There’s more we could do to support entrepreneurship in the arts

Can you be an artist and an entrepreneur? For Robert Phillips, the word might not fit but the action does.

Robert Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

The arts contributed £108 billion to the UK economy in 2022, impressively outpacing growth in the wider economy,

According to WeAreCreative, 33 per cent of creative workers contribute to this as freelancers.

With the government recently announcing new plans to help the industry grow further, universities have a big part to play in ensuring arts graduates can take advantage.

Those graduating in music, drama, literature, and art into professions where self-employment is the norm need to be able to maximise their potential, but also more support for those students at university who are already using their subject to pay their way through university with entrepreneurial activities could be important in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

The arts life

There is clearly a huge need for arts students to be able to find opportunities to use their skills to create cultural value. For many, the historical concept of the “starving artist” (which also applies to actors, writers, and musicians) – living on minimum funds while concentrating on their art – is still a stereotype celebrated across the arts, citing examples from Van Gogh to Dylan Thomas. Artists have often spent serious money on their materials whilst gaining little recompense for their works, and for some famous examples this experience has formed part of their mythology.

This distrust of being “commercial” has modern day implications – “entrepreneurship” is not a word often liked by arts students. We have repeatedly been told that it is a word which brings images of being purely financially driven, taking excessive risks and making money at all costs, demonstrated by some of the extreme personalities in The Apprentice – with the art itself of secondary importance.

However, arts entrepreneurship is clearly happening on a large scale both pre- and post-graduation – recent HESA data shows that 4,735 student start-ups were launched in 2021-22 – Interestingly, of these, the University of the Arts, London has one of the highest rates of graduate entrepreneurship registering more than 200 start-ups.

In addition, Santander recently reported that 25 per cent of the students that earn money through entrepreneurship whilst at university do so by selling arts and crafts, and are on average earning more than £5,000 per year doing so.

Is “entrepreneurship education” the answer?

Much entrepreneurship education at university focuses on patentable science and technology – looking for high risk but potentially high reward ventures. Often with intellectual property the focus is on patents, often aimed at researchers who may in future commercialise their work. Arts alumni often suggest they want more nuts-and-bolts preparation for self-employment such as understanding taxation, contract negotiation, how to register a company, the different types of company structure and for intellectual property more of a focus on copyright and personal brand building.

These are often better offered as extracurricular activities free from the constraints of assessments, and may avoid some of the common criticisms that some entrepreneurship education faces – that it can be generic, teach “about” rather than “for” entrepreneurship or exist not in an ideal context for arts students, and might be too business school focussed.

What more can we do?

One of the easiest issues perhaps to solve is to give arts-friendly titles to entrepreneurship modules. We have found from surveys and focus groups with arts students that the naming courses right is surprisingly important to gain interest and buy-in, and many have found that using words like enterprising and employability work far better than entrepreneurship – even if the end goal is the same.

As well as learning by doing, context is also important in entrepreneurship education. For those studying for an MBA there is often now the chance to work on a consultancy project for a wide range of organisations including arts businesses and charities, however without the responsibility of being in charge and running the business itself.

Some universities have taken this further, such as Millikin University in the USA which has a high proportion of arts students, who have an on-curricular module where students run an already existing business (previously set up by the university) as part of their course. They include a publishing company, art gallery or theatre which gives arts students a unique insight into the business and the customers. Students are judged on feedback from mystery customers and event objectives as well as more well-established assessmentS such as reflective journals and peer assessment and not just financial outcomes of the businesses. These assessments allow students to make mistakes but to learn from them without it being fatal for their marks. Giving students a realistic and in context experience is critical.

Activities often referred to as “side hustles” should be encouraged. They are clearly excellent ways of learning by doing and some students are paying their way through university with self-employment rather than by working in typical minimum wage student employment such as retail and bar work, with the added bonus that entrepreneurial activity can be fitted around lectures and coursework deadlines. Students have suggested timely drop-in sessions with mentors and experts for specific questions would be useful, rather than having a dedicated mentor which would also be more cost effective for the university.

Makers markets

Universities are beginning to cater for these students by arranging “Makers Markets” such as the MCR Makes Market at the University of Manchester where student ventures selling clothes, skincare, food, and art such as Timelapse Vintage, and Little Pops Pop Up. Many can generate hundreds of pounds in revenue in a short time with some having grown to trade very profitably, branching out to festivals over the summer. But we can do more – with more regular opportunities to sell products and allow these ventures to develop a loyal following of customers. We can also make more of an effort to buy from these as a university and as individuals – especially as an increasing number of these ventures are based around sustainability and ethical business.

There are other topics that might be of interest to arts students – digital creatives may be interested in specific forms of funding such as reward based crowdfunding, where a founder of a project can offer a digital (or physical) reward such as personalised artwork or making an investor a character in a game (for example) rather than have to pay back money with interest or give away a share in the business as with traditional funding. Advice might help eliminate some of the common pitfalls – I have known students spending many hours producing personalised gifts for relatively small amounts of money from investors.

With the number of arts students who become self-employed, and the increasing numbers of students who are running an arts-based business to support themselves through university it is worth ensuring the universities have specific and contextualised provision for this large group – for potential entrepreneurial activity both before and after graduation.

3 responses to “There’s more we could do to support entrepreneurship in the arts

  1. The (late sadly) former HEA – Art Design and Media lead David Clews is applauding you Robert, based on 2007 work on this. You may wish to consult our QAA Guidance on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (led by an illustrator and designer), and please note the definitional distinction made there. Yes language is a problem and yes, so many become freelance and or set up small businesses… then share projects through clustering for example.

    PS. You may also wish to check out UWTSD’s success rate for business survival over 3 years (top in UK for 5 years according to HEBCIS data), many of which are creatives.

    Consider this a call for action too 😉

  2. Where is the information coming from regarding the ‘starving artist’ stereotype being celebrated?

    If practical aspects of self-employment are better offered as extracurricular activities, what specifically can entrepreneurship modules offer students who intend to become individual cultural producers, as opposed to those interested in running or working for publishing companies, art galleries, or theatres? What examples are available of said extracurriculars at various UK-based unis in arts contexts?

    How is ‘side hustling’ to be understood in context of the CoL crisis, and particularly as something other than as a sidestepping mechanism that avoids a conversation about students experiencing economic precarity?

    How does entrepreneurship education function for art students who want to create forms of culture that are not object/products/consumables to be sold?

    1. I’ve had this conversation many, many, many a time with students, but more importantly alumni (over about 35 years). In a couple of words, ‘sustainable practice’ is what they seek, and feedback from our modules (not only extracurricular) says that whilst the E word doesn’t sit well, what they learned has been highly valued.

      From our experience in the EU Arts and Humanities, networking maps for example, helped enormously.

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