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The Business of Artists

When people think about educating artists, they often focus primarily on the technical artistic skills. But given the current economic climate, simply being able to write, sing, or sculpt isn’t enough. Tomorrow’s most successful students will come from programs and schools that recognize the importance of integrating business training into their arts education.

The proof is in the numbers. Arts organizations constantly struggle not just to find and maintain funding, but to simply stay afloat. According to a Boston Foundation report, conducted over a 5-year period when economic times were better than today, 76 arts organizations shut down in the Boston area alone.

What separates those successful companies from those who shuttered their doors? A major factor is business savvy. Now in its 13th year of existence, Stray Cat Theatre in Arizona epitomizes the success that can come from paying as much attention to the accounting as the acting. “Theatre majors are done a huge disservice by not having to take business courses,” says Ron May, founder of Stray Cat.  May, who got his BA in theater, credits much of his success to one course: theatre organization and management.

Stray Cat’s story is not an unusual one. Undergraduates who get BAs in artistic disciplines routinely leave college prepared to execute their craft superbly. Visual artists leave with solid painting or sculpting knowledge, while dancers leave prepared to perform. Yet their inability to write grants, market a product, or balance the budget prevents them from becoming anything more than hired hands. While some may have dreams of animating for Pixar or playing in the New York Philharmonic, many artists imagine working for themselves by opening their own gallery or starting their own theatre company.

Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Company One, also in Arizona, agrees: “Knowledge of business is almost more important than creating good art.” And he should know. Company One has been up and running since 1998, in part because members of the current staff have degrees in theatre administration and non-profit management.

Many students, teachers, and school administrators are already acknowledging the importance of including business courses in the arts curriculum. “If you want an advanced degree, then you should be exploring all aspects of understanding your field,” says Amy Beck, theatre arts department chair at Arizona School for the Arts. “How can you be an expert in your field without know how to really work in the field?”

The sooner all artists—and the universities they attend—realize that creating good art is only one piece of the puzzle, the more prepared they’ll be to bring their world-changing work to the audiences of their choice.

Gregory L. Farber is Director of the Writing Center and a Lecturer in the English and Media Studies department at Bentley University

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Good advice!

Thanks for this article. As a working visual artist and mother of a musician (who will be entering his freshman year of college in 2014) I found this article helpful.

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