Avoiding the life of the starving artist

SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge teaches entrepreneurship to the arts community

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most celebrated postimpressionist painters of the 19th century. But at the time of his death, he was penniless and obscure — the epitome of a starving artist.

"You don't get any brownie points for being an amazing artist, who is so poor that you can't afford to create your art or share your gifts," says David Cutler, director of music entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina.

For the past five summers, Cutler has led a School of Music workshop designed to help a diverse group of artists maximize income, prove their worth and adapt to a world that is changing at an exponential rate.

This experiential workshop called the SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge explores how a variety of business lessons are applicable to all art disciplines. This year's class is the most diverse yet — including musicians, visual artists, dancers, actors and even two mimes.

Each of the 72 participants begins the week by giving a one-minute elevator pitch for an innovative arts-based business. The entire class votes on favorites and ultimately selects nine ideas to develop throughout the week. They divide into teams each with a CEO, a CFO, a marketing director and other key positions designed to create a successful business model.

"There aren't a lot of tidy, secure, full-time jobs available for artists, even those with the most talent," Cutler says. "Most of us have to create our lives. SAVVY helps participants develop a variety of relevant skills for their own unique career path."

Throughout the week, teams are required to solve eight "challenges." The finance challenge asks groups to create a startup budget, explain their business' cash flow and build a financial statement. A digital branding challenge requires the creation of a website consistent with the brand's personality while meeting the needs of customers. A research challenge gets them into the community to conduct surveys, interview experts and test core assumptions.

"Entrepreneurship, for me, isn't just about career training. It's a way of life," Cutler says. "It's about creative problem-solving and innovation, as well as value creation, financial literacy, business-model design, taking chances and bold unapologetic leadership."

There aren't a lot of tidy, secure, full-time jobs available for artists, even those with the most talent. Most of us have to create our lives.

David Cutler, director of music entrepreneurship

At the end of the week, the teams pitch their businesses again — this time to a panel of judges and local government, arts and business leaders during the SAVVY Reveal at the Copenhaver Band Hall. People watching a livestream of the program from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. June 9 also can vote for their favorites.

The week begins with the SAVVY Chamber Showcase, where four finalist ensembles featuring artistic excellence and innovative event design compete for a $10,000 grant prize/School of Music residency and management options. All finalists receive full tuition scholarships to attend the 2017 SAVVY Arts Venture Challenge.

This year's finalists are: Real Vocal String Quartet from Berkeley, California, a multi-genre string quartet where all members also sing. Projecto Acromusical, based in Dekalb, Illnois, is a world music sextet that reimagines the Afro-Brazilian berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument, through a repertoire of concert chamber music. BIK Ensemble from Montreal, Canada, is a theatrical trio whose musicians dance around the stage, use cutlery as percussion and incorporate a host of other surprises. The final ensemble, The Living Earth Show from San Francisco, is an electro-acoustic group that generates a huge variety of sounds and sights from just a guitarist and a percussionist.

The four ensembles compete at 7:30 p.m. Monday (June 5) in the newly opened auditorium at the Richland County Main Library. The concert is free and open to the public.

In addition to becoming business savvy, Cutler hopes the participants, who are from nine countries and 25 states, will gain an appreciation for the resources and potential of a vibrant city like Columbia. Local organizations, businesses and community members are involved with SAVVY in a variety of capacities, as partners, dinner hosts, guest presenters and "entrepre-tainers."

"SAVVY is literally the best event of its kind in the world," Cutler says. "This parallels a lesson we emphasize. For those with the courage and audacity to lead in relevant ways, the benefits can be tremendous."

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