Trinity Aims to Turn Artists Into Entrepreneurs

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Luis Martinez (l) and Roberto Prestigiacomo in the Entrepreneurship suite at Trinity's Center for Science and Innovation.

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Luis Martinez (l) and Roberto Prestigiacomo in the Entrepreneurship suite at Trinity's Center for Science and Innovation.

The walls of Trinity University‘s entrepreneurship suite at the university’s Center for Science and Innovation are actually giant whiteboards, covered in the scribble of brainstorms left by students at the end of the semester.

Professors Luis Martinez and Roberto Prestigiacomo are designing a new program to help artists think like entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of Trinity. It is not just a class where students hone a skill set for development, pitching, beta testing, and scaling a product. Instead, Trinity promotes the entrepreneurial mindset as an asset in every realm. For the world to understand and value the liberal arts, and to benefit from an educated citizenry, college graduates have to know how to put their newfound knowledge to work.

The university has programs in traditional, social, and soon international entrepreneurship. Martinez, director of Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Prestigiacomo, producing artistic director for AtticRep, want to add the expressive arts to that list.

“Our mission is to make every student more entrepreneurial,” Martinez said.

Trinity also has a natural strength in the arts. Its prolific theater program in particular has placed talent around the country.

For this new program, they haven’t fully developed the “it” yet, Martinez said. This is still a spark of an idea, born from the pair’s collaboration teaching a First Year Experience class called “Creative Genius.” It is one of six themed classes Trinity students can take in their first year to help them get into the liberal arts mindset. They are taught to write, work outside traditional subject matter boundaries, and think critically. 

During that seminar the two professors recognized a similar “genius” behind creatives and successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.

A couple of months later, here we are. Martinez and Prestigiacomo were technically interviewed, but they treated their conversation with the Rivard Report like a development session. Prestigiacomo scribbled in his notebook. Martinez wrote on the glass table with a dry erase marker. I was a fly on the wall, observing the exact process they will be helping their students explore. The two have identified a need and are developing a way to meet it.

Luis Martinez and Roberto Prestigiacomo brainstorm a new arts entrepreneurship program at Trinity University.

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Luis Martinez and Roberto Prestigiacomo brainstorm a new arts entrepreneurship program at Trinity University.

Part of the “agreement” prior to this “interview” was that it was to be treated as a creative space where none of the topics discussed were promised or guaranteed. Some of the ideas floated might not come to fruition, but they will drive the process one step further toward a viable product – in this case, an academic offering of some sort. Will it be a single course? A minor? A summer program?

They don’t know yet.

However, what I got to observe, and why it is worth noting, is the kind of energetic process that fuels modern industry. Products evolve constantly, but the impulse remains the same: to contribute something of value where the world needs it.

While the value of the arts is largely understood, Prestigiacomo sees very few artists who can articulate that value for potential investors and partners.

“Why do I feel that I’m begging for money, instead of (talking to) a business person who is looking for an investment?” Prestigiacomo asked.

He sees his own theater ventures, most recently AtticRep, as a product. “I don’t want you to support me. I want you to believe in the project that we have.”

With that confidence, artists will also have to have a dose of humility, as simply creating a work of art doesn’t merit investment. Young artists especially will have to bring their artistic voice into a larger conversation.

“In business, if you don’t deliver a good product, you die. In the arts if you don’t deliver a good product, you should die,” Prestigiacomo said. “You do it because you love it, but that’s not enough. That’s egotistical. You contribute to your community, and you contribute to your craft.”

Unlike market-driven startups and even need-based social entrepreneurial endeavors, an arts entrepreneurship will have to take on a philosophical argument at the heart of the artist’s life: what is the roll of “selling” in the arts?

The program is not intended as “business for art majors” or to train students in “how to sell your art.” It is about changing the way students think about two fields that have more in common than they might assume.

Social entrepreneurship, a program Trinity already has, is closely related to arts entrepreneurship.

“Your profit funds your mission,” Martinez said, quoting an oft-cited maxim in social entrepreneurship.

Artists, in this paradigm, are not choosing between selling out and staying true. Nor is a steady job something to be feared. By teaching them to think like entrepreneurs, Martinez and Prestigiacomo hope students will be energized by the value added to their money-making endeavors as well as the subsequent honing of their craft they will be able to use in daily lives.

Art without an audience, Prestigiacomo explained, is a hobby, not a profession.

Before they even get to the point of funding, Martinez wants artistic students to see how crucial the entrepreneurial mindset is to what they are already doing.

“It’s in this realm of starting something,” Martinez said. “Artists do that inherently.” 

What comes next, in startup speak, is the hustle and the grind. The hustle of vision casting, networking, and building investment in a project can be difficult for artists who, as Prestigiacomo put it, could grind away forever at their art. 

While the format of the program is still nebulous, Martinez and Prestigiacomo do plan to call on arts professionals from the community as examples.

“We want to do a greater job of integrating our emerging artists into the local arts system. It’s about building San Antonio,” Martinez said. “The city is our playground.”

Stepping out of my role as a fly on the wall, I thought aloud about Brent Watkins, better known now as “Doc” Watkins, owner of Jazz, TX and a phenomenally gifted pianist with a Ph.D. in performance.

Watkins and I used to work together at a local church. He was married and had a growing family to feed when we shared an office and often talked about the multi-faceted tension between participating in culture, paying the bills, and selling out.

Nobody hustles like Watkins, hence the rebranding of “Doc,” nor is he afraid of the grind. He simultaneously played a church piano, wedding gigs, and at The Bar at Bohanan’s while he got South Texas jazz off the ground.

Because he is truly prodigiously talented, Watkins was able to find a niche and elevate it. He’s not touring the world playing Prokofiev, but many would agree that what he has accomplished with Jazz, TX suits him even better.

Arts entrepreneurs, Prestigiacomo points out, must be comfortable seeing themselves as the product. They create things, yes, but more importantly they are creators, who can participate in more than one project over a lifetime. There may or may not be a magnum opus, but there can definitely be a lifetime of cultural contribution.

Millennials might be more comfortable with this concept than previous generations. Post-Recession job seekers are far less likely to have or want “company man” positions, and far more likely to follow the pollinator model of contribution, buzzing from flower to flower picking up and depositing pollen gained along the way.

At Trinity, the pollen could be anything, including the arts, and Martinez and Prestigiacomo want to ensure that the bees have what they need for a lifetime of contribution.

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