The Artist as Entrepreneur

On creating a creative life in the twenty-first century.


"The Artist as Entrepreneur," a panel discussion held on February 9, 2017, at the Maryland Institute College of Art. From left, Paul Jaskunas (moderator), Stacey Salazar, Lewis Hyde, and Paul Rucker. On screen, participating remotely, William Deresiewicz. Photograph by Wen Li.

This winter Full Bleed invited four speakers to critique the convergence of entrepreneurialism and the arts. Inspired by a recent essay on the topic by William Deresiewicz for The Atlantic, and by the efforts of art schools to encourage entrepreneurialism among their students, we hosted the roundtable discussion on February 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The event featured Deresiewicz, who is at work on a book on the condition of the arts and artists in the twenty-first-century economy, as well as Lewis Hyde, author The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, among other titles. We also invited the artist Paul Rucker and Stacey Salazar, a scholar of art education. The panelists addressed the difficult and changing relationship between art-making and commerce. What follows are excerpts from each panelist's remarks.


William Deresiewicz / The Entrepreneurial Paradigm
Art with a capital A, the Artist with a Capital A—these are historical concepts. They’ve only been around for a few hundred years. They had a beginning and there’s no reason to think that they can’t have an ending, that what we’ve come to mean by art and artist will change beyond anything we can recognize.

To think that art can be separated from money speaks either of naiveté or privilege. That doesn't mean that artists are in it for the money. But it does mean that they need to pay rent the same as everybody else. What I'm trying to talk about in my book is that the way that artists make a living has changed, and the way they make a living reflects the kind of art they make.

Since before the Renaissance, artists were considered artisans. Generally speaking, they made work commissioned by their patrons. Artists spoke the meanings that society wanted, which were, by and large, authorized by the Church. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century, as traditional structures of authority and meaning such as Orthodox Christianity started to break down, that Art, as we have come to understand it, began to emerge. Art as an autonomous realm that spoke its own meanings, often opposed to official meaning, the artist as visionary, solitary genius—all of these are modern ideas. Often what art expressed was countercultural and anti-capitalist. Ironically, the market itself was instrumental in freeing the individual voice and breaking down traditional structures.

The paradigm of the solitary genius visionary bohemian began to be superseded by another in the years before and following World War II. It was the age in this country that we call The Culture Boom, which also coincided with The Education Boom, resulting in an enormous building out of institutional structures. There was a huge multiplication of MFA programs along with their professional structure: grants, awards, fellowships, and faculty positions.… All of this amounted to a shift from the artist as bohemian visionary to the artist as professional.

In recent years, that paradigm itself is starting to break down, yielding an increasing shift from professionalism to entrepreneurship. This is not just true in the arts, but throughout our society—due to online distribution and production, tools that the Internet provides because of the weakening of institutions. The number of full-time faculty positions has plummeted in the last forty years. We are now witnessing what is called the “gig” economy: people are working small part time jobs that they’re trying to add up to a full-time income.

It’s important to recognize that the term “entrepreneur” here is a sort of euphemism. An entrepreneur is really someone who builds a business that grows and gains value, hires more and more people, and, as a result, becomes wealthier. We are not talking about entrepreneurs in that sense. We’re simply talking about people who are self-employed. Entrepreneurialism is the necessity that’s being sold to us as an opportunity.

Self-employment requires taking over all the functions that used to be performed by intermediaries. Artists are now versed in self-branding, self-management, and social media. It’s an opportunity to reach and cultivate audiences without the intermediation of agents, managers, publicists, gallerists, often referred to as “gatekeepers”. Established critics, universities, museums—these gatekeepers always have their biases, so bypassing them is potentially a great opportunity for artists from marginalized communities.

I would like to quickly list some of the trends that I’ve seen develop in this new paradigm.

