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Cultivating Entrepreneurship Through the Arts in Pittsburgh

Written by Amanda Maher

Terms like “creative economy” and “cultural districts” are used liberally, but often the activities of arts and cultural organizations are considered secondary to more traditional economic development initiatives. Often, policymakers pound the pavement to lure private investment and promote business development as the seeds of arts and cultural entrepreneurship wilt in their own back yards.

One of the reasons why policymakers often forget the role of creatives in building the local entrepreneurial ecosystem is that many filmmakers, musicians, painters, animators, designers and other artists don’t see themselves as part of the ecosystem. Many are so focused on their creative pursuits that the suggestion to develop a business plan wouldn’t even register.

For more than a decade, New Sun Rising (NSR) has experienced this firsthand. The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization, profiled in a recent What Works case study, has sponsored, mentored and offered programs for dozens of artists and founders of creative projects through its ArtsMODE program. Most come through the door overly reliant on grant funding and without the business mindset needed to transform their bright ideas into successful—and sustainable—ventures.

“NSR believes in empowering leaders at the intersection of sectors, including social entrepreneurs, creatives and community,” says Daniel Stiker, ArtsMODE Director. “Creative entrepreneurs, while they may not be aware, almost always affect the community where they live, work, and play. ArtsMODE makes business modeling and technical assistance accessible to these artists.  In turn, they engage residents and help entrepreneurs look at their own roadblocks in a different way.”

Take City of Play as an example. The company designs, develops and produces playful projects and events that offer new ways for people to engage with their community and with each other. City of Play has no specific geography in mind; the company roams from place to place, setting up game nights, 5k road races, and activities with CDCs to encourage people to explore their neighborhoods in new ways.

Core to the company’s mission is ensuring these interactive activities are available to all, so City of Play decided it didn’t want to use a membership-based model. But these events become costly over time, and the company could only subside on grants and donations for so long.

Enter ArtsMODE. The program provides a truncated version of its entrepreneurship curriculum to artists and creative organizations that are looking for strategic and business plan assistance. Cohorts of 10 participate in the intensive, six-week ArtsMODE program to learn business skills like budgeting, marketing, audience development and time management. At the conclusion of the six-week program, ArtsMODE graduates are eligible for a year of monthly, one-on-one mentoring sessions in order to help them work through roadblocks as they might arise.

City of Play is one of the earliest graduates of ArtsMODE. During the program, NSR worked with City of Play to rethink its business model. How was the company currently raising funds? What efforts brought in the most revenue? Diving into their existing strategy revealed that there were a few programs or events that drained resources without providing much value. There had to be some shift in the business model if City of Play was going to be sustainable over the long term.

Moving forward, City of Play now has a plan in place to focus on developing its brand income through partnerships with corporate clients and neighborhood groups; generating revenue through these sources will allow the company to offer programs and activities at a reduced cost to the masses. NSR also worked with City of Play to craft a marketing strategy aimed at cultivating repeat clients and event attendees.

Artists, creatives and civic organizations like City of Play are infusing Pittsburgh with vitality, inspiration and fun. But in order to sustain their enterprises, many creative professionals must develop a business model. Their impact on local economic development should not be overlooked—with a little guidance, artists and art organizations can prove to be a vital part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

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