Entrepreneurs: heroes or villains within the arts?

An aspect of my research I find myself returning to regularly is the question of entrepreneurial identity and how it’s perceived by participants in the creative industries. This preoccupation manifests itself in questions like, “who is an entrepreneur?”, “what’s your image of an entrepreneur?” and “do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?” which I tend to ask when talking to groups of creatives. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to the Masters of Cultural Leadership students from NIDA about entrepreneurship and its role in organisational change, and so naturally enough, they were subject to these questions.

Their responses were thoughtful and perhaps indicative of their position as arts management professionals (and as such part of the not-for-profit component of the creative industries). In general, they had unfavourable impressions of what an entrepreneur was: a “greedy old white man” and a “snake oil salesman” were two similar responses, while someone else nominated the contemporary archetype of the hipster tech start-up founder, in t-shirt and sneakers. None had an image to nominate which they were complimentary about.

Yet within the same session, we heard from Saba Alemayoh: a young, passionate African Australian who has created and run businesses in health and wellbeing and hospitality. She now runs Afrohub, a platform for promoting African Australian music and culture, and she spoke about her commitment to promulgating the work of African Australian artists, making sure they get paid correctly and working outside a government funded model; a situation which requires a sustainable business model for the arts projects she helps realise. In the creative industries, we need not look far for examples like Alemayoh who challenge the traditional understanding of who an entrepreneur is.

Distrust about entrepreneurship as a concept is not exclusive to the arts industry, but in my experience, it is more frequently expressed within it than in other subsectors in the creative industries. For example, when discussing entrepreneurship with the Masters of Screen Business and Leadership students at AFTRS (an equivalent group to the NIDA students, but from the screen industries), the reaction is much more favourable. If I was to speak to a group of architects or a set of marketing/communications professionals, I would not expect the same level of suspicion about the term. In fact, I predict that the closer we get to the “for-profit” end of the creative industries spectrum, the higher the level of comfort with entrepreneurship both as an idea and as an aspect of self.

One of the NIDA students asked about the emergence of the term “culturepreneur” and I (half-jokingly) suggested that it was a way for creatives to smooth the term “entrepreneur” into a label they were comfortable with. But actually, I think it’s a way of trying to express the multiple motivations of what Dutch economist Arjo Klamer calls the “cultural entrepreneur”.

As he puts it, entrepreneurship is about the realisation of value, and for cultural entrepreneurs, economic and cultural values are equally important. He references fellow economist and politician Rick van de Ploeg in a quick definition:

The cultural entrepreneur of van de Ploeg combines artistic qualities with business sense; he or she is able to attract customers for the arts without compromising the artistic mission and artistic integrity. The cultural entrepreneur … can be an enterprising artist, a producer, someone or an organization commissioning a work of art, or a programmer. They all exemplify his wish for more economic sense in the world of the arts, for a less protective and conservative atmosphere and less reliance on the government for financial support.

Which instinctively sounds right, and consistent with accounts of creative entrepreneurs such as Alemayoh. A definition likes this helps to shift the image of the entrepreneur away from being selfish, profit-driven fat cats to being more sympathetic figures with both commercial and creative aims – aspirational figures for creative industries participants.

Klamer is also interested in why such a divide between good and bad archetypes of the entrepreneur exist within the narratives constructed by creatives.

The entrepreneur comes with qualifications that are either good or bad. For those who consider the entrepreneur the good guy, being without initiative is bad, obviously, while risk taking is good. So is dreaming about the impossible, being adventurous, risking failure, being alert, and being creative. […] In other settings, speakers may use entrepreneurial in a pejorative sense by suggesting that entrepreneurs are suspicious characters, prone to greed and narcissism. Accordingly, the entrepreneur can feature in a narrative of achievement or of tragedy.

An entrepreneur, he says, is sometimes the hero or the villain of the story, depending (he surmises) on the exposure the teller of that story has had to entrepreneurship in their personal history (though family, education, political leaning and so on). In other words, the more we see and hear examples of small scale entrepreneurship and its impact on our lives, the more likely we are to cast the entrepreneur as hero rather than villain.

I introduce the term “small scale” here for two reasons. Firstly, because small to medium enterprises (SMEs) are the focus of my professional activities, so that is where I see entrepreneurship in action on a daily basis. I suspect that the data collection for my research will focus on creative industry practitioners working within SMEs, not only because of my familiarity with them, but also because there tends to be a considerable gap between them and large scale creative enterprises (say Sony or Netflix), which divides the creative industries into two very different sets of organisations. Secondly, because I suspect that where personal role models for entrepreneurship are to be found, they are in SME-land – your Mum’s painting business, your friend’s profitable hobby and so on.

If we want arts professionals to be more comfortable with enterprise (and in an environment of shrinking government funding, that is an idea which seems to have currency), we may need to start earlier than in post-graduate management studies. Is it so hard to imagine undergraduate fine arts courses that promote entrepreneurial exemplars as well as artistic ones? Can we give students without personal histories of entrepreneurship role models to aspire to? Should we even select students not just on their creative talent, but on their ability to think and act entrepreneurially? We don’t, I think, want arts professionals to join in the unthinking hero worship of entrepreneurship we see in the tech and government sectors, but nor do we want them to instantly cast them as villains in the stories of their future careers. A critical engagement with the idea of cultural entrepreneurship as a way of combining commercial and creative objectives would be ideal.

 

Klamer, A. (2011). “Cultural entrepreneurship.” The Review of Austrian Economics 24(2): 141-156. Freetext here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11138-011-0144-6

 

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