On Tuesday February 18th 2020, Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship hosted its first in a monthly series of Fireside Chats. The topic of this inaugural chat was Entrepreneurship as an Artist. The featured panelists were Michael Pearson, CEO of Endless River Studios, Nia-Samara Benjamin and Sam Tower who are the co-artistic directors of Ninth Planet Theatre Company.
In the panel we talked about getting a business education through trial and error, what it takes to work for yourself, and how to sustain boundaries between friendships and your business. One of the most impactful parts of the conversation centered around cultivating and sustaining the entrepreneurship mindset. Sam Tower mentioned that during her education at University of the Arts, the rhetoric in her courses was centered on working for other people and being given opportunities by others. She did not however, concede to the idea that her whole career would be dependent on external factors. Tower, upon graduating, found that making her own work was exponentially more fulfilling than being on the whims of those around her.
Nia Benjamin made it clear that their reasoning for founding Ninth Planet was to create a theatre space where they felt not only seen, but safe. Benjamin discussed how difficult it was growing as an artist in this community, given that it was so evidently not built for people like them. At the core of Ninth Planet’s mission is to create work that centers around and highlight populations that are underrepresented in the theatre scene. Benjamin sought to create safety where there had not been previously, as well as highlight bodies that were under appreciated or ignored. Ninth Planet shows serve underrepresented populations, such as non-binary black and brown folks, in order to create the space Nia did not experience prior.
One aspect of the panel that was interesting was the apparent difference between theatre and music business models. Benjamin and Tower both noted that most of their funding came from grants and gifts, where Michael Pearson was almost immediately able to generate profits. The Ninth Planet founders pointed out that the average Artistic Director of a profitable theatre company makes approximately $30,000 a year, and often has several secondary jobs. Within a year, Pearson went from attending shows to playing in them to hosting shows in his house within a year. The aforementioned difference shines a light on how diverse each artist’s experience can be.
Some shared lessons from all three parties:
- Most actions they were uncomfortable with, such as negotiating or working with friends, were resolved only through repeated action. Each time they faced their discomfort, they gained confidence and a better sense of how to deal with it.
- There must be boundaries between their work as an artist and their work as entrepreneurs. It is too easy to allow the business aspect of their work to drain the joy out of their creative process.
- They were not built to fulfill someone else’s vision. Benjamin, Tower, and Pearson are all vehement that they will never be able to go back to working for others long term. Now that they have tasted independence, they are willing to endure whatever hardship to continue creating and realizing their company’s mission.
- Community is integral to the success of their ventures. Art is nothing without a community to share it with. Communal effort exponentiates the impact an artist can make.