Reliquary, Hajj, or Commons – Choose to Engage

In analyzing the entrepreneurial contribution of artisans, we scratched the surface of an underlying question as to what constitutes the arts business. Some would argue that there is a defined business model that has worked for many artists and artisans for decades and that newcomers should kowtow to the tradition. Others proffer that art is not to be seen as a profit making enterprise, but as creating an aesthetic that serves the individual and/or community psyche.

Doug Borwick, immediate past President of the Board of the Association of Arts Administration Educators, queries in his blog over the weekend whether art is an ….

Individual or Community Resource?
A good (and valuable) preliminary question might be “Are the arts an individual or a community resource?” Trick question, of course. The arts inevitably serve both. However, I think much of our focus is on the individual, both as creator and consumer. I certainly believe more attention should be paid to the arts as a resource for community improvement. And, of course, by community I mean any collection of people who are bound–intentionally or, sometimes, de facto–by a characteristic they share: geography, certainly, but also culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, etc. We speculate that this service to community was one of the origins of the arts but their binding or healing power for communities has been, in my opinion, under-appreciated, under-valued, and under-utilized by the arts infrastructure. 

He then suggests that the community service contribution of the arts has not been valued and monetized properly. The definition of community is interesting–in addition to geography, he references culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, ans other contributing factors. In admitting what artists and artisans focus on the individual as creator and consumer, it is unspoken that the creative individual understands the consumer’s needs. In my own experience with friends and family members who are highly creative, as well as artisans who participate in a boutique/incubator I advise in Raleigh, NC, I am stunned that very little thought appears to be given to buyer personas. 

Buyer personas are what helps the entrepreneur figure out what may sell. Knowing as much as possible about the thoughts and values of your target buyer gives you the best opportunity to tailor your works for sale. While I understand that consumer sales are not the motivation of the typical creative, it does factor into the computation of how not to be a starving artist. There is also room to create works for the cultural enrichment of the community if, as Borwick points out, one can find a way to monetize it. In fact, Borwick uses a series of metaphors to try and explain the business of art:reliquary

Reliquary, as in a shrine or container of relics. The only focus here is on the relic. A reliquary would still be a reliquary if no one looked at it. Arts organizations that are “all about the art” are reliquaries whether they deal in visual (fixed) or performing (variable) work.

Hajj, as in a regularly occurring pilgrimage to a holy place.. A pilgrim is required for a hajj, but the intent is for the participants to be uplifted by objects or experiences. In the arts hajj, it is the audience/visitor who is transformed or edified; the art is fixed and not altered or affected by external concerns, interests, or influences. 

Commons, as in a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons belongs to everyone, even those who do not take advantage of it. .. if a work of art is not speaking to the community, that’s not the community’s fault; their response is either community-focused education or selection of alternative works.

Think through these metaphors in your own creative journey. While you may not consciously think you are creating shrines or a “city on a hill,” the question remains whether the community for whom you claim to create appreciates your work. If not, back to the proverbial drawing board to  rethink the buyer persona for something that resonates more powerfully!



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