The artist-entreprenuer

This was originally published in Volume 2 // 3 of Aesthesis: International journal of art and aesthetics in management and organisational life (now defunct) in 2008.

I interviewed a handful of organisations in the Custard Factory, Birmingham. This was in the New Labour heyday of growth and bigging up the creative industries. I hope they are all still doing well.

The Artist-entrepreneur in the New Creative Economy

‘New knowledge is available at little or no cost to those who are on the lookout, full of curiosity and bright enough not to miss their chances.’

Fritz Machlup, 1980: 179 [1]

(I wrote this in my final year of university, on placement at Warwick University. Massive thanks to Johnathan Vickery for hosting my placement and editing the article into something probably better polished than I could ever manage alone! You see – ‘probably better polished’? What sort of fool would write that.)

The entrepreneur and the artist alike appear like conjurers, or at least everyone hopes they are capable of creating economic value and cultural meaning where previously there appeared to be none. It is understandable, that over the past decades of manufacturing and service sector decline, now global recession, it is expected that the creative sectors will pull cash-stuffed rabbits out of their hats. Looking further ahead are now popular writers such as Jeremy Rifkin and Richard Florida, who see an inevitable and permanent reduction in the amount of human labour required in all but the most creative, knowledge intensive tasks, placing the creative industry in a strategic position with regard economic leadership and development. Another post-industrial thinker, Yoneji Masuda, not only sees the first fully automated factory appearing in around thirty years time, [2] but also predicts that this latest industrial revolution is occurring at a speed several times faster than previous revolutions. In a theoretic leap of conjecture, coextensive with the utopian sociology of the 1960s, this situation has been cumulatively described as the post-industrial era, the post-scarcity economy, the media society, information capitalism, the knowledge economy, the network society, or any combination defining a new nexus of intangible, dynamic communication-centred activity. Economically, the trend has been to subcontract the developing world for one’s agricultural, manufacturing and now even service sector needs, and get into techno-info-communication-knowledge based industries. One increasingly important sector of these industries – both economically as well as symbolical – is communication-based, cultural, creative or ‘tacit-knowledge’ businesses. Speaking at the recent UK Government-sponsored Digital Britain Summit in London in April 2009, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stated that the creative industries would be the driver for Britain out of the global recession.

Given the open sky of technological and communications development in the 1990s, and the obvious immeasurability of the potential of ‘creativity’, the increasing political investment in the creative industries is no surprise. The creative industries stimulate wild optimism, but are also broad enough in their intellectual scope to be appropriated by government policy in diverse areas, social, cultural and economic. Facilities for the creative industries have become stock-in-trade for urban reconstruction and ‘regeneration’ strategies worldwide. International competition among design agencies for top ‘creatives’ is fierce. Yet the blurry nature of creative, cultural and knowledge sectors makes a definition infuriatingly vague, no doubt as vague as definitions of concepts such as creativity, culture or knowledge. Richard Florida’s now debated definition identifies a tiny ‘super-creative core’, who conjure up ideas that are then put to use by ‘creative professionals’. The addition of a rising clerical army of ‘technicians’, who use technology-specific genres of creativity in their work, broadens the eponymous creative class even further. Silicon Valley would appear to be a hot spot for the creative industries; however, despite its prodigious level of technological invention, the area remains a dull industrial park with no ‘soul’ or sense of creative location, creativity without social or cultural environment. Clearly, both the head and the heart can be creative, but the end results could hardly be more different. History is littered with examples of ‘golden ages’ where both art and science have flourished together, but the result can entail a bifurcation of human resources and split in the appropriation of human energies, art and science learning from each other but then going their separate ways. The result is not necessarily sustainable unified economic development, and not a transformation in the socio-cultural context. If business is confined to a linear process that runs from production line, to market, to the balance-sheet, then to shareholders profits, then it will not result in genuine economic development.

The ‘artist-entrepreneur’, however, is an emerging professional identity that sees a role mid-way between the internal idea-focus of the artist, and the external market-focus of the entrepreneur, and hold something of an insight for genuine economic development. As a definition it attempts in some way to conceptualise the professional role of the cultural industries worker that moves beyond sector specific task entrenched labour.  For them, the song is not the artwork, the festival is. The canvas is not the artwork, the gallery is. Using the words of Donald Olsen, they see ‘the city as a work of art’, even though in reality they are limited to a certain ‘creative quarter’ of that city.

