Arts Entrepreneurship and Experiential Learning


Aylin Canales in “Payasa”

Many schools are currently developing new arts entrepreneurship programs. This article serves to encourage those schools to develop curricula founded in experience-based learning.

Entrepreneurship is best learned through the process of experience, as entrepreneurship, of whichever kind (corporate, arts, social), is a trial by fire process. There is no knowledge gained like experiencing something. Experience affords not just knowledge, but wisdom. As entrepreneurship is such an intense process and lifestyle for most, wisdom comes in handy.

Prior to my current post as Director of Arts Entrepreneurship at SMU, I served as Rektor (or Dean) of The International Theatre Academy Norway, a two-year, accredited conservatory I founded in Oslo, Norway. During the first year of the program, students engaged in an experiential learning process. They had the assignment to create an original one person show that was not less than forty-five minutes in length. They divided themselves into groups of two and, among themselves, determined who would serve as writer, director, actor. They might co-write together or one of them take responsibility. One student would act the entire forty five minute piece, while the other would direct.

“Self Sufficiency” is the name of this game. They were given very little formal class time to work on the projects, as most would have “survival jobs” upon graduation and needed to know how to develop their artistry in addition to likely survival jobs some will need this early in their process as arts entrepreneurs.

For the performance, they had to use a professional or semi-professional theatrical space, based outside of the school. They had to do all fundraising and promotion themselves. If they had technical needs, such as lighting or sound design or if they needed to rent costumes, that was their responsibility. In short, they were required to be self-responsible for all aspects of their creative process. They were required to attempt to generate press, which most did. They were tasked with developing a show of the best quality they could muster and then present it before a live and paying audience. They larger goal was to:

1. produce quality art and

2. make more money than they spent.

The process (or game) was much like the entrepreneurial process of trial by fire. Some succeeded and realized they were more creative than they ever thought possible. They learned to be resourceful, to communicate their story in the press. They raised money for their cause and profited from their art in the end. They gained tremendous personal power, with the knowledge that they can do this. They can make money from their art and, with time, develop their newly discovered skills in a considerable and meaningful way through practice.

Others failed. They realized their shows were mediocre, at best. They were not able to generate an audience of any considerable size and lost money.  Some of these students were burned by humiliation for a lack of preparedness. They felt the singe of failure, a failure that was sometimes within their own control. Some gave it their all and still came up short, just as so many business start-ups do. However, whatever path they chose to create for their process, whatever outcome they came to experience, they did just that: They experienced.

Though urged to raise money from others through events and other fundraising means, they were not told they could not use their own money. If they chose to do so, they were warned of risks of personal financial loss. There is an important learning process here too: most entrepreneurs first find start-up funds in their own pockets.

This exercise came to serve as a litmus test for entrepreneurial wherewithal, personality and “stuff”. Some came to realize that they did not want to pursue a career as arts entrepreneurs, that the path is far too demanding, intense or perhaps just not for them. Others came to know that they can and want to create in such a way, while others went on to serve intrapreneurially, entrepreneurial-minded within existing organizations. After graduation, some performed their shows again. Others created their own companies.

Tip for Curriculum Development: At SMU, we have a different structure. Our arts entrepreneurship program serves as a cross-disciplinary Minor. In classes at Meadows School of the Arts (SMU), we play games with students in the classroom, which simulate the entrepreneurial process. This affords the valuable lessons of experience. See the following video for an example of games that can be generated to provide students with an experiential knowledge of entrepreneurial skills and processes: The Marble Game:

Coming Up: The Arts Entrepreneurship Educators Society conference, June 6 & 7.

Jim Hart
Director of Arts Entrepreneurship
Meadows School of the Arts

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