If it’s harder to make a living as an artist, art will become increasingly created by people who don't have to make a living (either because their spouses are making a living for them or because they come from wealthy families). There is talk about how the arts are getting more “posh” and the students of art schools are becoming more affluent. Another trend that I think is related is the rise of the hybrid artist. (Paul Rucker is an example.) There are many people like this working in two or three separate disciplines. Art’s entry into the entrepreneurial space may in fact be a subset of the wider phenomenon: art is being asked to be increasingly ‘relevant’. If art is not for us, and not for a commercial purpose, then it is for a social purpose. When I hear about this, my response is positive—but I hope that this art is also good, that the music sounds good, the visual art looks good, etc. Then I consider what it means to make good art—that word “good” itself may be changing and what we call “good” in art will precisely be defined by its quality of social engagement, not its aesthetic quality—or at least the proportion of those things will change.

Another trend I’ve noticed is the subsuming of art directly into the commercial economy. Not just art that's in the market but art that's of the market. The most obvious example is the increasing prominence of “branded art”: established artists being commissioned to do projects for brands like Louis Vuitton or AirBnB. I think it goes without saying that there may be questionable things about this trend, but it’s clearly providing a lot of work for artists. Especially for visual artists, there's more and more demand for creativity. Creativity has become this enormous buzzword among the corporate and commercial worlds—more and more things require design today.

I'm interested in the way that people are responding to all of this—not just as individuals but collectively. More and more organizations, like Kickstarter, are trying to replace the old ways that artists were funded. For example, The New Museum has an incubator called “NEW INC” which works with artists to, among other projects, bring products to market. Artists are organizing not just as entrepreneurs but also as workers. There is an organization called W.A.G.E., Working Artists and the Greater Economy, which is trying to get museums to actually pay artists for things that they don't pay them to do right now. This brings us back to tonight’s context, more and more art schools are trying to integrate the development of entrepreneurial skills into their programs.

One thing I want to point out, which I think gets lost in the conversation about the efficiencies of the Internet, is that the main cost of making art is not going down and never will go down. The two main costs of making art are keeping the artists alive while they make it and becoming an artist in the first place. The cost of the latter is going up all the time—becoming an artist means getting one, or, often two university degrees, which involves accumulating a lot of student debt.

I'm not necessarily endorsing creative entrepreneurialism and, while I obviously have a lot of criticisms of it, the point is not to criticize it. Endorsing it or criticizing it would be like endorsing or criticizing the weather. It's here. And we need to deal with it.


Lewis Hyde / The Politics of Gift Exchange
The simple thesis of my work is that there’s a category difference between a life of making art and a life of commercial pursuits. There are many realms of social life that are not well delivered or organized by market forces, such as art making, education, healing, pure science, and spiritual life. These are things for which we find that market delivery systems don’t yield the ends we seek. This is not to say that I am against artists making a living—in a way I was trying to make clear that failure to make a living as an artist does not reflect the failures of an art-making practice.

Lewis Hyde 

Some artists are lucky enough to be able to make work that actually does have commercial value—we famously have a number of novelists and visual artists in this country who have found a market—and I have no complaint about that. I wish we all had that. Alternatively, many of us end up choosing to have two different kinds of jobs. I myself have had some success as a writer but I also teach half time because, even with the success of my books, I cannot pay the rent or afford my health insurance. The second job is the most common solution for artists these days. Another solution would be voluntary poverty—to somehow cut back on your necessities and alleviate the pressure by detaching from the market and saying “I’ll just live in a small room all by myself with a hotplate.”

I believe that societies that care about the arts, pure science, or spiritual life, will develop gift exchange institutions; they will develop ways in which to convert one kind of wealth into another. I think the history of patronage is a bit more complicated than the thumbnail that Bill gave us… We have both the patronage of wealthy families—Guggenheims and Rockefellers—and the patronage of the public purse, state art institutions like the N.E.A. and so forth. There are many ways to solve this disconnect; if the community cares, it’s not impossible.

In any event, I found it useful to reframe what it means to be a practicing artist in terms of the economy of the gift exchange, and my book The Gift is an exploration of that frame.

As for entrepreneurship, let’s widen our sense of the term. “Entrepreneur” comes out of the French; it means someone who has an undertaking, who initiates and takes some responsibility for some project. An entrepreneur is not only in charge of a project but is the one who takes the risk of profit or loss, success or failure. It’s accepting the risk of loss and failure that is the particular mark of the entrepreneur.

