Artists As The New Entrepreneur

I was reading an interview on with Jim Collins, author of Built to Last in which he says being an entrepreneur is less risky, though much more ambiguous, than working for someone else.

Not risk. Ambiguity. People confuse the two. My students used to come to me at Stanford and say, “I’d really like to do something on my own, but I’m just not ready to take that much risk. So I took the job with IBM.” And I would say, “You’re not ready for risk? What’s the first thing you learn about investing? Never put all your eggs in one basket. You’ve just put all your eggs in one basket that is held by somebody else.” As an entrepreneur, you know what the risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else’s company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don’t exist. You just can’t see them, and so you can’t manage them. That’s a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces. But there’s lower ambiguity on the paint-by-numbers path: very clear but more risky. The entrepreneurial path: very ambiguous but less risk. Of course, the truth is that it’s all ambiguous, anyway. If you think you can predict the future, you’re crazy.

One of my first thoughts was that if this were true and everyone thought this way, everyone would be an entrepreneur and no one would be around to work. Is it the illusion of security predicated on the belief that a company has a business model and system that will ensure salary and medical insurance payments are made that causes so many to work for another instead of themselves? Who wants to handle all the legal paperwork and accounting associated with running one’s own business when you can work for someone who has lawyers and accountants to do that work already? (Though lately few are investing too much confidence in accountants and lawyers.)

But on the flip side of things, I wondered if the relative lack of security associated with working in the arts is one of the reasons so many arts organizations pop up. If the prospects of success are chancy across the board, I suppose it is logical that you cast your lot with the devil you know rather than joining someone else. You figure you can out economize them. If they are putting on good shows eating frozen pizza, you can do a better job while surviving on ramen noodles all the while hoping you will be eating better at some point down the road.

I think people in the non-profit sector embody Collin’s vision of entrepreneurs pretty well in that many do understand the risk and ambiguity involved with working for another or one’s self. I almost wonder if it might not be worthwhile encouraging people in the arts to apply this energy and willingness to endeavors outside of the arts. We have all been told, if you can imagine doing something else, do that rather than pursue a career in the arts. I am sure everyone has envisioned what that something else might be. In some cases, it might involve working for someone else, but that vision might be easily be diverted to working for oneself.

I really suspect that the internal drive an arts person has that sustains them in starving for their art is the exact same drive entrepreneurs employ in starting up their companies. The only difference is that the arts person may see growing their vision to a 500 employee company as selling out. To be fair, the whole process of meeting with venture capitalists, dealing with human resources, accounting and laws can seem intimidating and impregnable barriers. They say the next phase of the economy will emphasize the creatives. What if this might portend the emergence of organizations and processes which take advantage of the drive and vision of the artist and facilitates with the removal of the barriers either through training or performance of those functions in a manner which the artist can easily relate.

Let me be clear, I am not necessarily talking about empowering artists to be more successful artists. Yes, it would be great if solid arts organizations emerged. I am referring instead to arts people bringing their drive to the thing they would do if they weren’t in the arts. I am thinking about directing that drive toward game and software design to restaurants to human resource companies.

Wouldn’t be heartening to have worked in the arts for 10-15 years and realize that your hard work and relentless drive proves you may just have the tenacity to embrace the risks inherent to starting up a new company and there are people who want to help you do it?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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