Interview with Arts Lawyer Susan Brunning

What kind of work is it that you do?

Well, I’m a lawyer.  So I’m involved in the arts from a service provider angle, as opposed to being an artist myself.  I love the arts but I wouldn’t perform for anyone – you wouldn’t want to hear me.  I began law practice in a large corporate firm, and then I would just take some clients on a volunteer basis from the arts on the side.  And after about five years of that, I decided to jump ship and go out on my own and start my own law practice focused on arts and entertainment law.

What role, if any, does a business plan play in building or launching an arts company?

I think it’s an extremely important component.  I think you have to start with your own vision of what it is, what brings you to want to do this.  And then you really have to take that vision and passion and lay it down on the realities of the marketplace.  And think, “what does the market want?”  And “does my passion fit into the demands of the marketplace so that I can actually make a living doing what I love?”

I certainly had to do that as an arts lawyer, because I constantly got people saying, “you’re crazy,” “there’s no such thing,” or “why are you in Dallas? Why aren’t you in LA or New York?”  So I know from a personal standpoint when I started my firm, I had to think about what the demand was in the marketplace, what my preferences are in a perfect world, and then what sort of infrastructure do I need in my business to deliver the services that I want.

How active are you in helping your clients create business plans of their own?

Quite active – especially in my first ten years of practice.  Because a large percentage of my clients were startups at the time, whether it was an individual artist, an individual filmmaker, a band, a vocalist, I had a standup comedian – I had a lot of interesting folks come through my office.  So as I had to do with my own business, a lot of my initial advising is to make sure my client again had a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish.

What three pieces of advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurial artists about planning?

First, I think, start long term and then work back to short term to make sure the steps you are taking are heading you in the direction you want to go.  So sometimes it’s easy to see what you want to be doing right now or next month or next year, but start by looking long term: where do you see yourself ultimately?  And then working back from there you can set your course in a useful way.

The second is to be flexible.  Because just when you make a plan, things are going to change.  So if you make sure to just have it in your mind that you should always be open to change, you should be open to new opportunities, you should be ready for disappointments and unexpected events and unexpected reactions, and rather than feeling defeated by that, let that lift you up.  Because you can still look over the horizon at where you’re trying to head and realign yourself to keep moving forward.

And then I would say the third is: make sure you’re still following your passion.  As you start to get into business, it’s easy to get distracted by maybe easier opportunities to make money, or to work with somebody who isn’t necessarily taking you in the direction you want to go but gives you that near-term satisfaction that might get you away from your goal.  So I think always taking time to reassess: are you really following your passion?  If you’re not or you feel you can’t, then maybe that takes you back to your plan again.  And maybe your plan was viable.  Maybe it wasn’t viable, or maybe you can make some changes now that you have more experience, for better and for worse, to rethink how you can move forward.

What do you believe are necessary qualities, if there are any, for entrepreneurial artists to possess?

Persistence.  Self-confidence.  Humility.  Those don’t always work easily together, but I think those are really important.

And I always come back to passion.  If you’re going to be an entrepreneur in any sense of the word, you have to really have a passion for what it is you’re doing because it’s a hard road to go – and nobody is paving to for you.  It is very exciting.

 You have to be self driven; you have to be organized; you have to be willing to do whatever it takes regardless of whether you think it’s beneath you or above you or beyond you; you have to be ready to be all things for your venture.  And then, if and as you’re able to build a team, fantastic.  But if you’re the entrepreneur it’s…there’s no handbook that comes with that.

Susan Bruning is currently an Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University, teaching courses largely in the Arts Management minor.  Additionally, she is currently of counsel to a small firm, Vernon Law Group. 

Kyle Given is a Film & Media Arts student at Southern Methodist University.  When not busy with classwork, he is always working for experience in the Dallas/Fort Worth film industry.  The immediate goal is to find work as an Assistant Director, and later weave into the position of a Producer.

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