of art

September 01, 2011

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of ASU Magazine.

“Artists understand that they need to make their own way in the world. They have to market themselves to their audience, manage their own budgets, and finance their works – all things that traditional entrepreneurs do,” said Linda Essig, professor and founding director of The Herberger Institute’s School of Theatre and Film, and head of an innovative program called the performing arts venture experience (p.a.v.e.), which seeks to empower artists to create their own opportunities.

Essig’s program is the most notable of several ASU initiatives that seek to nurture the connection between business and the arts. Started four years ago through a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, p.a.v.e. comprises various arts entrepreneurial activities, including a two-course sequence for undergraduates (Foundations of Arts Entrepreneurship and Arts Entrepreneurship Seminar), public programming focused on the arts business, and a venture incubator program that has helped to launch more than 25 student-initiated arts enterprises.

Successful p.a.v.e. ventures include the Phoenix Fringe Festival, started in 2008 to provide live, edgy art performances in downtown Phoenix; the Tempe-based artists collective Urban Stew; a classical music organization, The Sustainable Symphony; and Join + Cast Ventures, which publishes a visually stunning guidebook to downtown Phoenix arts venues.

It’s not just the funding, however, that makes p.a.v.e. valuable to these arts entrepreneurs. “Being able to start a small business in our undergraduate careers has been the greatest learning experience for both of us,” said Jennifer Campbell and Catherine Akins, the minds behind the Join + Cast Field Guide, which details 80 galleries and more than 40 artists, and showcases more than 100 pieces of original art. Grateful for the mentoring experience that p.a.v.e. provided, the women plan to give five percent of their book sales back to the p.a.v.e. fund to continue supporting arts entrepreneurship.

The support for arts entrepreneurship at ASU is not isolated to Herberger. “There is a real entrepreneurial community at ASU, and arts students can make full use of that,” said Essig, noting that many would-be entrepreneurs from Herberger apply to the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, which provides funding, training, and office space for ASU entrepreneurs.

Edson is not specifically focused on the arts, but it offers arts businesses that hurdle its tough gating process “as much care and feeding as any other venture,” said Dan O'Neill, former director of venture acceleration for Edson, and now a lecturer and leader with the College of Technology and Innovation’s Technology Entrepreneuring and Management program.

Matt McGraw, who received his Doctorate of Musical Arts in percussion performance from ASU in 2010, can attest to that. Edson funded his venture, Emusicinstruction – developed to provide live, interactive music instruction through video conferencing – in 2007 and 2008. “I had a wonderful experience with Edson.The program was vital for me in starting and running the business,” explains McGraw, who recruited musicians with master’s-level training from around the country to teach the virtual music lessons.

Financial constraints forced McGraw to fold the business this year, but he has no regrets. “Sometimes you have to go through those mistakes and learn how to make hard decisions even though, emotionally, you want to keep the business alive. I was able to tap into so many opportunities because I started this company,” McGraw said, noting that he was hired as a consultant to help the city of Phoenix run a music-centered after-school program.“Because of this experience, I’m not just a guy with a doctorate in music, but someone who understands how business works,” he said.

Helping arts students understand the importance of business is key for Tim Desch, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Desch encourages incoming students with a passion for the arts to pursue a business minor to complement their arts degree, and some 50 Herberger students are currently taking his advice.

“Making a living selling your art is so hard today, and most students understand that,” Desch said. “We want students to learn to use business as a pathway to pursue their passions and establish a successful arts career.”

Having the business background the minor provides can help students who decide to open a studio or art gallery, or become a band manager or record company executive, for example, Desch notes. “The business minor really adds value to their degree,” he adds. “It makes them stronger from a hiring standpoint, and personally, it gives them the skills and confidence they need to pursue their passions successfully.”

Amy Roach Partridge is a freelance business writer based in Thornwood, N.Y.