Artists as Social Entrepreneurs – 3 exemplary leaders

[This post was written by Laura Callanan, Haas Scholar in Residence at the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership. Among her initiatives at Haas, she is leading research into the trends in social sector leadership.]

As defined by Ashoka, social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.

I gave a keynote at the SoCap13 conference titled The Surprise Social Entrepreneur.  My talk explores the 5 defining characteristics of the social entrepreneur as set out by the late Duke University professor Greg Dees:

  • Socially driven – Advancing a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private wealth)
  • Growth oriented – Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission
  • Innovative – Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning
  • Resourceful – Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand
  • Accountable – Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created

I go onto describe an unidentified entrepreneur, ticking off one by one how this person and the organization he started fully meet the five criteria.  While some details are given – “prioritizes access for all; sets price point for services to be affordable” (socially driven) and “negotiated 10 year, $10M bridge loan to finance new production facility” (resourceful) — it is not until the second half of the presentation that the person I’m talking about is revealed.

I’ve described James Houghton, the founder of Signature Theatre Company in New York and his 22 year old Off Broadway theater.  The talk finishes with a quick look at four other artist-social entrepreneurs to prove there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problems. The point: it should not be a surprise that an artist is also a social entrepreneur.

Over the past 10 years, the social sector has been spotlighting, celebrating, rewarding and investing in new leaders. But our role models have come from fields like education, health, and microfinance.  Funders, the media and other kingmakers are preoccupied with change agents who will improve our math scores, lower our Type-2 diabetes, raise our incomes or catalyze a civil movement.  All good things to be sure.  And the arts can contribute to these goals, but are largely ignored. I question why, and at what cost.

US artists are addressing topics like the sustainable food supply, the criminal justice system and obesity.  Artists in India address issues as different as caste and recycling. Mexican artists are exploring topics of migration and gun violence. These are the same vital issues other social entrepreneurs are tackling.

The artist-in-residence programs at the Institute for Advanced Study and the Center for American Progress, highlight the unique contributions artists can make in a range of disciplines. Artists are envisioning the future along dimensions of the economy, the environment and youth. Communities seeking to become more sustainable recognize artists can contribute to the solution.

The arts are sometimes dismissed as a rich people’s indulgence, produced by poorly-run organizations, that have nothing to contribute to important discussions about social change. It’s not true, it’s a mistake and this attitude puts the entire third sector in a deficit position.

Arts organizations reach more than one-third of American adults at least once per year[1]  — I call that delivering innovation at scale.  Arts organizations combine earned and contributed income to achieve sustainability and fulfill a mission – hybrid funding model, anyone?  Groups like Creative Capital, Oberlin College, and  Harvard University are building artists’ skills in budgeting, marketing, and strategic planning helping them to be effective social enterprises.

Along with Professor Jane Wei-Skillern, I am currently researching and writing three MBA case studies featuring artist-social entrepreneurs. The subjects are James Houghton, founding artistic director of New York’s Signature Theatre Company; Theaster Gates, the artist and urban planner who is revitalizing Chicago’s South Side; and Deborah Cullinan, long time champion of arts in communities, and new executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Artists are essential to every conversation about social innovation.  Check out these three artists and see why.

[1]  National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,


2 thoughts on “Artists as Social Entrepreneurs – 3 exemplary leaders

  1. I love this article. YES, “there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problem”!!

    I am actually running a consulting agency which helps Creative professionals (artists, designers, film-makers, craft-makers etc) to start their own social ventures.

    If you are interested in making a bridge between your creativity and having a social impact, please visit:

    Creatively yours,

  2. Pingback: Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the Arts Salon Recap | Arts Research Center

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