Alumni Discuss the Cost of Creativity Post-Oberlin
“The issue of entrepreneurship and leadership is that it is an option,” said panelist Dr. Aaron Flagg at last Saturday’s discussion “The Musician as Entrepreneur,” part of the weekend’s symposium in honor of the recently launched Creativity and Leadership program. Four alumni panelists spoke to an audience of about forty College and Conservatory students in West Lecture Hall about the challenges they have faced in the professional world.
At the weekend’s two discussions about the Arts, the panelists, all have of whom have careers in the visual and theatrical arts, spoke in Craig Lecture Hall, sharing their experiences and their ideas of the criteria for successful entrepreneurship.
Flagg, the director of the Executive Music Conservatory of Westchester in New York State where he launched a Hip-Hop Academy division, proposed that students must be personally committed to the idea they are trying to realize. He noted that not every creative person is destined for success as a business person and that a budding entrepreneur must either provide a service for an existing audience or market, or create their own audience or market.
At the second discussion, “Exploring Connections,” about the visual and theatrical arts, panelist Ben Kilgust, OC ’00, described one of his original ideas for his post-Oberlin career in an artistic field: sell out to a major corporation. Kilgust has made his living as a film producer and editor in Manhattan and while he did sign on for a time with a major company, MtvU, has been successfully working freelance for a year now.
Kilgust credits his fast learning curve for understanding video technology to critical thinking skills he developed at Oberlin. Other alumni described their Oberlin experiences as beneficial to their careers as well, even when their education did not correspond directly to the work they do now.
For example, Melissa Friedman, OC ’93, and co-founder of New York City’s Epic Theatre Ensemble with Ron Russell, OC ’92, studied acting in college but has gone on to direct and produce — something she never expected. Perhaps this could be attributed to what several panelists referred to as an integral part of Oberlin’s education: an open-minded attitude that asks, “Why not?”
Claire Chase, OC ’01, best exemplified this attitude with her founding of the International Contemporary Ensemble in the years following her graduation with a degree in flute performance. Chase’s advice for facing the challenge of finding an audience is to “respond strategically to your environment. Obstacles can turn into opportunities.”
Because it had no established reputation, ICE could not expect to book “official” concert venues on tours for years. Chase believes that as a result, the ensemble has reached a larger audience; it found alternative performance spaces — small clubs, public places, even trains. In addition to their unusual choice of venues, Chase described ICE’s repertoire with a smile as “really wacky stuff.”
As a result, her outlook is optimistic: “No matter how many articles you read in The New York Times, don’t believe it: This is a good time to be involved in [contemporary] music. There are new definitions of what it means to be a composer, a performer or a producer.”
Although a positive attitude and an artistic vision are important, the most entrepreneurial aspect of Friedman’s responsibilities has been a practical one: learning how to raise funds and write grants.
Epic Theater co-founder Russell described the painstaking work of staying up all night looking for possible patrons for theater projects — wealthy families, corporations and government allocations — and determining the best way to approach them.
Russell presented the strongest case for connecting a personal artistic vision with a larger audience and a market: “Our country profits most when the arts are at the center of a child’s education,” he said. According to him, cities across the U.S. have substantial funding for education but are in dire need of systematic improvement. The Epic Theater’s outreach, teaching artists in New York City’s public school system, has given students chances they might not otherwise have to experience serious theater and to discuss social issues.
This is not to say that Russell’s career is now a comfortable one, however. He said that the daily grind of financial worries is still the greatest challenge of being an entrepreneur. Panelist Charles Hamlen, involved in the not-for-profit organization Classical Action and the career management of many performers, offered a realistic approach to the issue of uncertain success: “Taking risks, knowing you’re taking risks and knowing they might fail. And if they do fail, getting up and trying again.” Or as Flagg put it, “If you want to do it, you’ll do it.”