In this article I turn over views on this new professional role of ‘artist-entrepreneur’ gleaned in dialogue with staff from four organisations in Birmingham’s ‘creative quarter, The Custard Factory [3]. Built over a century ago as a custard factory, it now houses over a hundred creative companies – from design and marketing agencies to artist’s studios, craft workshops and media suites, and is serviced by a central administration, with public galleries, independent shops and restaurants, one of Birmingham’s biggest nightclubs and live music venues. The companies I consulted were in some ways typical of small enterprises in any other sector, the advantages being flexibility, room for individual passion, and the ability to cater to niche audiences. On the other hand, as entrepreneurial creative industries, involved in a fast moving ‘reactive’ relation to the market (or client’s needs) for them standard business strategy and planning is much harder, certainly in the long term, and growing the general infrastructure of the business beyond their small number of employees is also problematic given the specific skills-set and business capital invested in each one. The primacy of the creative individual is one of the characteristics of the creative firm. Even though the structure of production in the creative industries is project-based and team-driven, the individual plays a pre-eminent role in both contract procurement, client relations, idea-generation and creative execution, and so on. In what follows I will refer to the artist and entrepreneur as though they were separate individuals, in many cases they are better viewed as two parts of the same individual.

Strategic direction

 There is no shortage of ideas, big or small, within these organisations. Ideas practically leap out at the individual who, according to the quote from Machlup, is characterised as ‘on the lookout, full of curiosity’. The difficulty lies in the ability to sift through the possible to identify the probable within a strategic context. Whereas the artist might be content to continue exploring their ideas ‘internally’, purely on the level of expression—visual semantics and hermeneutics – the entrepreneur is immediately pushed up against the external, the vicious scepticism of the market, and selects ideas that have the potential to be ‘born’ into this vicious reality. The key factor in an ideas’ selection is its notional ‘suitability’ to the public or private market – as for the creative industries the ‘social-public’ is as much a market reality as ‘commercial-private’. The product and process, whether it is a design, a novel or a performance, can have value to both, depending on its direction. This juggling of objectives in distinct (opposing?) markets gives the creative organisations a schizophrenic character; given that ‘creativity’ is their essential ingredient, they are socially and culturally driven, but need to retain a substantial amount of business ‘bite’. In my Custard Factory companies, despite social or public commissions (and or public funding for social projects) offer an intrinsic social and cultural value and content — there was still a general preference for the (paradoxical) ‘freedom’ of the private market. One creative worker remarked that a public commission seemed frequently to be ‘more trouble that it’s worth’. Another made a clear association with imprisonment, saying that ‘I’ve done my time’ in the public sector. Creative workers lie between the contradiction that social-cultural contexts do not themselves provide the freedom (economic, management, organization) needed for creativity, but of course private business, offering that freedom, has no immediate value-laden social-cultural context with which to engage.

My Custard Factory organisations have strategic visions that are driven by the socio-cultural ideals of the individuals that direct them. Could the constant mis-direction and dis-alliance of our public and private markets make the development or sustainability of their enterprises problematic? There seems to be a sad resignation that the public-social sectors, often driven by a mindset of political vote-gathering, is not quite living up to it’s potential and thus does not in itself offer a ground for genuine sustainable development. This ironic, as it is the markets that are in constant flux, not the world of public institutions. The length of a typical public funding period for social or cultural projects (even for ‘Regularly Funded Organizations’, now a specific genre of organization) has been seen to be painfully brief. The scope and scheduling of the contractual relationships forged in the private market, however, are more straightforward, if at times brutal. The artist-entrepreneurial spirit can allow such organisations to ‘jump’ from one market to the other, but this can quickly lead to employee burnout for the less resilient. New national legal structures for new generation ‘social entrepreneurial’ companies, such as ‘social enterprises and community interest’ companies, were identified as a step in the right direction. However, even the Social Enterprise Coalition admits that ‘..There is still an ongoing debate among practitioners and academics over the exact definition of social enterprise’ [4]. Asking public and private organisations to suddenly ‘jump into bed’ with each other over joint concerns is naïve, but it can be broadly seen that the artist-entrepreneurs’ work suffers from being recognised and the conditions for the development of this role are not coming together.

