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Why the arts ARE a social enterprise.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

First, a disclaimer of sorts. I am a writer, a songwriter, a social entrepreneur and a sustainability professional, and for me, all of these pieces of my personal and professional world collide in a vision for a more cohesive and more creative community.

Concurrently, I see them all systematically denuded by short-sighted governments whose vision extends only as far as the largesse of the influential corporate interests that weigh heavily on both their policy platforms and their investment strategies.

For us, as a society, to survive the next two decades we are going to have to approach government and economy differently, this much is clear. How exactly we do that, particularly in light of the influence of corporations resisting, at every turn, the wresting of power and privilege from their grip, is far less obvious.

I pose not a solution, but an ideology, that rests not on the complete dismantling of a capitalist system, but a rethinking of its purpose— from profit, to people, planet and collective prosperity. The impact and influence of both social enterprise and the arts I believe will be key to this change, and in fact, slowly and quietly, is already doing so. I posit that including the arts specifically in the impact investment space would go some way towards addressing the lack of creativity with which we’ve seen governments approach the social issues of our time.

I’ve heard many learned souls describe the concept of ‘social enterprise’ to me, in many different ways. Often I’ve noticed that these descriptions seem to fit the perspective of the individual, rather than follow any one particular school of thought, and I’ve noted that in the eyes of impact investors — the notion of what social impact actually is, and how to measure it, seems somewhat fluid also.

According to Ashoka (and others), social enterprises are run by individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are typically characterised by passionate founders, who are driven by a desire to address societal inequities, rather than by a desire for pure profit. They attribute worth to their business based on its social return on investment, as much as on its dollar value, however they acknowledge that in order to make change — they must ultimately, make money. In that sense, they are not generally, or at least not always, not-for-profits, rather, they can be for profit enterprises — with more profit, ultimately leading to a greater social impact.

Social entrepreneurs, almost by definition, are visionaries and warriors — cultural creatives driven towards a different way of doing things; who are almost demonically possessed by the realisation of their vision, and who strive towards a fairer, more beautiful future.

A mirrored ethos, process and outcomes

I thought I’d posit an additional definition that has seemingly become lost in the mercenary start-up chatter and endless entrepreneur jargon which is this; that the arts are a social enterprise — and I would argue, if changing the world is the criteria — the original and still the best (to borrow a well-worn marketing tagline).

Addressing the major social, cultural and environmental challenges of our time will surely require a global shift in thinking. Art can, and does, play a pivotal role in this. It inspires, stimulates critical thinking, opens dialogue, allays conflict, strengthens local economies, stimulates learning and can even play a health giving therapeutic role for a multitude of mental and physical illnesses and disabilities. These are not small social contributions. Artists are key to transformation, change, growth.

I’m not saying here that arts can simply be used to create a social enterprise, although they can and have been, to great effect across different arts disciplines and around the world. I’m saying that we should be considering the arts a social enterprise in and of themselves — indeed, what is art for, if not to change the world?

Before the days where ‘innovation’ was a buzz word, every fledgling small business was a ‘start-up’ and we all needed to ‘pitch’ our ideas at ‘investors’ — the arts were changing the world, and in a very similar way.

In every period in history, there have been underpaid (starving in garret style) artists ‘bootstrapping’ their way to greatness through their cultural labours, and changing civilisation along the way. Artists, like social entrepreneurs, are often possessed by their vision, and will follow an idea until it either succeeds in some way, or exhausts them in the process… and if this is not the very definition of social entrepreneur, I don’t know what is. Certainly, my personal experience in both worlds — entrepreneurship and arts — bear out the significant similarities in the process.

They have also, throughout history, courted the favour of patrons — effectively pitching their work to philanthropists who have bought into their cultural vision, and who have backed their pursuit of greatness. These patrons, in essence, are social impact investors — they see their investment reflected in the impact of the arts on the world, leveraging value that goes beyond their own personal gain or the speculative potential of a financial return on their investment.

Artists, like social entrepreneurs, have long striven for excellence and influence — and many have failed, multiple times, only to rise and strive again for that always elusive goal.

Artists, like social entrepreneurs, have pivoted — turning failure into art and social change, time and again — editing, recreating, reinventing.

And for many artists, whether they outwardly articulate it or not, their goal is inherently social — or at least humanitarian. What drives an artist to create art, if not to have some lasting, transformative impact on the human condition, or on the world?

If we subtract from this conversation the small percentage of artists who simply use art as a means to seek fame and court fortune (and in some cases, achieve it), for the most part the striving (I won’t say struggling) artist does not create art for money’s sake. Most artists accept that when they embark on an artistic ‘career’, the likelihood of them becoming millionaires is slim, and yet, they continue to strive.

Writers write, not because they believe that they can make huge fortunes from their writings, but because they fervently believe in the weight of their words, and that the world, for whatever reason, needs to hear them.