Young artists often have no choice when it comes to the risk of failure; on the other hand, in our era, more mature artists, weary of risk, have taken shelter in the academy. That’s partly why the academy is there. We may end up, in a certain sense, with artists who are ‘domesticated’ but are, at the same time, relieved of the burden of having all their enterprises not only offer reward but risk and failure. The shelter of the academy is clearly beneficial for many people.

If we’re talking just about risk and failure, we tend to think about entrepreneurship in terms of the commercial world, but I suggest we can also think of it in terms of the art world. There have always been artists who initiate projects that will go forward and either fail or succeed. The ones who succeed are the ones who have slowly changed our culture and made a mark for themselves. In this sense, Walt Whitman, when he published Leaves of Grass, was an entrepreneur. Not because he was going to make money but because he was promulgating a new aesthetic and a new way of writing poetry in a new world. Through the end of his life Whitman never made any money off his craft, but he was an entrepreneur nonetheless.

Entertaining risk and failure can be done in an aesthetic or artistic way as well as a commercial way. I think of Marcel Duchamp. Exactly one hundred years ago this year, Duchamp, invited by the Society of Independent Artists, submitted the first readymade. That innovation didn’t make Duchamp any money, but he ended up proposing a different way of approaching art. The Blind Man, a journal published at the time, suggested that Duchamp had “created a new thought for that object.” The readymades offered a way to re-see the world. They were, in this aesthetic sense, entrepreneurial acts.

Let me say just a word about my second book, Trickster Makes This World.

In Trickster I began to try to think about the limits of gift exchange. The key moment for me, the hinge point, came out of work I was doing on an old Homeric text, the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes.” It’s the story of the birth and early career of the Greek god Hermes. Hermes is born in a cave—an illegitimate child, the son of the shame-faced nymph Maya and Zeus. At the beginning, his status is completely unclear. Is he going to be the kid who never gets ahead, always rejected, or is he going to become an Olympian? One of the first things he does is leave the cave where he was born. He stumbles upon a mountain turtle waddling around. He butchers it and from the shell he makes the lyre. (It’s the origin story of the invention of the lyre.) The second thing he does is steal cattle from Apollo. He cuts them out of the herd and takes them to a secret place. He butchers two of them and does a complicated sacrificial ritual. Then, when he comes home in the morning his mother scolds him, tells him he wears “the cloak of shamelessness.” What Hermes wants is to be recognized, so he says: “If my father will not give me offices in heaven, I will steal them.” The two poles here are theft and gift. Theft is offered to people outside of the gift economy.

Hermes effects a remarkable change in the system. Later in the Hymn, Apollo has finally tracked down this baby thief to punish him. Hermes whips out the lyre and starts to play to Apollo, who is completely charmed. Hermes is an artist who invents something, the lyre, which changes the economy of world he was born into. This is a kind of entrepreneur: he is risking the success and failure of his own inventions.

Supposedly Baudelaire once wrote an essay about Edgar Allan Poe in which he said that the problem with poor Mr. Poe is that in America at that time there were no bohemias. There were no places for someone with Poe’s talents to go. It’s always made me wonder where the bohemias are in America, by which I mean, where are those places for artists living through the moratorium period (it might last ten or fifteen years) in which they are not able to earn money from their gifts? Where can you go and live so that you can have some dignity in your life, but can also dedicate yourself to your art? In a certain sense, those of us who have retreated to the academy for a second job are living in a kind of modified bohemia.

There must be other bohemias, places where, between the time you get out of school and your thirties (when, if you’re lucky, you’re finally able to have a career as an artist), you can live and not be hassled constantly by the bottom line. I feel that, since the early nineties, we have had a kind of market triumphalist society in which such places are harder and harder to find.

A lot of “social practice” art puzzles me; it strikes me as an art practice that has arisen because politics has failed as the proper venue for true social change. In the Creative Capital retreats, we see a lot of social practice art. It takes on problems that, fifty years ago, would have called for political action.

