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Enter stage right – some thoughts on creative entrepreneurship as narrative

Provocation paper for the Edinburgh Visions Irrespective  MCICH Seminar 25.6.14

Managers will sort you out.   Business leaders will sort you out.    Now entrepreneurs will sort you out.  The narrative of the day for the cultural and creative industries workforce is creative entrepreneurship.  At one level this is just ideological branding – a flag of convenience, renaming processes that have underpinned cultural production and distribution for centuries.  Diaghilev, the famous creative entrepreneur.  Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Hadyn’s favourite creative entrepreneur.  But in reality the practice is not so benign and creative entrepreneurship mirrors the current ecosystems debate.   If you place a monetary value on a coral reef do you help protect it, or make it expendable?  Has everything a price, including our cultural heritage.

The ‘creative city’ narrative has been a big part of my life but there isn’t much room for creatives in some superheated city centre economies and the entrepreneurship agenda now seems to be occupying the meta level of the story we tell about our sector. There are two contradictory forces at work.  A creative entrepreneurship ‘volksgeist’ has become a black hole that swallows up everything.   Even NGOs and Central Government itself have had some success in dressing themselves in entrepreneur’s clothes, and add in a bit of place-making and small scale advocacy and a very attractive picture is painted.   Conversely, social enterprise, a more useful construction for much of the cultural sector, is largely seen as a governance model of convenience.  A way of doing something, not the thing itself.

Some definitions of creative entrepreneurship straddle the two.  The British Council introduces entrepreneurs as bridging the gap between artists and audiences, and focuses on their ability to innovate in a changing market place.   In some ways it is Henry Ford’s words (often quoted in entrepreneurial commentaries) that are most challenging for the cultural sector: “A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large”.  The production led cultural sector can be exclusive and thoughtless.  A ‘build it and they will come’ approach too often means that only an urban middle class have the option, and a more energised approach to connecting to the wider public in a time of shrinking public subsidies is clearly a good idea.  Similarly, if the current attention on entrepreneurship leads to wider understanding of the interdependencies of our mixed creative economy then that should loosen up routes to investment.

It is, however, in the more ideological arena that problems occur. In some ways the entrepreneurship moniker is pathological.  It foregrounds the one brand or person and hides the rest of the process from view.  It does more than make the other actors subservient to the monetiser, it makes them invisible. Somehow our increased communications technologies and capacities have served to cut us off from the wonders of the social and physical production of art and culture, rather than increasing our access points to the processes. Apply this in areas where public funding is the only way arts, cultural production and people can meet each other and all of a sudden the basic human right of access to culture is in the balance.  i listened with dismay to Mike Van Graan of the African Arts Institute describe the impact of the creative entrepreneurship agenda on rural South Africa.  It’s not about market failure, it’s about market absence.

Even in affluent Northern Europe creative entrepreneurship is a double edged concept. You can argue that entrepreneurs are needed to connect people with the world of research and there are inspiring business start ups that: take the research, to create the app, that offers a tool, that empowers people, that promotes action, that feeds research. But the individual doing some data visualisation on a macbook and Red Bull is never going to create the exciting content of a University geo-science project or the exciting imagery of the visual artist.

We are in the midst of the art school degree shows.  How is it that each year it is a department or cohort that shines?  Sculpture this year, illustration in the previous one.  Why is the communication between members of the Skampa Quartet so exhilarating?  Why do we revere the Pina Bausch ensemble?  There is a process of social production going on all the time in arts and culture.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  But we don’t seem to understand it, even though we sense the damage of pricing artists out of communities or art schools.  So while there is a need for us to understand more about the interdependence of creativity, culture, society and economy, there are also some practical problems in our line of sight:

-the Scottish social enterprise success story is underdeveloped in the culture and creative industries.  There are other models that provide innovative approaches to connecting up culture and markets that may be more sustainable outside of the metropolitan hothouses, oversupplied as they are with skilled creative labour.

-Creative entrepreneurship does not substitute for the need for us to invest in the cultural heritage that feeds our creativity, and we need to make sure that intellectual property is made available and affordable for our emerging creative practitioners and innovators.

-We should be explicit about the social and economic processes at work in cultural production and distribution to support inclusion and cultural identity.  The more people see and understand about creative processes the more it becomes a lived culture.  Less packaging, and more contact, streaming, open days, participative projects, and talks to open up the creative process.