The Business of the Arts

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{Header photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.}

Note: this article was previously published in the March 2008 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

In the first season of Slings & Arrows, the Canadian show about a Shakespeare Festival (highly recommended for anyone in the performing arts, by the way), Mark McKinney plays the business manager of the company, and has the “audacity” to make the statement to the artistic director regarding corporate sponsors that “I wish you would think of this place as a place of business. Because that’s what it is, you know: a business.” For thinking such heretical thoughts, his character is — of course — punished, and he learns his lesson by the end of that season: the lesson that the arts cannot — and should not — be so money or corporate driven, and that it’s the art that matters.

But when all is said and done, was that statement so heretical? After all, if someone puts on a play but no one sees it, is it really theatre? On a basic level, thinking of the arts ‘like a business’ is actually a good recommendation. After all, like a business, arts organizations (and artists, for that matter) should know where it’s going (business plan), how it’s going to get there (marketing and public relations), how to afford getting there (accounting), and who all is going to be doing this (human resources — even if it’s free labor, it’s still labor).

With that in mind, here are some places for free (or cheap) advice on how to run your business, whether it’s an organization you belong to or your career as an actor, director, or technician.

Fringe volunteers.
Fringe volunteers. Photo by Rich Sutton.

The Library: Libraries are a wealth of information, from the scripts (I’ve found personally that the Mid-Continent system, especially the Independence branch, has the widest selection of plays, but thank goodness for inter-library loan!) to the books on acting/directing/you-name-it to just resources on running a business. In fact, there are online databases (you usually have to have a library card to access these) that have everything from legal forms (everything from waivers to contracts to copyright) to directories of foundations (for fundraising sources) to statistics (national, statewide, and regional).

Small Business Centers: The Kansas City area is blessed with several small business centers, from the Small Business Administration local office on Walnut (for Missouri) to the Small Business Development Center at Kansas University (for Kansas) to the Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College. Each of them has a wealth of resources on the various areas of running a business. If you’re more interested in class-specific institutions, there’s always a business class or two through Communiversity at UMKC — and check your local school district, as many of them have community-based programs in various topics, and might be willing to offer up one or two if they don’t already. Finally, back to the library — many of them offer various programs on the different aspects of business as well.

Online: Type in “small business resources” into Google, and it comes up with “about 136,000,000” hits. That’s a lot of websites proclaiming to offer up resources for how to run a business, and with the ones I use specifically, I could write a whole separate article. So, here are ones that are specific to the Kansas City area — and remember that all the resources listed above have their own website as well:

  • KCSourceLink: from their website, “KCSourceLink’s mission is to help small businesses in the 18-county Kansas City region — from Warrensburg to Topeka, from St. Joseph to Osawatomie — grow and succeed. We provide small business with free, easy access to the help you need – when you need it.” For business advice specific to the Kansas City area, you can’t get much better than this website.
  • Kansas City Small Business Monthly: a monthly print magazine with a web presence, not everything in here is relevant every month. However, there are plenty of good ideas worth checking it out every once in a while. And the best networking tool is that it’s connected to KC Small Biz Calendar, listing various networking events throughout the Kansas City area, from breakfasts to workshops and seminars.
KC Fringe head Cheryl Kimmi, working as hard as any of her volunteers.
KC Fringe head Cheryl Kimmi, working as hard as any of her volunteers. Photo by Rich Sutton.

The true heresy of thinking of the arts as a business is when the art becomes the business, through making compromises to artistic integrity all in the name of ‘getting butts in the seats’. Good business sense helps artists and organizations survive, and can help make art that also profitable.

Great art has a market, and good business practices help you find your market. These resources can help you enhance your business sense, freeing you to create the kind of art you want to create and reach the audience who will appreciate and support it. Without sound business practices supporting your creativity, success is the elusive result of luck.

The arts don’t have to lose their passion to be treated like a business. After all, even Irving Berlin admitted, “There’s no business like show business.”