When I was in my twenties, I got a writing grant from the N.E.A. I lived on that for a year and a half, and it was incredibly useful to me. I learned how I worked, and I learned how to pace myself, what I could and couldn’t do. In the 1990s we began to get right leaning attacks on the N.E.A., and the elimination of grants—this is about to get worse; it’s possible that the new administration will get rid of the N.E.A. entirely. These are historically contingent, political decisions. Whether a community or a nation supports the arts is a matter of politics.

The tides of the market have perhaps made us all into creative entrepreneurs, but I resist a lot of it. I think there could be a better way.

Creative Capital—a grants-giving entity founded around 2000 that gives money to individual artists—arose partly in response to trouble the N.E.A. was having. If the federal government’s contributions are weakening, then we must organize other solutions.

The one reservation I have with new models is the way culture is distributed in the United States. These things tend to happen in the big cities. One thing the N.E.A. has always done is mandate that funding go out into all different kinds of communities. Mr. Trump has made me become a states righter again—let’s have local control over these things.

One of the offices of art is to imagine the future, and to imagine the future is a heavy charge, and from that follows whatever else you do. Some of the models that are offered on how to live the creative life don’t seem to take into account the amount of time it takes to lead a creative life. I write books very slowly. My books take five to ten years to make. There’s no way to do that as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship, support for the arts: these are political topics. There are cities that value their artists, that figure out a way to structure the rental markets so artists will stay. That doesn’t happen in a completely free market economy. There are countries that value education, countries where people leave college without debt. You don’t get any of these things unless you ask for them.


Paul Rucker / Grants, Budgets, and 1099s
I have to first acknowledge a few things. My experience is very different. I am a black male in America. You look at Bo Diddly, he didn’t make the same money as Elvis. Mozart had a sister who was brilliant, but she was a she. There is a certain level of privilege that white males have. So before I give a go at this, I just wanted to say that.

Paul Rucker

I learned my art education being a janitor at an art museum for several years and I met some amazing people and saw some amazing art. So my route was very different and the path was pretty rough—a lot of wrong turns, a lot of living in not-so-great situations. I am in a very fortunate place right now, but it hasn’t been a route of privilege.

When I began making art, I didn’t do it to make money. I wanted to make a living doing it, but that wasn't my main purpose. I wanted to actually deal with issues of growing up in the South, growing up in this country. I got to this place where I thought, if you’re making a painting and thinking “how am I going to sell this piece?” I felt your painting was already ruined before your brush even touched the canvas. I think art should come from a pure place.

Four or five years ago, things were happening and I sold this sculpture for a lot more than I ever thought I’d sell it for. I realized that, hey, if I were really to get down in the trenches and start selling, I could probably make a quarter million dollars next year, pretty easily. But then I decided, well, do I want to be that type of artist? Is that the type of artist that I choose to be? And I chose not to go that route. I decided to keep making sculptures but I also make Ku Klux Klan robes that I don’t sell. Because I want people to learn more about that history. You can commoditize a struggle. If I wanted to exploit my blackness and the struggle, tap into white guilt, I could make a fortune right now.

I think the art has to come before the artist in many ways. And it has to be socially engaged. For me, I’m not going to bring up issues around race, issues around violence, going from the Trail of Tears to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to slavery, to Japanese Internment—I’m not going to go there without offering some way for people to actually engage, have some reconciliation. There has to be some kind of engagement, and there’s not a lot of money to be made in engagement.

So, do I make a living now? Fortunately, I do. I’m working with a development company for site-specific public art. I do projects that I’m not strictly fond of, but they help me. Sometimes you have to do things that help support your work. You know how at the beginning of the year you get your Form 1099’s in the mail? Well, I’m already on sixteen. I usually have about twenty different jobs, and that’s not including some that are six hundred dollars or less for talks and smaller things. I think I took around forty flights this past year to do talks, to do shows. This past year I had five solo shows, performances in Arkansas, Richmond, New York. You travel a lot and you’ve got to keep track of all of the expenses. You’ll feel good at the end of the year, you know, that you made over $100,000 dollars, but you also have to add in your expenses, which can put a dent in your actual income.

