Are Entrepreneurs Business Artists? Wynton Marsalis Says Yes
Internationally acclaimed musician, composer, bandleader, educator and a leading advocate of American culture Wynton Marsalis came to the i-lab today as our first guest in the panel series, "Artists as Entrepreneurs." Marsalis answered questions about the overlap of artists and entrepreneurs in personality, behavior, history and perception.
The panel, comprised of Harvard Business School faculty members and moderated by Senior Associate Dean for Planning and University Affairs, and Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance Mihir Desai, touched on three concepts:
- How entrepreneurs, always in search of new ideas, can learn from artists;
- How artists ARE entrepreneurs if you apply the definition that they pursue opportunities without considering resources under their control at the moment of an idea's conception, but instead make that idea happen despite circumstances; and
- How both art and entrepreneurship are collaborative; how organizations and institutions take a role in the careers of both types.
While undoubtedly some artists are born with their gifts (hello, Mozart!), Marsalis highlighted another kind of artist: the entrepreneurial artist. He gave a little musical context to guests, telling the story of Duke Ellington; surely one of music's greats, but really a man who employed entrepreneurial vision to his art and succeeded as a result. Ellington was able to synthesize ideas to create completely novel ones, and used his personality and people skills to create an environment for his idea to thrive. His determination to his goals ultimately succeeded in helping father jazz.
Would a man like Ellington succeed today? The scale and pace of change in our time is unprecedented. "Turbulence is the new normal," said James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration Nancy Koehn. The people who will make changes in our times will be those who can adapt between disciplines, between left and right, and distill ideas, not information. Artists fall into this camp, she posited, and so do entrepreneurs, but what makes this true? Marsalis's answer: the ability to thrive in chaos. Artists, including musicians, have traditionally fit a stereotype of volatile or emotional people who then distill that into something higher or bigger than themselves. "Jazz is chaos. It's about being able to adapt and ride the wave of chaos to the calm center," he said, describing the melee in his own house while he composes. In a world of emails and information overload, this quality will become more and more important to create find higher meaning.
Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing Rohit Deshpande focused on the current challenges that musicians have in common with entrepreneurs: that of branding and consumers. Marsalis agreed that they are both heavy issues for artists, but that they have to approach them just as entrepreneurs do: with specific missions and visions, goals and practical plans of how to achieve them while maintaining integrity to their fundamentals.
The correlation between art and business has historically been seen as transactional. Associate Professor of Business Administration and Marvin Bower Fellow Mukti Kaire asked Marsalis about the traditional divide between art and business. While in the past, artists were seen as lofty thinkers and businessmen focused on bottom lines, now we can see parallels: perseverance to bring a vision to fruition, working under intangible measurements, and the joy of creating something new. Marsalis pointed out that while the perception has always divided artists and entrepreneurs, artists have always been entrepreneurial. "A score is a business plan." A sheet of music contains so much information, and artists require education to read that plan and execute it to the highest standards possible. "There is specificity in both art and music," he explained. Comparing spreadsheet metrics to a 75-piece orchestra's symphony sheet music may be new, but the need for accuracy they share has always existed. It may have been the most poetic description of a spreadsheet we've ever heard.