Entrepreneurship in the Arts: A Conversation with Jonathan Kuuskoski

Jonathan Kuuskoski is the instructor for our online Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship course and Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship and Career Services with the EXCEL program at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance! The EXCEL Program provides entrepreneurship training and career services for all. You can read Jonathan's bio here.

Last summer, Jonathan spoke with AES about the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset in the arts. His online course, Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship will be offered in Spring 2018.

What does entrepreneurship mean in the context of the arts?

I define entrepreneurship in the arts as the practice of self-starting one's career. I'm a believer in the idea that entrepreneurial practice is a core part of activating one's professional life regardless of whether an artist plans to start a formal venture, find a full-time arts-related position, or build a portfolio career. In that respect, I'd align myself with James Undercofler's concept of "zones" of entrepreneurial practice -- it spans everything from the development of survival skills to the launch of completely new for-profit or not-for-profit ventures, and, on an individual basis, can be the basis for arts leadership and advocacy activities.

What happens in the online Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship class?

The course is highly practical. Each week we explore different facets of career development, and by the end of the term each student understands how to vision for their careers and identify opportunities (e.g. as a job, component of a portfolio career, and/or venture ideas), how to find and build support for one's work, how to manage a personal budget, the basics of implementing low-cost DIY marketing tools, and the process of navigating the universe of professional relationships. During the first section of the course we develop a set of professional materials (e.g. bios, mission and vision statements, resume, and press release). Beyond the weekly assigned readings, each student contributes multiple times per week to course discussions and provides peer feedback on assignments. Seeing the supportive interaction and peer learning develop over the course of the semester is one of the highlights for me! It really sets a tone from the start that the key to gaining momentum in one's career is a "pay it forward" attitude. Every artist needs to find their tribe! Going along with the practical focus, each weekly assignment is meant to be used in real life and builds cumulatively towards their final project. For example, one week each student creates a SWOT analysis for a real-life professional decision they need to make in the coming weeks, then they swap peer feedback and revise it for the final submission. This final project is a personalized career plan for the next stage in their professional careers. Throughout the course we also featured podcast-style interviews with arts professionals that serve as case-studies relevant to each week's topic to help provide multiple lenses through which to approach the entrepreneurial materials.

Why is it important for artists to think of themselves as entrepreneurs?

It is critical for artists to feel as though they have ownership over their futures. I've noticed that so many artists entering the class have been trained to think that their professional options are limited. I think that's the result of a lot of negative messaging we inadvertently send when we describe the challenges artists face while establishing themselves professionally today. The reality is that while some traditional opportunities are dwindling, there is more opportunity than ever for pro-active artists who are willing and eager to manage their own careers. Entrepreneurial practice is the gateway through which artists can activate their visions and translate them in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences and stakeholders.

 Who should take this class?

This class is aimed at anyone already engaged in professional arts practice who is interested in building, expanding, or pivoting within their careers. I have students at all ages and experience levels -- some are still undergraduate students in their early 20s while others are established professionals with 5-10 years of experience. We usually have a few students nearing retirement age, and they bring such wisdom to the group! I learn as much from them as they do from the class, and I make an effort to integrate their feedback throughout to enhance and improve the course for future semesters. We typically have a mix representing a multitude of disciplines as well, including visual artists, writers, storytellers, performance artists, dancers, choreographers, photographers, administrators, theatre artists, digital media and installation artists, and musicians of both popular and classical mediums. One of the great strengths of the class experience, I believe, is the diversity that is represented in each cohort and their resulting discussions. We really build community and by the end of the semester. Students report that they feel like they now have a strong team of allies for the next phase in their careers. Students often stay in touch afterwards, and I always tell them that their experience in the class should be just the starting point for a lifetime of skill-building and relationship cultivation. Anyone who is excited about getting started on that journey, and how could use some organized career development time, is a welcome addition to the course!

The Arts Extension Service offers the Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship course every spring and summer session. You can read more about the Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship course here.