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Mixing the Arts with Entrepreneurship

A new initiative teaches students to marry the arts with innovation and entrepreneurship

Duke student Samantha Giugliano, second from left, rehearses with other members of her saxophone ensemble. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke Photography.
Duke student Samantha Giugliano, second from left, rehearses with other members of her saxophone ensemble. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke Photography.

The 18 Duke students enrolled in an arts entrepreneurship course this semester are majoring in everything from electrical engineering to international comparative studies. Just two are studying the arts.

And that's the point. While plenty of Duke students grew up dancing, acting or playing an instrument, they often don't want a career in the arts. This class emphasizes that their skills and interests can translate broadly into other fields.

And perhaps, the students can still indulge their artistic passions, says John Supko, a music professor co-teaching the course.

"The old model that kind of scares parents is that a violin student who just studies the violin in college will have no job prospects," he says. "And parents are right to be scared of that model, because for a long time the arts at universities haven't been able to prepare an attractive alternative."

But the walls between the arts and other fields are lower and more easily penetrated than ever, Duke officials say. And it may give some additional skills to music students intimidated by the traditionally rough job market for new musicians, composers and the like.

"I think they're employable, even if they may not think they are," says Jon Fjeld, the course's other instructor. "They may not interview well. But this will give them a vocabulary and a subject matter and a mindset to communicate in the business world."

A former IBM executive and venture startup CEO, Fjeld likes to remind his students that entrepreneurship isn't easy.

"You start with an idea," he tells them. "And you're almost certainly wrong about something."

Fjeld hopes students take this bubble-bursting moment as a challenge because the best innovation comes, he says, from turning interesting but flawed ideas into good ones. That's a lesson Fjeld hope gets through in this new course, one piece of a larger university movement to emphasize the role and value of the arts in the business and non-profit worlds while teaching students to be entrepreneurial.

In the class, students work in small teams to create a business plan for the launch of some sort of arts-related venture.

This isn't about creating a new musical score or choreographed dance routine. Rather, students are charged with creating coherent, innovative business projects spun from their own arts interests. One group, for example, is plotting a social music network that allows users to both listen to and author reviews of music. Another would connect American second-hand stores with potential customers in China. A third is a website that would let dance instructors share teaching tips and advice.

Jane Hawkins, chairwoman of Duke's music department, wants students to understand their artistic talents can turn them in myriad career directions.

"They don't have to feel that their only option to continue a career in the arts is to become a famous pianist or photographer," she says.

This course and others fit into a larger university plan for a new certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship, a program that would provide a formal path of study for students whose interests, artistic or otherwise, lead them to entrepreneurial pursuits. The certificate program is currently being vetted by faculty leaders within the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

"In recent years more and more students have spoken to me of their desire to find professional opportunities that would bring together their passion for the arts with their other academic interests," said Scott Lindroth, Duke's vice provost for the arts. "I see the innovation and entrepreneurship certificate as a means to enable arts-interested students to think expansively and practically about how the arts may be part of their professional lives after graduation."

But this class isn't the only one at Duke aimed at arming a new generation of artists with business tools.A life in music

Sam Giugliano is a singer, saxophonist and musical theater conductor -- and that's just this semester.

The Duke senior is crazy about music, shoehorning it into every spare moment of her college experience. She sings in the Duke Chorale, performs in a campus saxophone quartet and, this semester, is conducting the spring production of "Parade" for Hoof N' Horn, Duke's student musical theater troupe.

But she won't be pursuing a career in music. A neuroscience major, Giugliano already has a job lined up with a local company that conducts clinical research trials. Music is a vital sidelight to her life, though, and she enrolled in a new Duke course this spring called "Music for Social Change" in hopes of stretching her view of the arts and its place in the world.

"There are so many things I can take from this class and apply to my career," she says. "Instead of just focusing on music, it focuses on developing leadership qualities."

Like the Arts Entrepreneurship course, this social change class pushes students to find business models within the arts. Students are tasked with creating non-profit groups, events or products that result in some sort of public good. The course instructor is Katie Wyatt, who uses Kidznotes, the local non-profit she leads, as an example. Kidznotes is a three-year-old, Durham-based initiative that introduces students in poor public schools to orchestral music and instruments.

"The arts can level the playing field; you can be deaf or handicapped or poor, and you can be successful in the arts," Wyatt says. "Art is the fundamental expression of who we are, and it doesn’t get the push it deserves."

In Wyatt's class, students present business plans for non-profit businesses, services or events designed to have a positive societal impact. One student pondered a series of fund-raising concerts; another proposed a theater program for elementary children.

Giugliano's idea is to bring an interactive music experience to children in hospitals and Ronald McDonald houses. It's an idea she hadn't entertained before, even though she's spent a lifetime performing and appreciating music.

"I haven't really put music and business together," she says. "This class is a lot about connecting the dots and putting what we know to good use."