An Economic Powerhouse Hiding In Plain Sight: The Creative Sector

The arts & culture sector contributed more than $804 billion in 2016, 4.3% of the total GDP—nearly five times more than the agricultural sector and $227 billion more than transportation and warehousing.

—National Endowment for the Arts Report, March 2019

What has always made America great is innovation, vision, and entrepreneurship. These qualities drive us, and our survival depends on it, never more so than now. Even the most conservative estimates predict that 40% of our current workforce will be displaced or have jobs that will become obsolete in the near future.

Solutions to climate change, population pressure, and sustainable economic development, all require creativity and innovation to ensure our survival. From B-Corp Certification to creative placemaking and community-driven initiatives, we are recognizing the importance of mission and purpose beyond shareholder value. Philanthropic ROI has been embraced by companies from Ben & Jerry’s to Patagonia.

AND YET: we persist in the false belief that artists, inventors, and other “creatives” are incapable of leading us in these efforts. (Ironic, since the combination of a good idea and a good plan for implementing it is what has always allowed humans to get as far as we have.) As a result, we fail to train the very people whose jobs are NOT going away, and who have always created the conditions in which we thrive.

The New Economy Is Ancient

Nadia Fairlamb with sander
Nadia Fairlamb, CHF 2018 Executive Fellow

Collaborative, shared-space, gig-based work is not new. Artists and makers have always employed these business models and, in fact, gigging is the original MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) for humans. Early man (and woman!) forged tools to increase their chances of living to see the next day, and then recorded their use of them in pictures on the walls of their caves and in stories passed to the next generation. We formed groups and worked collectively to marry our creativity and ingenuity to the business of living. The caveman with the new tool or best idea led the way.

Our Secret Sauce

After 911, New York City rebuilt its downtown in record time. This happened for two reasons: 1) we had extraordinary support and assistance—everyday Americans who dropped everything and drove their backhoes and pick-up trucks from thousands of miles away to help—I remember the tears in my eyes as I saw the line of them stretching over the GW Bridge into New Jersey, waiting to be allowed onto Manhattan; 2) Everyone at the site worked together in a non-hierarchical way to generate and implement solutions. Whoever had the best idea led the way in that moment, and the structure of activity was organized around that leader.

Dream, Build & Deliver, All At The Same Time*

This combination of team work combined with agile project management works brilliantly, as long as the vision for the undertaking is solid. Successful ventures follow this model. They are led by innovators who engage in the drudgery and discipline of their industries. Ford, GE, Corning, Polaroid, Google, and Facebook all sprang from ideas that were driven to fruition by their creators. Apple without Jobs failed, flailing toward ruin until they got him back.

It is this combination of Dionysian chaos and bravery on the one hand, and Appolonian organization and relentless attention to detail that drives success. Art without business cannot achieve its aim. Every idea needs an implementation plan. Business without art has no aim. It lacks essential mission or purpose beyond making money for money’s sake, which is not sufficient for long-term viability. In the short run, individuals may become staggeringly wealthy, but eventually the venture will die.

At CHF, we start with artists and makers, giving them the “homo sapiens recipe for success”—the recipe our species has employed for millennia to survive and eventually dominate. We: 1) remind them how to collaborate through peer networks; 2) teach them the entrepreneurship and business skills required to take their ideas to market; 3) infuse them with the confidence to lead. This recipe WORKS, AND WE CAN PROVE IT.

Art + Business = Our Means of Survival

“Overall, I know I am better businessman than I was a year ago. In a relatively short period of time, I have learned to shift to new avenues of sale, create more compelling copy, and submit highly professional proposals.“—Aaron L., CHF Art-Business Accelerator Fellow 

The stakes today are sky high. Without vision and focus, Earth’s atmosphere will continue to change in ways that do not favor our species, and we will become extinct. To survive will must all work together. The future of our children and of life on our planet depends on it. The good news is that we don’t have to do anything new, rather we must simply do what we have always done best: innovate, monetize the invention, and then use it to improve our condition. Recently we’ve been stuck on “monetize”—admiring not the ones who create, but those who best exploit that creation for multiple cash returns. Long-term success, though, must include a celebration and quest for philanthropic ROI. To discover how to pull carbon out of the air and sell it to Coca-Cola, we must unleash our creativity. We cannot do this while marginalizing the artists and educators among us and gutting R&D (research and development) budgets.

Creativity begets creativity. Innovation fosters innovation. CHF is striving to put the creative sector back where it must be: in the limelight. We prepare the artists to lead us, because they will. We can prove it. Art is the business of humanity. It’s our superpower. Thumbs are secondary to creativity.

Pull Together Or Die Alone

CHF starts with the premise that we must set up our individual customers to succeed. This includes not only giving them individual training and tools, but also helping them plug into their communities and their target markets. Some high-profile, shared economy “bundlers” are struggling because they have not engaged sufficiently at this collective, community level. They leave their individual constituents to sink or swim alone within a fabricated community environment. When enough of their end users sink, COGS (cost of goods sold) exceeds profits, and the venture fails. If the venture is a nonprofit or a collective, membership dwindles and funding becomes scarce. Typical pitfalls include:

Insufficient investment in the social component: Cocktail party skills are built—very few of us innately exercise them. They used to be taught, and we used to engage in many more structured social activities: dinner clubs, ballroom dancing, etc. It was understood that your job at a dinner party was to make sure the person sitting on your right was amused. Our society has changed, and we have not replaced those social conventions with new ones. People need more than a communal kitchen, they must be coaxed into interactivity. This can be tricky, because the interactivity must pertain to the business at hand; it cannot simply be random.

