Student-artists are learning entrepreneurship to build their careers after graduation.

By Robert Batyko

At colleges and universities across the nation, a revolution in fine arts education is underway. With employment rates for musicians and artists well behind the national average, innovative collegiate programs have taken a stand. The goal: infuse entrepreneurship into art.

“There is a crisis in the arts world, broadly speaking,” said Jonathan Kuuskoski, director of Entrepreneurship and Community Programs at the University of Missouri’s School of Music. “Traditionally, students were trained for specific careers. For example, orchestral performance.”

It’s no longer working.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8,700 professional musicians will join the workforce between 2012-22. That represents a 5 percent growth rate, well behind the national average job outlook of 11 percent. The art profession will add even fewer positions, 1,300, over the same period of time.

Professors like David McGraw, head of Performing Arts Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, are developing curricula to stem the tide. The solution: provide arts students with a business background. “In my opinion, art and entrepreneurship are such a natural partnership,” he said. “Any art career in the 21st century requires artists to be more self-sufficient than ever.”

Along with Iowa, the Universities of Missouri and North Carolina State have instituted art entrepreneurship programs. These equip students with skill sets ranging from performance management to guiding large scale business ventures focused on the arts. While each curriculum has a similar goal, they take distinct approaches to mixing worlds together.

The University of Missouri focuses on experiential learning. “It’s the backbone of our program,” Kuuskoski said. “We have booked over 300 gigs for students, and 100 percent of that money goes back to the students,” he said. “They no longer need to take a part-time job.”

According to Gary Beckman, director of Entrepreneurial Studies in the Arts at North Carolina State University (NCSU), the concept is not new. “Intrepid faculty members began offering basic classes in the 1970’s and ‘80’s,” he said. “To gain legitimacy, we began looking at business entrepreneurship to see what works.”

Given the complexity and variety of the art field, statistically demonstrating program success is challenging. “It’s difficult to show causation but we certainly can show correlation,” McGraw said. That correlation includes internship placements and entirely new career opportunities.

“In the past 20 years, we’ve seen a construction boom in performing arts centers,” McGraw said. However, over that course of time, many centers have been mismanaged, falling closer to disuse. Through the combination of art and entrepreneurial backgrounds, students at Iowa are developing ways to reverse the trend. “We are redefining what they can be,” he said. “These are huge structures and we are finding ways to repurpose them.” The university is currently developing a course in venue management, a new path for arts students.

While many of the lessons from business entrepreneurship transfer to the arts, there are exceptions, according to Beckman. “The arts are a very different thing,” he said. “While the same basic principles apply, the culture changes.”

Korin Wahl, assistant director of the Missouri String Project and a violist in the Mizzou New Music Ensemble, has taken classes in Missouri’s art entrepreneurship program.

“What students do not realize is that understanding a business model can be beneficial in the music world, even if one does not decide to create their own business,” she said. “With the increase of entrepreneurial courses in music schools throughout the country, students are becoming more aware that they can create a niche for themselves.”

For both NCSU and the University of Missouri, art entrepreneurship runs separately from business. “Typically, [arts entrepreneurship programs] are housed in arts programs. I don’t know of any housed in a typical business school environment,” Beckman said.

That is not to suggest that fine arts entrepreneurs are far removed from their peers. “We see it as complimentary, not in competition, with the other entrepreneurship initiatives on campus,” Kuuskoski said. “I primarily serve music majors, but I also have several non-music majors who are interested in entering the music industry, art management, or a related field in my classes each semester.”

One area of both art and business that remains intact in each case is the passion students have for entrepreneurship. “I find that our music students get very passionate about learning the other non-musical facets of building their careers, including business skills.” Kuuskoski said. “This is why we prioritize hands-on professional experience for all of our students, and offer access to courses that contextualize business skills and theory within a fine arts context.”

Regardless of approach, helping students pursue a career, not just an occasional gig with unrelated side jobs, is the goal of each school. This relies heavily on understanding what students need to be prepared for in an ever-changing industry. “Everybody is experimenting,” Beckman said. “You have to meet students where they are.”

The rising trend of self-employed artists is here to stay. Yet, thanks to adaptive programs at schools like the universities of North Carolina, Missouri and Iowa, that no longer carries a negative connotation. Kuuskoski offered his insights on where this new entrepreneurship venture is headed: “This is a very exciting time for the arts.”

Course Background

Course focus is a common differentiator between business and art entrepreneurship. At the University of Missouri, three to five courses are offered a semester. Examples include: Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Advocacy in the Arts; Music Industry Survey; Non-Profit Management in the Arts; and Community Engagement in the Arts.

Wahl particularly enjoyed a course titled Career Development for Musicians. “It was through the assignments for this class that I began to shape my career goals, and it got me excited,” she said. “I learned that there are so many paths that musicians can take in their careers and being a professional musician can be a fulfilling and sustainable career.”

Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship and Practical Arts Entrepreneurship and both highlights of NCSU’s program, according to Beckman. Foundations focuses on re-conceiving art from museums and concert halls to how it is involved in countless disciplines and daily life. The course takes students to the meeting point of arts policy and economics, demonstrating how the combination, in ways big and small, impacts communities.

Practical Arts Entrepreneurship takes this fundamental understanding to a higher level, expanding on the tactical and strategic aspects of mixing business with fine art. Students are given the opportunity to choose and study an arts venture while developing a feasibility study to support that exploration. This aspect helps students to further develop speaking, presentation and marketing skills.


  1. GREAT article! It’s nice to see arts education begin to adapt to the new economic landscape with regards to music.

    We musicians are natural networkers. Entrepreneurship is a perfect way to harness all of that creative energy, sensitivity, and aptitude for collaboration and use it in a way that is in keeping with our basic natures instead of trying to keep us boxed into the 9-5 treadmill…where all we do is get bored and cause trouble. 🙂

    This is one of the missions of the Paycheck to Passion guys, by the way: getting artists out of the 9-5 cage. Check out their podcast sometime. They interview everyday entrepreneurs from all walks of life who are making it work. Very inspiring! https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/paycheck-to-passion/id915031211?mt=2

  2. This is a well written article and further evidence that there is a movement afoot. At the link below, one can see the volume of programs that are developing in this emerging field of arts entrepreneurship. See the interactive map, which illustrates just how many programs are addressing this necessary topic. It is happening across the country, simultaneously and seemingly at once–though as Beckman said, it has been developing for decades. The map you will find at this link was created by Kim Korzen and is housed at the newly formed Society for Arts Entrepreneurship Education website.


    Jim Hart
    Director of Arts Entrepreneurship, SMU


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