One of the biggest difficulties of being an artist, you know, is putting on a $5000 dollar show with five hundred or less. But we all have to do that. That’s why it’s one of the most creative jobs.

You can do so much now as an independent entrepreneur that you couldn't do fifteen, twenty years ago. I have a friend who's selling her prints online, she makes $4000 dollars a month, just selling prints. Not originals, just prints of her work. So you can make a living as an artist. It used to be more expensive to do things, to make video, to make audio in a studio, to have a studio, and now a lot of these things are more accessible because of technology. I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend 10,000 doing them, but I think you can actually accomplish a lot without putting in all those hours. Does that 10,000-hour rule still apply?

When I was in school, music school early on failed to teach people how to make a proposal, how to budget, how to survive. Most of my survival right now is from grants—Creative Capital, Baker, I actually just got a Rauschenberg grant—I had to do a proposal and a budget to get that. I would always go to the grants program manager and get help with the budgeting. It’s good to have someone look over your proposal and your budget. Not another artist, but someone else who doesn’t speak art.

I make a budget every two weeks. It’s important for me to do that. Having a one-year plan, a three-year plan, a five-year plan, is something that’s a great exercise. If you can say, next year I want to make this much money—there’s nothing bad about saying that.

I haven’t learned to get rid of the poor artist mentality. I’m looking to buy property. Why can’t artists buy property? We allow ourselves to get pushed out of neighborhoods. If a few students at MICA, if they were to make another semester's tuition after they graduate, and pool together their money to buy a building, make that building into an art space to include other artists—you can do that. I went to an auction today, a building on Greenmount Avenue, it was 8,000 square feet. It was auctioned for $275,000. Baltimore is one of the last places you’re going to find a building that size for that amount of money. Living in Seattle you can’t get a condo for that amount of money, you can’t get a tear-down house for that. But you can buy a building for that amount of money here in Baltimore. So I think for us to take control over our finances and where we’re able to stay is important.


Stacey Salazar / Art Schools and the Creative Entrepreneur
Most of today’s tenured professors entered academia in the 1960s and 70s, a time characterized by expanding universities and colleges, strong government funding for the arts, and inexpensive college education. In such an environment, so-called “pure” art—art that resists or even critiques the marketplace—became more prevalent in the academy, as artists, now full-time professors, earned a salary that essentially released them from external financial pressures. That environment no longer exists for most people: there is little federal or state funding for the arts, postsecondary education is expensive relative to the cost of living, and colleges are shrinking: there are fewer students, fewer faculty positions, and less funding from public and private coffers.

Despite these dramatic changes, the embattled National Endowment for the Arts has found that some fine arts training programs continue to preach an “aversion to ‘instrumentalizing’ the arts, thus creating a perceived barrier for artists who wish to use their skills in non-arts contexts.” This quote comes from an NEA report arising from an extensive research project, “Creativity Connects” (September 2016), which found that, with some exceptions[1], art school education “still focuses on honing artistic technique and reinforces the idea that the artist’s singular vision will carry them through.” The report goes on to recommend that art schools offer business and entrepreneurship training, and help students create connections between the arts and non-arts disciplines.

In addition to inserting components into the curriculum, the curriculum itself can change. In his book The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas, John Howkins proposes eleven “rules” for success for creative entrepreneurs, among them:

·      Define yourself by your own activities.
·      Learn endlessly.
·      Treat the virtual as real and the real as virtual.
·      Invent yourself.
·      And have fun.

Relatedly, the World Economic Forum published a list of skills needed to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (our time!). The top five skills are:

·      Coordinating with others
·      People management
·      Creativity
·      Critical thinking
·      Complex problem-solving

These lists have at least two things in common: they describe so-called soft skills and they describe some of the qualities of an arts education. As others have argued, if an entire art school curricula were revised to explicitly integrate skills such as these across the whole curriculum, then postsecondary visual art education—rather than simply being a professional degree—would become radically more relevant.

