Arts Enterprise Lab 2.0: Empowering Artists and Building Creative Community

Research undertaken by the Kenan Institute for the Arts on the creative entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region found critical gaps in both services and opportunities for artists.

After convening an Arts Enterprise Lab earlier this year to explore ways to better serve local arts entrepreneurs, the Institute is moving forward to address one of Winston-Salem’s most critical creative needs: a shared space in which artists can collaborate and develop.

“That is what the Kenan Institute can do — we can support something that makes artists more visible in the community,” says Executive Director Corey Madden. “That means building creative community and empowering artists to have more impact, to be more sustainable, to drive their careers — not just as artists but as individuals running their own businesses.”

Toward that end, the Kenan Institute plans to open a 2,200-square-foot space in the heart of southside Winston-Salem, near the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), where Lab members can continue to meet and new entrepreneurs can connect and develop.

“The Lab group started to identify things within the community that would make it a strong and healthy place for arts enterprises,” Madden explains. “This space will give a presence to the Lab that will be exciting.”

Research shows that investing in the creative economy is a wise move. Creative jobs in North Carolina increased 13.6 percent from 2006 to 2013, bringing the total number of creative industry jobs (direct and indirect) to 336,248, or 6 percent of the state’s workforce. These jobs generate more than $14 billion in wages, $22.7 billion in revenues and $9 billion in exports. Nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $119 million in local and state government revenue.

That said, the Lab convened by the Kenan Institute in February 2015 found that local arts entrepreneurs face serious barriers to business success.

Take Noriko Nagasawa, one of the 16 Lab participants and a professional pianist who enjoyed a robust career until she moved from New York City to Winston-Salem in 2011, when her husband joined the faculty at UNCSA. Here, Nagasawa has struggled to find a community for Dalcroze Eurhythmics, an approach that music theorist educators like herself use to connect music, movement, mind and body. 

Nagasawa never considered herself an entrepreneur, she says, but now she is having to start anew and think like one.

“My work — my focus has always been on my work. I don't really have the mentality to think of myself as a product or a commodity,” Nagasawa says. “What should I do to market myself? It was helpful to listen to someone who is already here and has done it, established themselves from scratch. It is taking me longer to find out what kind of community is here for me. It is different from place to place.”

Finding the right space is critical to her work. “I am not someone who just walks into a classroom and gives a lecture,” she explains. “I need a large space for piano and people. There is movement to teach music.” 

Lab members spent several months examining research, taking field trips to explore creative enterprises in North Carolina communities, hearing from a host of guest speakers and discussing the challenges they personally face as artist entrepreneurs.

Like Nagasawa, Alan Henderson is a creative entrepreneur who recently relocated to North Carolina and is “reinventing" himself. He sold the greeting card company he ran for years in Birmingham, Alabama, and recently opened a custom design and letterpress print studio in Winston-Salem.

Henderson joined the Lab because he wanted to connect with the city’s visual arts community and find “a place for artists to become more entrepreneurial in their thinking.”

“For a lot of artists, including myself, that business side is not the most natural thing to do — the self-promotion and getting people to buy whatever you are producing,” Henderson says. “I wasn’t really taught that. My degree is in art education. We didn’t really talk about the business side of art.”

Henderson says space was an obvious need that surfaced during Lab discussions. “There is a lot of growth here in Winston and in North Carolina, and I worry about artists not being able to afford space,” he says. “Not everyone can work out of their basement or spare room. They need a place to go, a collective that has 10 or 15 studios, where they are working with others, not just in a vacuum all day.” 

Madden views growth — North Carolina is predicted to double in population over the next 10 years, which means Winston-Salem could potentially double in size as well — as an incredible opportunity for arts enterprise.

Numerous ideas emerged from the Lab that could help transform Winston-Salem into a creative force field for arts entrepreneurs. In addition to creative space, Madden says, the group discussed an arts awareness campaign, leadership training programs for artists, the need for new and unique attractions like RiverRun International Film Festival, even the possibility of the city creating new zoning and tax incentives for artists.

What’s next for the Lab? Madden isn’t sure, but she hopes members collectively will choose two or three projects to work on next year.

“It’s a little too soon to say exactly — I don’t know what they need. They can only find it out for themselves,” she says.

“But we see the value of thinking outside of the possible. Artists are really on the front lines of this. What is uniquely attractive about Winston-Salem’s creative community and how can that be enhanced and innovated? It can’t be the same as it was 25 years ago.” 

Katherine Foster, the founding executive director of New Winston Museum, came away from the experience inspired by that kind of thinking. Like other Lab members, Foster wants to stay involved in the project.

“The Kenan Institute helps people like myself, who are understaffed and often bogged down in day-to-day worries, elevate to some ‘blue sky’ thinking,” she says. “Sometimes with arts institutions and nonprofits, ideas are generated and if there is not consensus, the ideas get shot down. With this kind of thinking, every idea is one that needs to be explored. Now, I never say, ‘We can’t do that.’”

Foster believes the city is primed for some blue-sky kind of thinking. Joining the Lab opened her eyes to unlimited opportunities for collaboration, she says, not only with programming, but with funding and physical space. She adds: “We all had similar needs.” 

“Right now is a wonderful time in Winston-Salem’s renaissance. In all capacities, there seems to be the desire to work together for something greater,” Foster says. “There may be scarcity in funding and resources, but it is creating this wonderful, collaborative partnership from an institutional level. There is less of this risk mentality. That doesn’t exist now.” 

“It was a perfect time for Kenan to convene this group and start some idea generation for Winston-Salem’s future. It is leading to beautiful, community-focused work.”