No Utopia.

On Christmas day of this year, Linda Essig, blogger at Entrepreneur the Arts, posted a piece in response to some questions I had asked her to contribute towards. Linda heads a program of entrepreneurial arts training at University of Arizona.

We must create our own paths--even if it means we have a hack away at some jungle to carve one out.

In her post, she said the following: “Jim expressed a Utopian idea of having many small for profit theatres, privately owned, and risk taking”.

What most popped out for me (in her post) was her use of the word Utopian to describe my viewpoint. I want to give focus to this word, “Utopian”, as I believe Linda’s subtle phrasing points to a larger problematic thinking in our culture.

In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “All Utopian visions have this in common: The mental projection of a future time when all will be well, we will be saved there will be peace and harmony and the end to all our problems”.

What Linda is saying in this sentence is that it is a fantasy notion for artists to build small for profit theatres, which are privately owned and are risk taking.

I will respond to this sentence by saying it is no fantasy, as it occurs now and has occurred (the creation of small, for profit theatre companies who are risk taking and working towards a profit). To assume otherwise, is to not know one’s history. I further translate “taking risk” and working towards profit to mean “entrepreneurship”. To define entrepreneurship in the arts as “Utopian”, Linda’s words conflict with her job (head of an entrepreneurial arts program).

Linda is not alone in her belief. Many people have a schism in their thinking about artists—that art should not have a profit motive or a structure that would lead the artist to reap the financial benefit that sometimes accompanies public appreciation for one’s work. Such thinking is ridiculous. Why should artists be immune to the standard protocol of all other business people—the desire to receive a return for work done?

The standard path in artistry is to follow a traditional approach to job getting. If it us Utopian of me to teach artists how to be more independent, to be responsible for their talents and opportunities (won or lost) and seek to build their visions into concrete realities, striving to make a living in the process…then slather your brush and paint me Utopian.

The technique I teach, The Hart Technique, will be offered as the foundational philosophical approach to our program at Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts. There is nothing Utopian about what we teach and inspire in our students, quite the contrary. We do not look to the future for a better time, we teach our students to dig into opportunity that exists right now and today. We teach them to seize the day and be responsible for the work they get. The standard commercial route has too few jobs and too many players. The market to totally oversaturated and hundreds of theatre programs a year in our country, churn out more and more actors to enter this typical path. The path leads to a bitter end for most of the people on it—under employment and unemployment.

Buddha said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”. I urge you to ask of yourself, “Does it not just make good sense to be training artists to be more self-sufficient, more independent (of needing others to give them their professional opportunities)”? Imagine the cultural implications as we have more artists—not fitting into line and following others on a path, but creating paths of their own, building their original visions and profiting in doing so. As these individuals build their profit structures, they will, inevitably, create jobs for others. Art has a very real impact on our economy. For every dollar that is spent in a theatre, four go back into the community (restaurants, bars, etc). We need artists to contribute to our economy just as much as other industries and the way for that to occur, is to teach them how in their schools.

At Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts, we offer no Utopian beliefs. We offer training, which enables artists to create paths of their own, and to do so out of a deep sense of who they are and from an understanding of what they, personally, want to do as work. The entrepreneurial path is one OF struggle. Entrepreneurs are willing to engage in the struggle, as the work they do is joyful (and joy has a way of transforming work into play). It is the job of the entrepreneur to consistently overcome the obstacles they inevitably face and to persevere under (at times) tremendous responsibility, obstacles and rejection. To build anything, one must “break ground”—literally or figuratively. Paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, you have to crack some eggs if you want an omelet. There is nothing Utopian about struggle. We take on the struggle, as we know that it is necessary to do so and that our struggles may bring us closer to the realization of our desires and goals.

If you want to create a business or structure your artistic expression via an entrepreneurial fashion, you are going to have to go headlong into struggle—like the hero entering the forest at its darkest point. If you are creating your own path, you have to hack away at some forest or jungle first. That is the only way. We do not promise our graduates will succeed via our training, though a large number of them do (meaning they work). To offer success would be misleading and downright impossible. What we offer our artists is a system of training that will dramatically increase their odds of making a living.

I believe it is not enough to articulate a problem, but when we can, we must offer solutions. I have done just this in the building of my first school, The International Theatre Academy Norway, and will do so in the building of Ausitn Conservatory of Professional Arts. Techniques of entrepreneurial arts training, such as we offer at ACPA, need to become a new standard in arts education, as it is a system that creates jobs—with the artists creating the jobs for themselves.

Austin Conservatory of Professional Arts, a full-time program, with evening extension course offerings, will open September of 2010. For more on Jim Hart, see The Hart Technique


4 thoughts on “No Utopia.

  1. Wow Jim…I love this thread. I have always felt many of the difficulties artists face came from their own ambivalence about making money. There is this fallacy of a “commericial” world versus an “artistic” world and , to paraphrase Stephen King, you get bonus points for being out of touch with your own culture. From what I have observed, this is a world of the artists own making, but few are willing to take responsibility for it. Most often, one hears about how “society” mistreats artists. From what I have seen, the most successful artists are the ones that take responsibility for their own success instead of lashing out at “society”. They also share the trait of not being ashamed of making money.
    I have a unique perspective having gotten an MBA at a school that is mainly fine arts focused. I was astounded at the culture clash and the open contempt directed at the business students. There was this sense on the part of the art students that they were not “selling out” and that it was better to starve for art than labor for business. By and large they were resistant to the argument that commerce vs. art was a false choice of their own making, and at the very least those getting an MBA were consumers of art and developing that market might be a good idea. What makes this even sadder is that they each had the dream of becoming successful, but they were waiting for a deus ex machina to descend for the heavens and magically transport them to being an ovenight sensation rather than writing a business plan, following it, developing it and creating their own success. Steps that time and again prove to be successful.

  2. JodiSC, on January 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm, commented on this post, which was also posted at entrepreneurthearts blog. I am reposting her comment. Here it is:

    Just a quick note on your comment:

    That having been said, maybe theatre makers should look to filmmakers for a for-profit model in which a company is formed around a specific project, money raised for that project, and then return on investment may (or may not) take place after distribution

    This is the commercial theater model for putting up a show (and is in variations used by MANY small nonprofits in NYC and other large theatre communities use to produce work of all kind). The model you describe as the for profit model is about the theatre owners and not the producers – both need to be taken into consideration.

    There is a lot of opportunity for for profit models in theatre – especially since the lines between commercial and nonprofit theatre are eroding nationwide. But the conversation can only start with an understanding of what is out there and being used and what has been done before.

  3. In response to JodiSC’s comment:

    At the school I built in Norway, TITAN Teaterskole, the students ran their own company, designed and planned every aspect to enable them to make a profit. They handled money every step of the way. They designed a business plan, targeted an audience, marketed themselves and their work (generating nearly 50 articles) and fund raised for each project. They were responsible for every aspect of their production experience, including the space in which it was performed and all associated contracts.

    The end product? Profit. The goal was to send them through the process so that at the end of the experience, they could look at what they had done and say, “I did that. I can do that”. That awareness and the consequential confidence that came with the experience, empowered many to start their own companies.

    We used the film model of funding per project (without a 501c3 status)and worked only with the resources we acquired.

    I can say with certainty that such a system works, when planned and executed properly. The proof is in the pudding.

    Jim Hart

  4. Pingback: Top Ten Posts « The Hart Technique

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