Who is more entrepreneurial than an artist?
They have new ideas. They meet resistance. They have to mobilize support. Half the time they don't even know if they are going to succeed, and very few of them actually make it to the galleries of our major museums.
Last semester I took a group of Cornell students who attend my leadership seminar in New York City to the Museum of Modern Art. We started by strolling through a Van Gogh exhibit and proceeded to the fifth floor to see the Cezannes, the Seurats, compared the Braques and Picassos, marveled at the Chagalls, and were tranquilized by Monet's Water Lilies.
Then we stood before Duchamps' Bicycle Wheel. I tried to explain to the class the notion of "ready-made" and its importance to contemporary art. Some were buying it, some were not.
We moved in front of a Pollock on the fifth floor. Now the conversation was less about art and more about "how did this stuff get on the wall?" We discussed Pollack's energy and dynamism, but we kept coming back to one fundamental question: What is the difference between Pollack's drips and the work of some unknown artist? In other words, how did these works get on the walls of the MoMA when others did not?
Perhaps, like any entrepreneur, it was the artist's ability to focus and move an agenda. It was about being proactive, taking charge of your career, not being passive, moving things forward, and creating coalitions. In Pollock's case he relied heavily on the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim, who not only equipped him with a Long Island studio, but also commissioned paintings from him without any strings attached. Pollack, no doubt, had talent, but he had the ability to gain support and build coalitions to further his career.
Museums are monuments to entrepreneurship. Anyone who makes it to the MoMA understood their ideas in the context of their time. They anticipated resistance. They were tactical about allies and clever about coalitions. Talent and skills may have got them through the door, but it came down to the artists themselves to make things happen.
The most impactful experience for me is taking high-potential leaders and entrepreneurs to the MoMA. They are expecting an irrelevant and somewhat eccentric two hours of browsing through art. They are taken aback by Oldenburg's huge soft sculpture of an ice cream cone. They are thrown a little by Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, and they are dismissive of Duchamp's The Fountain (a.k.a the urinal). Some are already accustomed to Pollack's drip paintings, but they all seem to question what we're doing here, until I ask them to figure out how this art got to the MoMA. The conversation turns to innovation, entrepreneurship, and how to push ideas through complex systems.
Taking in the MoMA, successful artists remind us that entrepreneurship doesn't just happen. Ideas need to be executed, pitched, and sold. Like Duchamp said, "I don't believe in art. I believe in artists."
In an age where art has become not simply an aesthetic experience, but part of many diversified portfolios, it has become easier to capture the entrepreneurial focus while visiting the MoMA. They quickly make the link between their journey and the journey of the artist, realizing that they all aspire to be Picasso--whose 1955 Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) was just auctioned for $179 million.