What is cultural entrepreneurship and why it matters?

Image by Beatriz Aguiar Text by Belén Zuazo

In recent years, we have read, heard and shared stories about people leaving their 9 to 5 to pursue their own venture. The word entrepreneurship promises a number of benefits: time freedom, home/work balance and self-realization. However, little has been said about a type of entrepreneurship that has gradually transformed our towns and cities: cultural entrepreneurship. In this article, we will have a closer look at its definition, its main traits and its impact on society.

Defining cultural entrepreneurship

Theatre, arts, crafts, films, music, video games, food, fashion, literature, heritage... cultural entrepreneurship seeks to capitalize any cultural and creative expression that has long-term benefits for society. In a recent definition, entrepreneurship is specified as “making use of new skills and technologies to transform assets into innovative cultural services, goods, uses, and organizational forms that generate financial revenues, positive societal impacts, and new creative and cultural markets.”

So, basically, we've come a long way from the traditional artist/patron relationship model. Not only have the sources of financing diversified, but the creative field itself has become much broader. More importantly, the focus has shifted from the creator to the audience: how to seduce, involve, delight and, ultimately, create unique memories.

Transformation at the core

Right at the core of the definition, we come across the concept of transformation. The basic challenge of a good cultural entrepreneur is to know how to significantly transform spaces, expressions and stories in a constant search for renewal.

The major transformation consists of turning a creative or cultural expression into a consumable product – that is, making the abstract into something concrete. This is where producers, curators, programmers and communicators come into play, using, as our definition proposes, new skills and technologies that allow them to create value.

A different type of transformation consists of a narrative shift, which can be clearly seen in the film remakes and spin-offs: The Joker (2019) goes from villain to anti-hero, Little Mermaid (2023) is of African descent, and The Jungle Book (2016) promotes environmental awareness. These renovations accompany changes in mentalities, integrating new social and political discourses into their cultural products.

In Portugal and in the world, we have also seen a growing spatial transformation fuelled by cultural entrepreneurship. To mention a few local examples, Fábrica Braço de Prata is an old factory converted into a cultural center, Casa Museu de Vilar is a former family villa turned into a museum, and Estação de Caminhos-de-ferro da Curia is an old railroad station transformed into a winery.

The ever-changing audiences

For a cultural venture to be successful, it must dialogue with the cultural imaginary of its audiences – and, again, the example of the film remakes illustrates this point. This addresses the main risk of a cultural entrepreneurship: it depends almost exclusively on the symbolic value that the audience attaches to its activities. And the zeitgeist is so fast-moving, that what worked ten years ago may not work now.

The cultural entrepreneur should be attentive to social and technological changes, which usually come from the younger generations. This is where the practices of coolhunting, trendwatching and cultural research are key to catch emerging trends before they transform into the mainstream. For example, globalization, participatory culture and new information technologies have challenged the old ways of producing culture, while opening up the possibility of establishing a much more fluid and immediate relationship with the audience.

From a passive role in receiving cultural content, the audiences moved to the centre of cultural production, transformed into users, co-creators, prosumers and more. Cultural entrepreneurs no longer need intermediaries to connect with their audiences, but digital media enables them to interact in real time with people spread across different geographical locations and market niches.

Transformation fuels transformation

But the question of the importance of cultural entrepreneurship is still open. Going back to our definition, cultural entrepreneurship promises to generate financial revenues, positive societal impacts, and new creative and cultural markets. In fact, it can help revitalize cities, towns and neighbourhoods, introducing new spaces, forms of socialization and entertainment. With the creative process as a core value, it has the potential to meet the needs of the audiences in a different way than traditional companies.

But the benefits of cultural entrepreneurship are not limited to the aesthetic and social component of their work. The explosion of creative spaces, communities and hubs can attract new businesses and investments around them, positively influencing local economies. The reference to the Marvila neighbourhood in Lisbon, transformed from an industrial zone to one of the city’s cultural districts, serves as a real-world example of this regeneration potential.

In essence, cultural entrepreneurship presents a compelling model for fostering creativity, innovation, and community development. As we navigate an ever-evolving landscape marked by globalization, participatory culture, and technological advancements, the role of cultural entrepreneurs becomes increasingly crucial in shaping the future of vibrant, interconnected, and culturally rich societies.