Across the breakfast table at an Oakland cafe, my friend and colleague’s eyes fill with tears. “I’ve been so worried about my films. I haven’t been able to finish the last one… I miss it so much.” My own eyes blur with tears.
You see, we are both founders of start-ups in the arts (no, this is not an oxymoron), and we are continually up to our eyeballs with what it takes to build profitable businesses with scalable futures while staying true to vibrant social missions.
I’m the CEO and founder of ArtSpark, and Holly Million is the founder and executive director of Artists United*. We are also both artists; she’s a documentary filmmaker and I’m a dance/theater artist. We love being independent and steadfast business owners despite the constant challenges. And, like many entrepreneurs, we strive for some semblance of a work/life balance. Sometimes we can find that balance, while other times we know that we must stay the course and put off the much-needed rest or that miracle of two sequential days off.
Holly and I work together to bring support and services to artists, knowing that we can be much stronger and effective when collaborating instead of working in isolation. We’re good collaborators, and I attribute this partly to being women, but mostly to being artists. Not all artists collaborate, true, but for those of us who do it’s often a constant dance of solitary practice coupled with co-creation. When I’m choreographing a new piece, I must have hours and hours of time alone in the studio before I can even consider reaching out to a designer or composer to accompany me on the next stages of production.
It’s great for the artists we serve that we’re artists. We get the artists’ world, the highs and the lows, and they trust us because we have chosen the same path. Holly and I believe that artists can thrive and make money by choosing to learn and practice business skills. We both teach and provide support for a variety of business skills, ranging from social media communications to fundraising to building a customized business model to audience development.
We also caution the artists we serve to make these choices on their own terms so they don’t ever surrender their artist-selves. How the imbalance of building a career or business and allowing one’s creative practice to slip away can put at peril and starve the artist soul.
My own realization that I wasn’t exactly practicing what I was preaching came through with such force recently that I dropped to my knees and couldn’t stop weeping. I started dancing instead of walking at age 11-months at my parents’ 50’s-era cocktail parties, and this is my essence. The few times I’ve left my artist-self behind (under the pressure of graduate school or because of judgement and disapproval from a former mate) I have been hollow, anxious and miserable. I also stop seeking out art at shows, on the street, at museums or during performances – something that’s essential to me – because it’s a depressing reflection that I’m not doing my own art.
This is the tricky part: during these falls from grace, I was still dancing. I was spending time in the studio, doing yoga to stay in shape and even continuing to make dances. So what was amiss? It’s a subtle but powerful shift of perspective that once corrected, changed everything. I realized that I was stepping into ArtSpark, into my creative practice, into my community and social life, and into my day-job life (yes I still take an occasional outside contract to make ends meet) as a business-person first, NOT as an artist.
When I flipped it and approached being a leader, CEO of ArtSpark, practicing artist, arts omnivore, neighbor, family and friend as an ARTIST FIRST, I came home. I was dancing in my own shoes again. I re-discovered my center. I circled back to who I was and who I am. It felt like a true miracle that I could lead as an artist, that I could approach all of my life from that essential place.
The relief, freedom and power (yes!) that I feel upon realizing and shifting my perspective so I always move in the world as an ARTIST FIRST has been astounding, and I commit to never retreating from it again. The other miracle is this: I see in my future that I am always dancing and forever making dances. I used to believe that artists I deeply admire like Trisha Brown, Anna Halprin, Diego Pinon, Ruth Zaporah, Ping Chong, Eiko and Koma or Deborah Hay were the only ones able to strive towards and experience artistic longevity. I think I’ve assumed that this couldn’t also be me… and now I can.