In any event, whether adding a class in marketing, integrating professional writing into a studio course, restructuring the foundation year, or remapping the entire four years, these are examples of curricular change—that is, altering what is taught. I would argue, however, that curricular change alone is not enough; pedagogical change is essential as well, but is perhaps a more challenging proposition.

In my 2010 study with ninety students from two art colleges, I found that, in their first year, students wanted five key things from their studio professors:

·      They wanted the teachers to know them;
·      To help them make personally meaningful work;
·      To teach them skills—but not skills for their own sake;
·      They also wanted the teachers to create a safe community in which to learn;
·      And they wanted to learn how to live creative lives.

Note how these findings echo the soft skills needed for the creative entrepreneur in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ To educate these learners, I propose the following pedagogical shifts:

First, educators need the skills to facilitate student interaction so that students develop a community that will sustain them beyond one semester, one major, or even a four-year degree.

Secondly, teachers must create learning experiences that prompt student inquiry into art, self, and world—and the ways in which art, self, and world are interconnected.

To accomplish both of the first two, a third shift is necessary: professors must release control. Historically, a classroom denotes one group’s desire (the teachers) to have another group (the students) see things the same way they do. This historical model is no longer useful. Instead, today’s art professors must distribute control in order to embrace diversity and facilitate organized randomness, strategic redundancy, and neighbor interactions, so that teaching expands possibilities and allows students to thrive (Davis, 2004).

In short, professors must play with pedagogy.

Yaw Agyeman, sound artist and member of the Black Monks of Mississippi, writes that for the first part of his career he thought of his voice as “a product, a means to a profit” (NEA, 2016, p. 50). After playing with Theaster Gates, Yaw realized that instead, his voice was an instrument—a gift—that could, as he said, “expose his heart” (p. 50). Relatedly, philosopher Stephen T. Asma has written that:

When we see an activity like music as merely a “key to success,” we shortchange it and ourselves. Playing [music] … is a kind of unique, embodied contemplation that can feed both the mind and the body… Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental … In play, we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity (extrinsic value), but instead, our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own. [Play] provides the source from which other extrinsic goods flow and eventually return.

Though speaking of aural experience, these statements by Agyeman and Asma have obvious implications for the visual. Acceptance of one’s work as a gift becomes a challenge when every part of creativity is something marketable.[2] If one can sell every aspect of one’s identity, then what is left for the living part of the creative life? On the other hand, if the creative entrepreneur’s identity is performed, created by an individual within a cultural context (Butler, 1999) then might the artist’s re-emergence as a ‘creative entrepreneur’ be an empowered position from which to engage with, and have a voice in, the culture? If ‘we are what we do’[3] then today’s artist-entrepreneurs might have identities that are more fluid than that of artists in the recent past. Perhaps today’s artists see themselves as both artist and designer, as both independent and embedded in community; their work as a gift and a means of commerce? To assist students in navigating these fluid possibilities, professors must shift curricula and play with pedagogy, so that our twenty-first century artists might live creative lives.


[1] Arizona State University, Otis College of Art and Design, and Maryland Institute College of Art

[2] This notion of the selling of one’s identity and its implications is based on my understanding of the writings of political scientist Wendy Brown.

[3] See John Dewey, Art as Experience and Experience & Education.


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Issue 1
Publication Date: May 4, 2017

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent college speaker, and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He taught English at Yale and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer in 2008.

Lewis Hyde is the author of The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern WorldTrickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, and Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. He is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College and the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship. 

Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. He is a 2012 Creative Capital Grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 MAP Grantee for performance. In 2015 he was awarded a Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant.

Stacey Salazar directs the Master of Arts in Art Education program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She received a doctorate in art and art education from Columbia University Teachers College. Her research focuses on teaching and learning in studio art, art and design practices in pedagogy, and developing the artist-teacher-researcher. Her research appears in Studies in Art EducationVisual Arts Research, and Art Education Journal, and her artwork has been exhibited in the US and Italy.