Insufficient investment in the business component: Professional development is essential for all business owners and entrepreneurs. Shared economy ventures succeed when they set up their constituents to succeed. Those constituents are, in fact, “the customer.” If they are independent contractors, they need to earn enough to be cheerleaders, and know enough to do top-notch work. If they are end users or shared space workers, they need to recognize sufficient value not to go somewhere else, and have the capability to succeed at their own entrepreneurial ventures in order to continue paying for membership. In the case of creative placemakers and others that serve artists and makers, those constituents must be encouraged to believe in their own competence and right to make money. Otherwise, they will not be able to support the placemaker. Unfortunately, Dependency Theory is alive and well in this community.

Insufficient reinvestment: We’ve all seen wonder-start-ups with tremendous promise that crash and burn because management enriched itself instead of plowing everything back into the company. Embarrassed backers and fans throw over the entire shared work environment business model rather than admit admit they were snowed by greedy, short-sighted or incompetent founders whom they failed to vet or monitor properly. But as we have seen, this is not a new business model. It cannot be summarily rejected! It’s how we have kept from being eaten or freezing to death. Shared space is safer space, and the place where ideas percolate and grow…when managed well. In the nonprofit world, we tend to see a lack of investment that derives from scarcity of support, and failure to function like a business. In the end, incompetence is incompetence, and the business model is not to blame.

Lost opportunity to foster social missions, and to assist constituents with their own ventures: This is essentially the concept of reflected glory. Imagine how many additional joint ventures have been born in shared offices and creative placemaking spaces? Extended success derives from showcasing and supporting constituents’ new initiatives. This is our ultimate purpose, right?


To recap: we are social beings, but we no longer have “rules or “traditions” to help us put our community tendencies to good use. We no longer learn how to succeed at a “mixer,” let alone in the communal area of a shared office. For most of us, it is kind of terrifying to try to navigate in those settings. And yet, with some basic strategies and an injection of self-esteem to replace what is typically stripped away as we grow up, all of us can benefit tremendously from putting ourselves in group situations. For entrepreneurs, it is an essential part of the job.

Every venture that requires its customers to interact socially in order to succeed enough to continue being customers MUST include strategies for fostering community engagement and the art of selling. One-off, transactional sales does not require this, but to garner repeat business, relationship-building is essential. If the end users in the examples above cannot do this effectively, they will go out of business, and then so will the ventures.


“My sales have significantly improved and changed because of all of the work I have done for CHF. I’ve made about five times more than I normally make in this show and sold two of my highest-priced pieces, which I’ve never been able to do by myself.”—Nadia F., CHF Art-Business Accelerator Fellow 

If social engagement without ROI is the model, then ROI must be derived from sales to other businesses of either 1) data, or 2) opportunities to interact with end users. These strategies have been remarkably successful, but have now reached the point of fast-diminishing returns, because the end users have wisened-up! They are not willing to be bombarded by ads or have their privacy compromised. In the minds of an increasing number of participants, it turns out that the opportunity to share online is not sufficient to counterbalance this exploitation. This story is still playing out, but suffice it to say that end users want more for what they now understand they have been giving away.


LinkedIn is an interesting case within this context. It drives ROI as a paid platform because: 1) its customers are willing to pay to play because they perceive sufficient value derived from referrals and engagement of their prospects and customers; 2) LinkedIn has not been greedy or impatient, keeping costs in line with member expectations; 3) most of the skills required to participate are still understood and taught—such as resume and cover-letter writing. This is not “new economy” (read “ancient economy”) at all. Rather, it is standard Twentieth Century business as usual, delivered virtually, which actually discourages real engagement.


At CHF, we don’t just throw people into a big group and leave them to fend for themselves. Nor do we offer them placebos. We equip artists and makers to be self-sustaining entrepreneurs by giving them the professional development, social and business tools to take their ideas to market, and the confidence to do so. It works—and when artists, inventors and makers become competent entrepreneurs and business people, we all benefit. Without them, we’re like Apple without Steve Jobs. And our species can no longer afford to operate with gross incompetence. We can’t keep chasing the money, folks: we must thrive together.


* For more about Dream, Build & Deliver, see the Counterpoise Website.

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Elizabeth Hulings
Elizabeth Hulings is the Executive Director of the Clark Hulings Foundation, and a principal of the business-strategy consulting firm Counterpoise, where she has worked with startups, nonprofits large and small, multi-national corporations, and sole proprietors--including artists of all stripes. Before launching Counterpoise in 2001, Elizabeth lived through five Fortune-500 mergers at the predecessors of Citigroup, Cendant, and Verizon Communications. She also honed her skills at several nonprofit organizations including the International Development Exchange, The Management Center/Opportunity Knocks, and Human Rights Watch.

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