Ruby Lerner: Preparing Artists for a D.I.Y.W.O. World

What do Futurefarmers, Pamela Z, Vijay Iyer, Miranda July, Golan Levin, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Streb, Basil Twist, and the Yes Men all have in common? They’ve all received grants from Creative Capital. Founded in 1999, Creative Capital is a pioneering arts organization that funds (and nurtures) artists based on a 360-degree model inspired by the best practices of the venture capital community.

The idea is that artists don’t just need money, they also need counseling, connections, community, and career development. Creative Capital grantees don’t just get a check, they get a partner, and in many ways, a mentor.

Given Creative Capital’s unique approach that focuses as much on the artists’ work as their skills as creative professionals and entrepreneurs, we decided to chat with president Ruby Lerner about what she’s learned shepherding some 350+ artists through the program.

How has your approach to nurturing artists changed over the years?

One of the things I’m the proudest of is that we move really quickly. We try things and if they don’t work, we discard them really quickly. I bet there are a thousand things we’ve done that I don’t remember anymore because we quickly replaced them with something that did. I think it’s very important to stay open to changing things as rapidly as possible if they’re not working well.

What do you see artists struggling with the most when they start the Creative Capital program?

I have a lot of questions after this decade of work about what is happening to people in arts schools and programs. I think a lot of it is not empowering training. People come out of it confused about success, or unable to define success for themselves.

That’s a trait that people who succeed in the Creative Capital program have in common: They’ve figured out what success means to them, and it may not be the things that you think. If they’re a performing artist, for instance, it’s not that they got a show at the Public Theatre, it might be that they got tenure at the university they teach at, and they’re having a baby.

We don’t tell people how to define success for themselves. But I think people are coming out of these arts programs unable to do that, and conflicted about what it might mean to be successful.

I have a lot of questions after this decade of work about what is happening to people in arts schools and programs.

It doesn’t seem like there’s much business or entrepreneurial training incorporated into arts programs.

Well, that’s changing a little bit. But I will tell you that at some of the top schools there is resistance. They consider it to be vocational, and maybe that was justifiable when there were three artists walking the earth. But, in a time where it is a very crowded, noisy environment, I would think that you would want your students to succeed.

I don’t think you can send people out without some sense of what the world that they’re going to be inhabiting is going to look like. Therefore, you need people [teachers] who are very present in those worlds – not people who were successful in the world 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. It is a dynamic universe, and it’s changing all the time.

The traditional intermediary mechanisms have broken down a lot. The film distribution world, for independent film, music distribution. Every distribution system and the people who are part of those distribution systems is cracking – has cracked, is cracking, and will continue to crack. And more and more artists will be having these relationships directly.

It doesn’t mean that they personally will be sending out the emails to all the venues that want to book them. That’s not what D.I.Y. means. It’s what we call D.I.Y.W.O. Do It Yourself With Others. It’s basically that you’re taking charge, you’re not ceding responsibility for different aspects of your career to other people. But you may be hiring people to work on your behalf and accomplish different things. So it’s a very, very different mindset. We’re looking much more at preparing people for a D.I.Y.W.O. world.

What’s the main difference you see in artists when they leave the Creative Capital program? What do they gain?

I think it’s confidence. And coming to respect their own goals. Because the process encourages – particularly the planning work – an honest conversation with yourself. Once people have that conversation, it’s often the beginning of a change for them – a transformational experience. Not always, but often. What I say about the work that we do is that it allows for transformation, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

We’re looking at preparing people for what we call a D.I.Y.W.O. world. Do It Yourself With Others.

How does coming to respect their own goals manifest?

It’s really different for everybody.

If you had to give our readers two takeaways about time and money management, what would they be?

Do them both!

With money management, one of the things we see with many of our artists is that they just aren’t confronting their money situation. There’s just these unrealities that a lot of people live in about their money. It’s frightening, and it’s one of the reasons that our economy is in the shape it’s in now, because people just don’t pay attention.

As part of the process we put them through, artists keep a time diary and a money diary. So you see where every penny goes over the course of a few weeks. You actually look at what you’re spending, and how you’re spending your time – every hour of the day. And really that’s the first step. You’re not going to act until you’re aware.

So I would say keep a diary if you’re in any way stressed about either of these things, for a couple of weeks, or in the case of money, a month is a smart decision.

I have one other tip: Never phone it in. Having been on a lot of panels or been in the audience at different events, you often see people show up, and sort of bullshit their way through a session or a presentation. And my attitude is: You never know who is sitting in the audience who might be interested in, or willing to help you, if you can make a strong case to them. So everything like that is an opportunity. And it’s so important to be prepared for opportunity. That’s what “luck” is.


The above image is the artwork “Doubleslide,” from Inbound: Houston by Karyn Olivier, a Creative Capital grantee.

More insights on: Interviews, Money, Time Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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