The Arts Take a Turn in the Entrepreneurial Spotlight

Wednesday, Oct 31, 2018
by Wright Seneres

The connection between entrepreneurship and the arts is not readily apparent. But as the discussion at the season premiere of TigerTalks in the City unfolded, that connection became abundantly clear.  

Photo of Aaron Landsman

Moderator Aaron Landsman, visiting lecturer at Princeton, at TigerTalks. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

“Most of us as artists, if not all of us, have some kind of entrepreneurial bone in our bodies,  especially if we want to have the kind of prolonged careers that all of us [on the panel] have enjoyed,” started Aaron Landsman, visiting lecturer at the Lewis Center for the Arts, and moderator for the evening. The discussion turned the spotlight on common themes in entrepreneurship, and how they manifest themselves in the arts.

Photo of Douglas McGrath '80

Douglas McGrath '80, filmmaker and playwright. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

The spark of creation is necessary – without it, there would be no ideas being turned into products or companies or works of art. Much like a tech startup, a theater production often starts with “a good idea” on a blank page, and becomes something through self-motivation and a lot of work. Filmmaker and playwright Douglas McGrath ’80 remarked, “You know, I went from a blank page to a banner in front of a theater with the name of the play on it and you think, ‘well, all these people are inside this theater because one day a long time ago, I thought maybe this would be a good idea.’” 

Photo of Jane Cox

Jane Cox, director of the program in theater at Princeton. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

How do we know that this art is good? For Jane Cox, director of the program in theater at Princeton, her upbringing in Ireland meant that the metric was not money. “For two years now I’ve had a proper job (laughs), but for the 25 years before that, I’ve amassed a community that is my life,” said Cox. “And that’s been of great value, not only to me, but broadly.” McGrath also picked up on this point, referring to going from the one person with the idea to the community of people in the arts, the producers, the lighting designers, etc. that help realize the idea. He also noted the importance of people in this community that challenge you on your idea, which echoes the questions that investors pose to entrepreneurs when they hear a pitch.

Photo of Jordan Roth '97

Jordan Roth '97, president of Jujamcyn Theaters. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

Jordan Roth ’97, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, says he thinks a lot about success metrics, especially in the early stages of a project. “I work in commercial theater. There’s always a financial metric. There’s also a critical metric. Did you fulfill the artistic project metric? The ‘do people love it?’ metric, which is sometimes tied to the financial metric, but sometimes not.” Roth also spoke about going into projects for certain reasons and expectations, but as the project progresses, it pivots and becomes a different experience, much in the way many startups pivot.

Scalability, another important theme in entrepreneurship, came up during the audience Q&A session. For Cox and Landsman both, the more scalable the world becomes, the more valuable something not always scalable, like art, becomes. On the other hand, “commercial Broadway shows, musicals in particular, are built to scale,” said Roth. “They’re still high-risk because they don’t always work, they mostly do not. But when they do, they become cottage industries. They run for 5, 6, 15, 20 years on Broadway and spawn 9, 10, 12 national [tour] companies, international companies in other languages…They build fortunes.”  

Leadership was also a key theme. In the arts it takes the form of being an advocate for your idea and yourself, a point McGrath and Landsman both made. “You’re advocating for the community that make the work you make,” said Landsman. Passion for your idea is something that matters in both the startup world and in the arts. “If you believe in what you’ve done, you owe it to your talent, and to the effort you put in,” said McGrath.

Photo of the panel at TigerTalks in the City

The panel at TigerTalks in the City. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

This TigerTalks illuminated clearly that the arts is as much a part of “Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way” as is tech, science and social entrepreneurship. Princeton Entrepreneurship Council thanks the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Princeton Arts Alumni for their collaboration in making TigerTalks in the City: Arts Entrepreneurship: Producing Live Performance a success, as well as WeWork Grand Central for hosting our event.

To watch the archived Facebook Live stream, visit the PEC Facebook page. Our next TigerTalks events can be found on our Events page.

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