Guest Blog: Art Is Business, Period

As the owner and founder of the Gorilla Tango Theatre in Chicago, Dan Abbate has done something that so many aspiring arts entrepreneurs aspire to do: he’s found a way to make a profit and make a living while providing opportunities all sorts of opportunities for local producers and performers.

I’ve had the pleasure of producing work at the Gorilla Tango Theatre and asked Dan to talk a little bit about what drives his perspective on the relationship between business and the arts.  It’s bound to be a controversial opinion, but one that I believe has a lot of merit as one tries to break into an increasingly saturated marketplace.  To check out the Gorilla Tango Theatre and its full schedule of shows, or to find out how to produce your own (if you’re following my Produce Yourself series, this could be the perfect oulet!), check out www.GorillaTango.com.  Here’s Dan:


Congratulations to me! I believe this is my very first blog entry of any kind. Despite my years of programming and development experience on the internet I never sat down and wrote an article(?) entry(?) post(?) whatever you want to call it. My previous writings have always been in the form of documents of higher-level philosophy courses in an academic environment. I have never entered the fast paced realm of bits and bytes article writing that is so prevalent and inviting to praise and criticism at seemingly the speed of light. Well, it’s probably best that I begin to work now in this new world of experience for me. Here it goes.

When I was asked to write this entry, I was asked to speak on the subject of the artistic as an entrepreneurial business enterprise (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the basis of it). This subject I have quite a bit of experience in and am excited to share my thoughts and the philosophies that guide Gorilla Tango Theatre, my other business ventures and dare I say it, my life in general.

The common perception of art academically, politically and culturally is that it is somehow good or valuable in itself. People living in developed nations (third world and underdeveloped nations perspectives’ on art and business could be an interesting treatise that I will leave for another day – for the purpose of this document I am limiting the scope of application to developed nations only) seem to have a built in preconceived notion of things deemed to be “art”; or the action of making “art”, etc. The word “art” carries weight above beyond the power of all things good. Something to be respected, nurtured and admired no matter what the form, circumstance or sacrifice.

From this rather lofty understanding of art we can derive a view of the “artist”. Someone who believes that what they are doing is good, great and meaningful. Without them to create “the art” a void in culture and society would develop so large that our entire system would break down and all creativity will cease to exist. That life as we know it will turn into a 1984-esque world of black and white realism. The artist is holding us back from the very brink of disaster of the human sprit, mind and experience.

These definitions of art and artist give a creative person who ultimately finds him or herself in the world of art a very difficult task. The activities that they choose to participate in have been elevated to a level beyond mere mortal behaviors and the troubles of daily lives. Thus, the expectations on the individual from the culture around them and from their internal perspectives of themselves makes them inflexible in their ability to adjust to outside stimulation and situation that is affecting their course of action. After all, what they are doing is great no matter what its form or function because they are an artist creating art as defined above. Per this classification there is no need adjust to anything outside of themselves and their art.

At this point you might be asking how does this relate to business and artistic entrepreneurial endeavors? Well, in any type of business the key is creating a product that people want. If no one wants what you are selling then, well, you better find something else to sell. The process of finding a marketable product is a process of trail and error, laser sharp focus and lucky guesses somehow all wrapped into one. Even then over time your marketable product may lose relevancy and certain aspects need to be tweaked, completely overhauled or the product may need to be abandoned all together. That is life and business, a series of births and deaths, we never know how long until the next one.

Now the problem for the artist is they don’t approach their art from this Darwinian understanding of business. They lock into a system of development/artistic expression that is about creating a product that they [the artist] desire to bring into existence not on its ability to stand on its own in the marketplace. Consequently they do not respond to the market forces that should be affecting their product. Non-art businesses, like the artist, can easily fall into these traps as well but for different reasons (that we will leave for another discussion). The reasons of course for the artist to fall into this world of iron fisted inflexibility is because they have been taught (many times formally in academia) and cultured to believe that art is not a business product but something that in itself demands respect, admiration and elevation above other activities. The falseness of the proceeding is why so many artistic ventures are complete and utter failures. Art is a product, a product is produced by business and businesses must adapt to consumer demands to succeed. The artist as a stubborn mule cannot and will not succeed in any business venture.

So where does that leave the artist that has a burning desire to create what they want to create, how they want to create it, void of outside influences? Simple, the same place it leaves the bowler who wants to bowl the perfect game or the kid playing video games 20 times through to see those special closing credits – the world of hobby. Art that does not respond to market forces must be understood by the artist as a hobby. It may have great personal significance but to the rest of society is of utter uselessness and is certainly of no value from a business perspective.

Now, take note that I am by no means putting down the hobby artist. Many times from the hobby bowler comes the professional, the same is true of the artist (and businessman for that matter). It’s just that the artist does him or herself a huge disservice and much time is wasted waiting for an “angel investor” to appear and help them, if they do not realize that the process, costs and burden of becoming the professional falls squarely on them and is not the responsibility of society, institutions or culture as a whole to offer support or encouragement in any form along the path.

Long story short, get ready to adapt constantly and get your teeth kicked in over and over again. It’s not fun all the time, but that is art, business and life.

So there you go. My first blog article. I know this first article took on a more general response to the topic of art and business and perhaps leaves many questions bubbling to the surface. I’m sure, if I’m asked to write again, there will be plenty of opportunity to go into great detail on a variety of artistic/business topics in more detail. Feel free to email dan@gorillatango.com with questions, ideas, etc. for future discussion.

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  • Ben Lemon


    Loved your comments.

    You’ve put your finger on something I’ve been trying to get at for a while now: Artists have insulated themselves from the reality of our ‘for profit’ world by defining art only as pure self-expression, undiluted by commercial consideration. We’ve left it up to the world to support us on those terms only – and then we are surprised when it doesn’t! We keep wishing we had the kind of support the arts (used to) have in Europe. We don’t – THEY don’t any more – and we never will. We live in a for-profit world. We need to adjust our thinking so that we find ways of taking more responsibility for our own financial lives, and our arts institutions take responsibility for theirs.

    Hope you blog again soon!

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