Let’s Be Ambitious, Adventurous and Unexpected: A Complaint About Digital Art and Entrepreneurialism

Some people in the arts are getting really excited about being “entrepreneurial”. It’s the sort of go ahead, sexy business talk that implies Getting Stuff Done and not sitting back and waiting for other people to make things happen. This is in part because Sir Peter Bazalgette, new Chair of Arts Council England, has described the way he wants the sector to change from a subsidised mindset to an entrepreneurial one:

Arts funding should be seen as “support and investment” rather than “subsidy” … “Subsidy sounds like a European wine lake,” he said. “It’s an old-fashioned, passive word that I’ve trained myself out of using.”

Instead, Bazalgette said he hopes to lead a new brand of “cultural entrepreneurs”…

(Interview with Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, The Guardian, 23 Feb 2013)

Wikipedia defines “an entrepreneur” as:

an individual who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on financial risk to do so.

So, in this definition, entrepreneurs run businesses; profit-making entities that generate money because their managers have taken a series of calculated financial and other risks. I assume that Bazalgette means a bit more than that: that we should also see public money as investment; a catalyst, that is used to generate other money and more opportunities.

Now this is not how the public sector works; money is (by and large) fairly carefully managed in a risk averse way, with a lot of bureaucratic hoops and hurdles to stop unnecessary risks being taken and public money being wasted. And while some parts of the arts (even big institutions) are great at taking artistic risks – investing in talent and commissioning relative unknowns to create new work – digital work is often seen as an administrative, capital function: one the one hand, it’s a money pit into which millions of pounds can be sunk, on the other it could make us all millionaires if someone, finally, comes up with that mythical new business model. So digital work is often seen as a commercial or administrative function, and as a consequence is often not admitted into the native R&D processes of the arts: the workshops, the improvisation, the residencies that are there to create new kinds of art and nurture and develop talent. At Caper, we’ve tried to solve that problem with projects like Culture Hack and Happenstance, but this isn’t about our work. This is about being a cultural entrepreneur.

Now, the risk of being a cultural entrepreneur is that it can engender the wrong sort of risks; financial and management risks that rely on certainties, such as a known and desirable artistic product that attracts a known and desirable audience. For instance, it might seem easy to be a traditional money-making entrepreneur when you’re performing a Verdi opera to a roomful of bankers and charging them an extra £10 for a bottle of champagne; it’s a bit harder when you’re presenting an opera on a carpark roof in Peckham. And yet, actually, the people putting on the opera on the carpark are the real cultural entrepreneurs: they might be making less money than the people at the Royal Opera House at the end of the night, but they are creating an opportunity, making an audience, taking a risk. I mean, on the one hand, performing some Laurie Anderson to some hipsters near to an art college is a no-brainer (and, inexplicably, everyone loves a multi-story carpark these days - what’s that all about?), but it hasn’t happened before and (from what I hear) it was a wonderful, inspiring performance that everyone loved. 

As Martha Henson recently wrote, traditional, risk-averse civil-service procurement is death to digital innovation, and one of the problems is because all Digital Work is thrown into the same melting pot. I imagine few choreographers have been asked to provide three years of accounts before they create a new piece of dance or if Anish Kapoor has to explain his approach to environmental sustainability before installing a new piece. Yet at Caper we regularly have to file our financial details before anyone will talk to us about our ideas. Luckily we can do this, but the reality is that our year end accounts or our equal-opportunities policy don’t really tell you anything about our work, because we don’t just equate to service providers: we’re producers and curators and digital makers who are exploring the boundaries of digital work. You might get a working web site, but you should hopefully also get a little bit of magic.

At the moment, the arts are relatively good at investing in art and artists. To create new, relevant digital work (and by this, I don’t mean ticketing or CRM systems or content-delivery networks or any major infrastructure, for which GDS indisputably provides the model) the arts need to invest in and cultivate the makers. There is a vast opportunity in investing in the people who don’t (yet) call themselves artists, but who have a virtuoso level of technical skill and are willing and ready to play: willing to be adventurous and curious and responsive and generous with their skills because the arts are helping them to deepen and further their practice and create beautiful, challenging things. (Inevitably, my reference point here is James Bridle’s work: curious digital exploration that has grown into provocative and awe-inspiring art.)

But the problem here is that the word digital still equates to business model in lots of peoples’ minds. Every chief exec of a major arts organisation seems to think they are one great idea away from a digital IPO and becoming Martha Lane Fox, which means that digital innovation in the arts is not really innovation at all, just bricks and clicks or apps or video on-demand that someone hopes someone might pay for one day. And it means that the word “entrepreneur” starts to pop up any time some might be about to open a laptop. For instance:

Each project hosted at Hack the Barbican is completely self-resourced, with its creators acting entrepreneurially to secure the materials and skills they need. (Hack the Barbican website)

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, our proposal for Hack the Barbican was turned down, because it required too much support to be realised. And I don’t mind that at all, because life is sometimes a bit tough like that, but I do mind the fact that they’re equating people giving their time and expertise for free, and begging, borrowing, stealing and paying for their own equipment, with being entrepreneurial. When Serge and Larry were starting Google they didn’t do it by giving away some time to a local arts centre; they did it by investing their time and money, and the time and money of their friends and investors, into making a product and releasing it to the world. Neither the Barbican nor the people who they’ve invited to play are being entrepreneurial just by doing stuff for free. I have no problem with doing free stuff and, unfortunately, do it quite a lot of the time, but it’s not entrepreneurial. Doing stuff for free gets in the way of being entrepreneurial. Asking people for their time is no different to asking for their money: it’s either fun or charity or a bit of both, but it’s no different to subsidy.  When I’ve run hackathons, where people participate for free, the quid pro quo is that they get opportunities, new working relationships, beer, pizza, ridiculous prizes and a really good time.  And I’m sure the people doing Hack the Barbican are getting stuff back (I mean, they’re getting to Hack the Barbican, which is quite cool) but they aren’t being entrepreneurs.

So where am I going with this? I guess there are three conclusions:

1)  Entrepreneurialism involves both risk and investment. Not every entrepreneurial enterprise is successful (if it were, we would literally all be millionaires now) and there are probably as many bankrupts out there as there are millionaires. And so shifting towards “cultural entrepreneurialism” can’t just be about making money or about short-term gains; it needs to involve artistic risk-taking, inventiveness and adventurousness. It should be as much about audacious and challenging experimentation as it is about market-stall level no-brainers and clear commercial opportunity. It should be about spotting opportunities and turning the stuff we have into even better stuff.

2) Being “digital” doesn’t necessarily equate with being entrepreneurial. Digital work can be artistic, educational, fun, a waste of time, a way to generate money, and none or all of the above. It’s like saying that paper is entrepreneurial because money gets printed on it.

3) The established arts are terrible at “Digital R&D” but wonderful at nurturing and supporting and creating other kinds of inventive and surprising work. It’s not a big shift to be brave enough to start playing and improvising and investing in digital work in the way that fine art or theatre has traditionally been supported. It’s not all about creating audiences or creating new business models, but about surprising new work. The Shed at the NT is committed to producing “adventurous, ambitious and unexpected” theatre; to secure the future of the arts, we need to create the same space and support for digital work.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Be Ambitious, Adventurous and Unexpected: A Complaint About Digital Art and Entrepreneurialism

    • The 18 year old, Holborn hot shots need something more challenging & creative than co-joined HMRC Tax & VAT websites to fire their bellies & what better than digital art. Lovely, inspiring piece.

  1. Pingback: 2013: freelancing, flexible working, funding, frustrations and… | martha henson: blog

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