An Exciting Approach to Arts Entrepreneurship Education

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit Millikin University, a small liberal arts college in Decatur, IL.  While there, I was delighted to learn about their unique and (as far as I know) unprecedented approach to arts entrepreneurship.  The model in place illustrates one powerful way universities can support a culture of entrepreneurship.

Milliken currently houses no less than six student-run, arts-related, for-profit businesses:

  1. Blue Connectionart gallery
  2. First Step Records—record label
  3. Pipe Dreams Theatre—theater company
  4. Carriage House Press—fine art press
  5. Bronze Man Books—book publisher
  6. Blue Satellite Press—poetry press 

When students sign up for the 3-credit introductory course “The Art of Entrepreneurship,” activity is not limited to the typical case studies, textbooks, and war stories of professors/guests.  Instead, they learn what it takes to run a business by actually running a business

Participants, consisting of performing arts, visual arts, and business majors, are charged with overseeing many aspects of Blue Connection, including:

  • Sales forecast
  • Budget
  • Product acquisition
  • Sales activity and analysis
  • Financial performance
  • Staffing
  • Public relations
  • Marketing
  • Event planning
  • A host of other issues  

In addition to 3 hours of weekly classroom meetings, each student is required to intern in the art gallery for 2 hours. 

After completing the semester, budding entrepreneurs can continue their involvement with Blue Connection (or one of the other student businesses) by enrolling in up to three additional 1-credit courses.  These leaders, now considered “upper management,” mentor members of the introductory class and manage various projects.  They also provide direction on the future of the business.  Like the intro students, these team members meet in classroom settings as well as volunteer in the shop. 

In addition to addressing everyday pertinent issues, each subsequent semester has a distinct focus:

 Semester 2: Where are we going?

  • External market
  • Business relationship development

Semester 3: How do we get there?

  • Internal market
  • Operations & project management

Semester 4: What do the numbers mean?

  • Sales forecast
  • Inventory management

This kind of real-life, experiential learning represents an exciting development in entrepreneurial education. 

But there are challenges with the model for sure.  According to program coordinator Andy Heise, some of the issues they face are:

  • Funding.  Though some funding has come through the form of a Coleman Foundation grant, involved faculty members are often not given a lighter load in exchange for their efforts.  They really must be driven by a passion for the project.
  • Profit.  None of the businesses have turned a profit.  Yet.  Of course, many arts start-ups take years before they reach this critical benchmark (and still others never get there unfortunately). But they’re working hard.  I, for one, will be keeping an eye on these businesses to see how and when they cross this critical threshold. 
  • Messiness. This approach to education is “messy.”  It’s much more difficult than teaching an information-based scantron kind of course.  Things don’t always work out according to plan.  That’s a great lesson, and parallels reality.  But it’s also a difficult lesson for students accustomed to being taught the singular correct answers.

Not every university has the infrastructure and faculty in place to even consider this kind of model.  But if you’re involved with an academic institution, can you imagine ways to transform book-learning offerings into street-learning experiences?

Check out David Cutler’s

THE SAVVY MUSICIAN: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference

“Hands down, the most valuable resource available for aspiring musicians.”

Jeffrey Zeigler, Kronos Quartet

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