Intellectual property

 What is the value of an idea? Nothing if it is common knowledge and nothing if it is completely unexposed: the only way to protect it is to never tell anyone. Copyrights and the ability to exploit intellectual property (IP) economically have been at the core of the creative industries for centuries; but have always been difficult to manage. The collapse of the music industry is one of the most relevant places to look to for current management issues in IP soon to hit film, literature and design. Many of the issues seem contradictory; for instance, it has been shown in a number of studies [5] that the most active music pirates are also often the most enthusiastic (legal) consumers. The recent changes in consumption show a shift in societies’ value of music, from the physical to the experiential. Much of the established industry was either unwilling or unprepared to accept this. With an abundance of creative and cultural products available to the average consumer (whether legal or not), creative industries must, more than ever, break down the real value of their products. Are your customers buying a lifestyle, an experience, something that gives them prestige? How much can be given away without damaging the value of what you are expecting consumers to actually pay for? Difficult questions of course, but if the alternative is ignoring the problem, dragging your heels, throwing your customers in jail and irritating countless more for their own ‘protection’ then these are questions anyone who creates IP must ask.

The Custard Factory companies seemed well aware of the challenges and opportunities they faced with the ‘value’ created by the artist-entrepreneur. The most valuable piece of IP for them was not in fact within the services or products provided, but in the relation between the service/product and their brands’ overall identity – it’s ability to symbolise the unique nature of the organisation. The artist-entrepreneur relishes standing alone in the marketplace. It may be a niche market, but they are the only ones who understand it truly, often having played a key role in the establishment of their own localised market itself; the gallery circuit, the music scene etc. The main challenge identified was the legal trouble involved in challenging the theft of IP, especially when taken in an international context. Political relationships between nations add a further layer of complexity when attempting to fight infringements overseas. There is unlikely to be a satisfactory conclusion to IP problems any time soon, but education is at least a step in the right direction, combined with an amount of hard-headed fatalism:‘When you’re talking to artists and creating training programmes for them, it’s always at the top of their list of requirements. But you can’t protect an idea, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone in this business who hasn’t been shafted one way or another. I have.’


One of the paradoxes of culture, is that even though is emerges from the particularity of a language, identity and people, cultural and creative products are often the most marketable internationally – beyond their cultural borders. Our organisations were well aware of this, and made particular reference to the UK Department of Trade & Industry (now bifurcated into the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) as being the main public organisation helping them tap into the global market. However, the main concern among the organisations is on competition for the ‘next generation’ of artist-entrepreneurs. Versatile creative workspaces and cheap residential space is identified as being in short supply, and the individuals tipped to continue driving economic growth are suspected to be ‘turned off’ by overpriced, corporate-style living. The ‘gentrification’ argument (the renovation and commercialisation of de-industrialised — affordable — work spaces) has been specifically backed up by Floridas’ and Rifkins’ research. Professional technical opportunities are being lost to countries that have better supported the manufacturing sectors in which these skills are put to use: ‘While our colleges are closing down specialist courses, China is repositioning itself as “designed in China, not just made in China” and opening up hundreds of new colleges.’

There is both hope and cynicism around ‘culture-led urban regeneration’ as a factor in giving town or cities or urban regions a competitive edge. Artificially zoned areas, such as ‘creative clusters’ and ‘creative quarters’ can attempt to carbon copy established cultural centres, but cannot mimic their creative-cultural developmental process. The Hoxton and Shoreditch areas of London are examples of urban areas that became ‘creative’ simply through the availability of cheaper studio and production space, and that artist’s and designers moved their of their own accord – spontaneous random collectivity. The Custard Factory emerged the opposite way: a local business entrepreneur took advantage of the large cheap factory space abandoned in the process of urban de-industrialisation, renovating it in the minimal way tolerable only to creative firms, the space is now let out at a cheap rate of rent. His motives were not entirely commercial, as he enjoys the way the Custard Factory has given an opportunity to many start-ups and creative enterprises that run at a year on year loss for the first five years of their company life. Many of the Custard Factory artist-entrepreneurs stated that although it was of some use to be clustered in a facility such as the Custard Factory, they would simply be doing business elsewhere if it didn’t exist, providing of course they could afford it. The traditional ‘clustering’ of trades in the same urban area or part of a city, engaged in mutual support, information and skills exchange, attracting a great passing trade, is not necessarily conducive to a creative engagement with the market. These areas typically attract ‘Bobos’, the bourgeoisie-bohemians identified by ‘comic sociologist’ David Brooks [6] who combine a counter-culture image with typically middle class values. This can entail a certain social homogenisation and reverse the economic advantages of a location for creative companies: for example, the following quote is taken from a letter of complaint sent to the mainstream breakthrough graffiti/street artist known as Banksy, who is now one of the most famous artists in the UK:

