Art Entrepreneurship 101
An interview with Andrew Brother Elk
By Susan Goldstein
Andrew Brother Elk has been dubbed by the press as “one of the most original art entrepreneurs of the 21st Century” (LA Weekly). Combining over 20 years of experience as a working artist with a complementary background as a leader in the business community, Andrew possesses a unique blend of creativity linked to bottom line pragmatism. This combination has been extremely successful in his native United States, where the arts receive less total governmental support than that provided by much smaller economies such as Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia.
Did he plan it this way?
“I didn’t set out to combine the two,” Andrew stated on a recent sunny day at a café in Los Angeles, “it just sort of happened that my career had two strong paths: art and business. At first I treated them just as our culture treats them, as two very different languages. Then over time I began to realize that art and business have much to communicate to each other. Economic growth cannot succeed without a solid foundation of creativity in areas such as design, product development, branding, and positioning. On the other hand, the arts cannot survive without a solid foundation of economics, audience development, cash flow, and revenue planning.”
When did he first see the connection between the two?
“Where I grew up in Oregon, there are two amazingly successful festivals that started small and then grew huge: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Britt Music Festival in Jacksonville. Both have consistently offered the highest quality performances, and both have been model financial successes. Something like over half of the jobs were a direct result of the arts. So even as a small boy I was receiving this great training by osmosis about the art-business connection.
Later I experienced this in a much more direct way. I was in a punk band my first year in college, and we had some success on the west coast. So our manager booked us a tour of some club venues in Europe. It was on this tour as an 18 year old that I saw how the performing arts and business feed off of each other. If we paid attention to the business side, we got home safely. If we did not, well then it was going to be a disaster.”
What business world experiences solidified the connection?
“After my stint as an academician at Stanford, I left to join the dot-com revolution. This was well before the whole industry exploded and then imploded. As a CEO and president of some new companies, I was immediately struck by how important creative thinking was to the core of a company. We were constantly devising new ways to get the engineers and the marketers communicate with each other and solve problems together. And this work always revolved around creativity. Later, many business guru-types made fortunes writing books about ‘thinking outside of the box’ and ‘the power of creativity.’ But really, creative thinking has always been integral to American economic growth, from Thomas Edison and Henry Ford right up until the present.”
How do you view governmental support for the arts in the USA?
“Well, we are the richest country in the world and yet our support the arts — and by extension our own culture — is among the smallest both per capita and in total. I always advise governments to do more, not out of altruism, but because it makes good economic sense. Look at cities like San Francisco, Austin, Santa Fe, New York, and Ashland Oregon. All very different sizes and profiles, but all very strongly subsidizing and encouraging the arts. This is because the arts have been used as a specific strategy, a very powerful economic engine driving commerce, tourism, and related industries.
You are probably aware of the multiplier effect, a complicated formula that usually finds that every dollar spent on the arts is multiplied by a factor of eight or ten on secondary spending. This happens because a patron doesn’t just buy a ticket to the ballet. He or she spends money on restaurants, hotels, shopping, parking, and so forth. The sales tax revenue on this investment goes right back into local government. And the business tax income stays local as well. If the local community is really smart, they have a hotel tax, and they invest all of this revenue in the arts. Because it is the best darned investment a city can make — the returns are way beyond what you get from other activities, rippling across the entire spectrum of small businesses. And tourists are really much more sophisticated than they were just ten years ago. They expect the best that a city can offer, and if they don’t find it they go elsewhere.
You always seem to have ten things going on: what is next for you?
“Last year I formed Earth Dance Theater, and I have been working hard to get this unique performing arts company firmly established. It is the first contemporary dance company in the USA based entirely on indigenous themes, stories, and dances. Our goal is to create a magical environment for the audience from the moment they enter the theater. I’ve been involved in setting up a new arts production company based here in California, which will produce a select number of shows and performances each year. I’m also writing screenplays again after an absence of several years. Some friends and I are making a film which I will direct in 2006. And I have started writing poetry again. The last time I was published was 20 years ago, so I’m pretty rusty!”
Do you see changes in support for indigenous arts?
Absolutely, our different tribal traditions are really starting to blossom. Much of what you see is tradition-based. There are also many many young artists who are emerging to share their own unique viewpoints with the world. When a young artist comes from a perspective that is not mainstream, when you look at the world in a different manner than most people, you have the ability to create something that is powerful and special. It is not your average viewpoint. This is the inspiration for Earth Dance Theater, where everything that we do is contemporary. And yet we are inspired by the stories our grandmas told us long ago, or the dreams people have shared with us that are different, and the unique ways in which we look at the land, nature, the environment, our spirits. Our audiences tell us they love this sharing of different perspectives on the world. People are very supportive, perhaps because they yearn for new ways of looking at these issues. Perhaps they are examining the old ways of looking at these issues.
We first met when you were a dot-com CEO, serving as an Arts Commissioner for San Francisco, and heading up Culture.Net, the first arts portal for California. How have you been able to set aside time for all of your activities?
“That was a crazy time. It is simpler now, by choice. But I always learn so much from the things I get involved in, and in the end I feel very fortunate to have participated in the experiences that have come my way. I was once a dean of continuing studies, as you know, and what I learned from that job is that life itself is one great learning experience. Even the failures and tragedies that come our way can be our most profound learning experiences if we are open to them. So I try to always integrate and synthesize my work, with each activity enhancing all of the others. The work just flows, and when it does I feel even more energized. It also helps that I have always been disciplined about work and very focused on results, so I don’t waste a lot of time.
Quick Bio: Andrew Brother Elk
Educated at Stanford University, Oxford, University of Vienna, and Georgetown Law School
Academic career at Stanford University: Assistant Dean of Continuing Studies, Director of Irvine Foundation Grants, Director of the Media Lab, film instructor
Business career at Computer Learning Curve, Yahoo, Cisco, Intel, Valley Sun, among others
San Francisco Arts Commissioner
Director, California Culture Net
Chair of the Native American Cultural Center
Founder, Earth Dance Theater
Winner of awards from the State of California, San Francisco, Canada, Mexico, and France
Arts activities: filmmaker, choreographer, director, producer, screenwriter, poet, painter.