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Generations, Arts, and Entrepreneurism – An Interview with Babs Carryer

by Jillian Brinberg

Lately, The Muse Dialogue has been examining the impact that new generations will have on the arts, and questioning how their engagement with art forms has shifted dynamics in the industry.

Babs Carryer, a Carnegie Mellon University adjunct professor, began her career as an artist but quickly shifted gears into entrepreneurism. She had a theater in New York City, where she wrote, directed, produced, and performed both her own shows and others’. After realizing the significance of the dawn of the Internet, she decided to apply her artistic knowledge to business and began consulting. She co-founded a consulting company, and for the past fifteen years has been teaching entrepreneurship at CMU.

Though the two worlds seem drastically different on the outside, Babs maintains that arts and entrepreneurship have a lot in common and speculates on the future of the arts entrepreneurial field.


Babs Carryer, arts entrepreneur and CMU instructor

Babs Carryer: I think people don’t often think about business as being creative. I think there are probably many aspects of business that aren’t creative. But I think there are many aspects of business – and particularly in the early stages of business that I love – that are incredibly creative. It’s all about problem solving. What’s the problem in the marketplace? How do you get customers? How do you maintain competitive advantages? What is the innovative solution? If you think about it, those are all really think-outside-the-box kind of issues.

So the ability to think on your feet and be creative, know how to tell a great story, and present all of that is a really great advantage in entrepreneurship. And so I found that creativity has just been a really important part of my make up. There’s much more correlation with creativity than people realize. I’m a proponent of, ‘If there’s a problem, think creatively about it and you’ll think up come pretty good solutions.’

JB: With generational shifts and technological advancements, it’s now easier than ever for artists to be entrepreneurs and produce and/or distribute their own work. Do you think increasing entrepreneurship will have an effect on arts sustainability?

BC: Oh, I do, I do. I think that innovations like the Internet have changed how arts can be viewed and distributed. It creates a lot of opportunities. I still think, though, that most artists wouldn’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs. And, you know, back in the day, if you had told me that I was an entrepreneur, I would have said, ‘What?’ I didn’t know what that meant. But I was. I was running my own theater; I was very entrepreneurial. And I think there are a lot of opportunities for artists to do that – to be in business for themselves. What’s difficult for them is recognizing that they have to have some business skills to do that and that lot of it isn’t about the art, it’s about the ability to market your work.

So, you know, some artists that become wildly popular get some flack because people say, ‘Oh, well they sold out, or were too commercial…’ I don’t want to judge one way or the other. Because if you’re going to be successful at it and you want to earn your living at it, then you have to be more than just an artist. Art isn’t enough. You need to put as much effort into your art as you put into how you market your art and how you talk about your art. That requires a whole other set of skills that, quite frankly, not only do they lack, but they don’t think they need. They graduate from these great institutions and they don’t have those necessary skills.

JB: I have heard that there is starting to be a push towards providing artists with an entrepreneurial education, as you mentioned. The potential problem with this is that artists can try too hard to provide value and be commercial and in the process lose some of their artistic integrity. Where do you think the right balance is?

I think that’s a tricky issue. If I were teaching a class to a bunch of artists who wanted to be entrepreneurial, I would teach it as a business class and I would say, ‘Suspend your disbelief for the point of learning what the process is.’ Then it’s up them individually to decide if that’s compromising their artistic integrity.

I think that if you were to have classes that were for artists to learn about business and entrepreneurship, it would be a good thing. And then that artist would have to determine if there was a market for what it is that they create. And who knows – a lot of famous artists in the past die tenuous because people didn’t appreciate them until after they died. I don’t think you have to be a financial success in order to be a successful artist.

But it depends; it can be very hard to survive. Back in my days, when I was involved in theater, I had a lot of crappy jobs: I waited tables, I cleaned apartments, and I did what it took to stay alive. If I could have found a way to make money through my art, I would have done it in a heartbeat. So I think there’s a fine line and it’s up to each individual artist to make the decision about where they draw the line, or if there’s a line at all.

JB: It sounds like what you’re saying is you have to know something about the field before you can decide where the line is for yourself?

BC: I think so. I think that’s a fair way to put it.

JB: Do you have any thoughts about where the field of arts entrepreneurship is going?

BC: Well, I think we’re at the beginning of what I’d call the age of entrepreneurship. Because the world has changed so much, people your age expect to keep a job for maybe two years at the most and change jobs quickly. So the concept of being your own boss, doing your own thing, and building something from the ground up – that is very appealing. Entrepreneurship has changed from something that people didn’t even know what it was a few years ago – it had a little red squiggly line under it because Microsoft Word thought you misspelled a word – to being something that everyone wants to study.

Because no matter who you are, having studied and understood the entrepreneurial process — what that means and how important it is to our economy — is really a great thing and will stand you in a very good stead in the future. So I think we’re on this huge trend and that we’re still on the early stages of the upward cycle.

JB: And finally, do you think that the arts should be playing a larger role in this entrepreneurial revolution?

Absolutely. I think there is a lot of collaboration that could happen on the artistic side that doesn’t happen because I think artists don’t like to admit that they could be entrepreneurs. And I think that if you look at the creative core of what drives entrepreneurs and what drives artists, I don’t think that there’s that much difference. I think there’s a difference in how you execute, what the medium is, and what you’re trying to accomplish, but I think the core sort of personality traits can be very similar.


Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue

“Generational Shifts,” by Elyssa Jechow

A Question of Arts Survival?,” by Andrew Swensen

“Some [Don’t] Like it Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part I” by Kelly Englert

Artistic Borrowing and the Anxiety of Influence,” by Jillian Brinberg

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