‘I am writing to ask you to stop painting your things where we live…My brother and me have lived here all our lives but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore…Do us all a favour and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton [2006, pg130] [7]

On a far grander scale, there also seems to be apprehension of the commercialisation of culturally significant goods. Like air or water, culture is a valuable yet immeasurable resource, the damage of which brings universal detriment. The tourist industry has become a de facto part of the creative industries, as well as a major client for creative agencies, culture is their business. However, the development of the tourist and destination industries can entail a bulldozing of local cultures with the construction of shining new hotels whether in the UK or around the world. Tourism is one of the major contributors to the new ‘class-cleansing’ of cities and the creation of a new social class system of habitation. Both Florida and Rifkin note that creative centres often show the greatest levels of basic economic inequality. The job opportunities created for a local population will sadly (to paraphrase Dickens) have more of serving designer coffee about them, than of design. The lucky high-fliers of the creative class are genuine citizens of the world, able to follow opportunity wherever it lies, but this often entails taking the chance away from ‘real locals’. Encouraging the creative industries does not in itself make for an equitable society in the face of manufacturing, service and agricultural decline:‘The emerging knowledge sector will be able to absorb a small percentage of the displaced labour, but not nearly enough to make a substantial difference in the rising unemployment figures.’ [pg 291, 2004] [8]

Who is ‘the artist’?

The ‘artist’ has an unstable and chameleon professional identity. An artist who applies their creative skills to commercial work is usually categorised as a ‘designer’, regardless of the nature of the art. As for the social-public environment, artists who work with an explicit ‘social conscience’ are often regarded to be inhibiting their ‘pure’ artistic productivity and excellence, even by other artists. However, our Custard Factory discussants agreed that generally the professional identity of the artist is consolidating around social-public projects and as a ‘social agent’. The irony of this seems to be that an individual finds it difficult to gain respect as both commercial, and a ‘community’ and ‘high art’ practitioner; becoming too easily pigeonholed. There appears to be no shortage of prospective artistic talent and artists available for these organisations to work with, for both private or public projects, but the few artists who manage to maintain a stable economic existence are those who are the most career focused: ‘There has to be a level of talent, but it’s their business skills that will make or break them.’

The artist’s qualifications or training also are of little relevance when being considered for collaboration or commission, even though artists are generally becoming more credible as ‘professionals’ in the marketplace. Professional development for artists – the transition from either the college or the studio to the working business environment – is not facilitated, though the idea of more professional accreditation was roundly dismissed by of my discussants, but there was an acknowledgement that the current situation most artists face, post-education or post-studio, of sporadic one-off workshops as career development, is not providing organization with the kind of collaborators they need. Perhaps the growth of artists’ collectives can be seen as an attempt to give a structure to professional development that the market itself will never be able to provide. Collectives can either take the form of an entrenched studio sub-culture, which can institutionalise the worst sense of detachment from the market, or a craft-workshop structured environment, largely grounded in technical skills-based knowledge. Or, like the Custard Factory, artist’s can ‘re-invent’ themselves as ‘creative industries practitioners’. In these business-based environments artists can pool administrative resources, learn from each other and more effectively quantify their own skills-set for an intelligible marketplace. The consensus is generally that artists are only ever judged on the quality of their work, and aside from the usual ‘not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know’ argument, quality is nothing without application.

Finally, the most positive observation voiced by our discussants was that participation in artistic activity at a grassroots level is reckoned to be at an all-time high, especially among younger generations. This basic participation leads to wider interest, a growing market value and recognition of the socio-cultural goals of these organisations. It is the raw material of the industry, and to stretch the metaphor, new seams are being mined every day. The sea of amateur filmmakers, bands, writers, artists and makers represents huge market growth, made especially visible when groups collaborate for large projects, such as festivals. To make economic and cultural use of a practically infinite pool of raw talent shows what the organisations’ do best, and why they are among the few who have succeeded.