Musicians make music because whether 10 or 10 million people hear it, they believe that their music will have an impact.

Theatre makers make theatre because they believe that their work can create change.

And yes, intrinsic in the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, is that the ‘sake’ of art lies not in its monetary value, but in its social value.

It is the world of the artist — the consideration, introspection, reflection, compulsion and dogged dedication, that most mirrors the world of the social entrepreneur.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the social entrepreneur has more in common with the artist, than with the traditional entrepreneur, for the key objective of both art and social enterprise (at its most basic level) is change — while the key objective of business (at its most basic level) is money. While these two objectives are not mutually exclusive, it is not always true that one begets the other.

An ecology, and an economy, reimagined

Right now, the world needs a healthy arts ecology more than ever, but in Australia, we see a political culture of first cuts and last lifeboats to the arts — as though it were an expendable cost impost that can be treated as a ‘luxury’ when government budgets need to be redressed, rather than a social necessity, without which, humanity is the lesser.

Of course, those of us who work in or with the arts are more than aware of the social return on investment of the arts ecology to the broader community — but for this understanding to translate into a reciprocal relationship between the two, it must become an accepted social belief; a clearly articulated and widely held acknowledgement of the value of art to human evolution and improvement.

Some (if few) governments have started relatively recently to put a dollar value on ecological services, finally coming to terms with the fact that, if the basic building blocks on which we sustain life — clean air, clean water, green spaces, healthy soil — cannot be accounted for in the ledger, then we will not account for them at all, and we will continue to deplete them until life itself becomes unsustainable. We know, at least at a basic level, that we are ultimately dependent on the planet, and that it therefore has a value. But attempting to get communities, and indeed governments, to embed this value in decision making has been a slow and complex process, which is by no means complete or consistently equitable.

The arts are even more complex. No basic formula can truly be applied to the local economic value or social impact of the myriad art forms and disciplines. Few means exist to calculate the social return on investment of the arts in a meaningful manner. There are few processes which can truly capture both its contextual intrinsic, and its extrinsic worth to society and so many of these are subjective and values based. This does not mean that people don’t value the arts. It simply means that there is no simple, shared language to convey that value in economic terms, and as a result it is largely invisible to funding bodies, to governments and to investors.

It’s also harder to articulate our human dependency on the arts. Without clean air, or clean water — we die. But would we die without the arts? And if the arts weren’t funded externally — would they, in turn, die? The answer to both of those questions is probably, no. However, if the question was shifted to whether a starved arts ecology ultimately leads to a culturally poorer, creatively emaciated society, which suffers socially as a result — the answer is, I believe unequivocally, yes.

Traditionally, within the arts funding space, there is a notion that ‘grant delivers product’. Most government and many philanthropic arts funding bodies, whether they admit it or not, give to get, and in part, the payoff for funding is the positive publicity that comes of being seen to support a ‘successful’ arts venture. This can create a major imbalance between the funding that large, highly visible arts organisations receive, and funding allocated to smaller arts ventures which may actually have more far-reaching social impacts by virtue of their general accessibility to the medium and low income earning community, but less capacity to facilitate the reciprocal ‘sponsorship reward’ publicity and visibility that arts funding bodies expect. ‘High arts’ command high prices tags and are therefore by nature exclusive, and as such might not actually be the space where government intervention can leverage most grass roots social impact.

This commodification of the arts through restrictive grants processes — turning them into a bankable product, rather than a social good — turns the process of making art into a funding dependent, rather than a creatively driven process, thus authentic artistic expression can be diluted by the expected outcomes of funding bodies — regulated and ‘acquittable’ and dependent on reciprocal publicity value.

So what if the product is intangible, ephemeral? What if the evolution of an arts undertaking takes it in an extraordinary direction that traditional funding parameters don’t allow? Should we even be setting parameters around artistic endeavour — or does this approach inherently stifle creativity?

Rigidity in regulated funding processes can create rigidity in artistic expression and devalue their social impact, and as a cultural cohort we need to push past ‘traditional funding models’ to ask whether we can move towards fostering an arts / investment interface that critically values the socio-cultural, political, environmental and economic benefits the arts might have, without compromising artistic integrity, instead of doggedly adhering to visionless policy platforms that seem generous if not held too close to the light of previous policy and funding decimation.

We must let go of the notion that the arts and arts organisations, if they are to qualify for funding, must operate as not-for-profit entities (read — ‘no profit left for the artist’ entities). This has proven time and time again to be unsustainable for all parties. In light of the steady decadal decline in government arts funding — it’s time for a systemic rethink around accepting and valuing the arts as a social enterprise, and supporting its business growth, sustainability and self managed viability.

So, if we are to create the broad social change that I feel every social enterprise, and impact investor wants to see — the arts need investment. Acknowledgement that the arts are, in fact, a social enterprise with value that goes far beyond the physical, could go a long way towards bringing about a much-needed shift in thinking around how arts investment is made.

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