A call for clarity and vision

 In several millennia of aesthetic and economic discourse, the identities of both artist and entrepreneur have remained elusive. This is perhaps best illustrated in the conclusion of Hebert and Links’ ‘The Entrepreneur’

‘We may sacrifice realism on the one hand to gain precision, or we may give up precision on the other hand to gain realism. The choice we make determines the place of the entrepreneur in economic theory.’ [pg159, 1988]

This would suggest that the nature of the artist-entrepreneur is to slip through whatever cracks appear in any kind of intellectual structure we may erect to capture and study them. If they were not able to do so, there would be no aesthetic or economic ‘frontier’ for them to explore and profit from. Clearly, this philosophy struggles to sit comfortably within government policy or a business plan. Reality without precision? Funding without statistics? Shades of grey? Phrases that would no doubt send a shiver down the spine of any risk-averse committee. Groups within education, health, and the police have all loudly complained of the detriment caused by hyper-accountability. Still, it would be utterly rash to suggest that any organisation spending taxpayer money deserves the right to basically avoid justifying its activities. The recent major UK Government commissioned report on the funding and governance of national art and culture – known as ‘The McMasters’ report’ after its author[9] — has been praised for arguing in favour of a step away from bureaucratic box ticking and funding-body micro-management and towards a pure ideal of cultural and artistic excellence. But then who does not strive for excellence in their work? Of course, artistic excellence is the ultimate enigma for a ‘box ticker’; perhaps we should be content in trying to support activity that simply has the attempt at the core of its existence. The crucial factor then becomes one of who is appointed to judge the worth of this activity, and this in itself points to a need for excellence in leadership. The successful artist-entrepreneur manages to fulfil economic, social and cultural goals while avoiding the disadvantages and advantages, of each area. Sadly, the increasingly multi-sector nature of the organisations means that their work will become harder to define using the measurements of any one sector. This also leads to a great deal of confusion in separating the ‘big three’ knowledge, creative and cultural industries.

I would argue it is apparent that through the current dynamic of private corporate and business, public-social governmental and the voluntary or charity sectors the real economic vitality of this ‘big three’ is slowly beginning to coalesce, bringing a more comprehensive approach to economic development and sustainable growth. The unifying deterrents for sectors that rely so much on speed and innovation are clearly inertia and risk-phobia. It is far too easy to venerate the final product while looking past the troubled starts, life-changing risks and generative processes, which are left to the courage of the artist-entrepreneur. The artist-entrepreneur is the one most equipped for these new economic configurations, and who must currently be tenacious enough to grow and not wilt in the storms of recession.


Knowledge and knowledge production

Machlup.F, Princeton, Princeton university press. 1980

‘Wall and piece’

Banksy, London, Century, 2006

The Entrepreneur: Mainstream views and radical critiques

Hebert.R.F & Link A.N, New York, Praeger,1988

The rise of the creative class

Florida.R, Basic books, New York, 2004

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

D.Brooks, Simon & Schuster UK, Cambridge, 2001

The flight of the creative class

Florida.R, Harper business, New York, 2005

The end of work

Rifkin.J, Penguin, New York, 2004

Managing in the information society

Masuda.Y, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990

The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales : An Empirical Analysis

F.Oberholzer K.Strumpf, Harvard Business School, 2004

Will MP3 downloads Annihilate the Record Industry? The Evidence so Far

S.Liebowitz, School of Management, University of Texas, 2003

Social Enterprise Definitions, viewed 1/6/08

1: Machlup, F. (1980) Knowledge and Knowledge Production, Princeton: Princeton University press.

2: Masuda, Y. (1990) Managing in the Information Society, Oxford: Blackwell.

3: Where Donald Olsens’ quote is clearly paraphrased in the main courtyard: ‘The city IS a work of art’.


5: Oberholzer, F. and Strumpf, K. (2004) The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales: An Empirical Analysis, Camb. Mass.: Harvard Business School.

6: Liebowitz, S. (2003) ‘Will MP3 downloads Annihilate the Record Industry? The Evidence so Far’, School of Management, University of Texas.

7: Brookes, D. (2001) Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, Cambridge: Simon & Schuster.

8: Banksy (2006), Wall and Piece, London: Century.

9: Rifkin.J, (2004) The End of Work, New York: Penguin.

10: DCMS/McMasters, B. (2008) ‘Supporting excellence in the arts’ [The McMaster’s Report], London: DCMS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.