“It’s not often you get a chance to jump off a cliff and chase a dream…”

I wrote a post back in early 2011 about my friend Leslie Foster’s quest to shoot a documentary exposing homophobia in Jamaica.  The result of Leslie’s work has been the superb project “Until We Have Faces”. Here is the teaser for the upcoming film:

Until We Have Faces Teaser 2 from Traveling Muse on Vimeo.

In addition to being a huge fan of Leslie’s work, I think Leslie the person is one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  I mentioned in my last post that he and I have lived in a lot of the same places – a school campus near Manila in the Philippines, South East England and Hollywood. He is a filmmaker, an entrepreneur and a community builder currently working in Hollywood. 

Today’s post is about his quest to tell a very important story.  If you are interested in how art, entrepreneurship and living your dream can intersect, this post is for you.  Over to Leslie and savvy, global do-gooding:

I really like creating budgets. I know, that’s not exactly something you’d expect to hear from an artist. For me, budgeting is practical dreaming, a way of distilling the clouds wandering happily through my head into tangible goals. Turning imagination into numbers is the often frustrating intersection between art and business, but whether we like it or not, art requires business.

Even if an artist studiously avoids free enterprise, if her art is to be seen, there is someone in her life who must provide entrepreneurial backing, unless this particular artist has a sickeningly perfect run of luck. To quote psychologist Eric Maisel, “Art and business may be strange bedfellows, but an artist must make room in her bed for both.”

Two years after I graduated from college, I decided that simply being an artist trying to gain some business savvy wasn’t nearly enough struggle; I wanted going to start a business. And not just any business, a non-profit art collective called Traveling Muse Pictures. Creating this was a dream that myself and founding member Adam Buck had been cultivating since college.

Why a non-profit? We certainly went back and forth on whether Traveling Muse was better served as an LLC or a non-profit, but we finally settled on the latter. Both have their pros and cons. For example, an LLC is relatively easy to set up, while the process of setting up a 501c(3) can take years. However, an LLC with investors needs to produce content that specifically can guarantee a return, while a non-profit with donors and access to grants is free to pursue more artsy and esoteric projects. I also liked that a non-profit is one of the most socialist organizations in the United States, an organization, which is ultimately owned by the citizens.

Artists often bemoan having to “sell out,” or “sell their souls” in order for their work to be seen. We wanted to create an entity, which allowed us to create a business vision that matched our artist goals and ideals. To quote artist Beth Hawkes, “The business of art doesn’t have to compromise your creative integrity. Most artists and designers focus on the creative dimensions of their work but haven’t developed a strategic perspective that integrates their creative vision with a viable business plan.”

It’s taken us four years of hard work, but it feels good to be able to look back at the years spent writing dense legal language and developing the company and know that we have begun to build something quite exciting. We have a lot more work to do, but in 2011, were able to being transitioning from doing just the business work to creating art again. We’re still having to figure out the shift from the loose collective that gave us a library of beautiful, experimental short films to the organized company, which is producing, “Until We Have Faces,” a feature documentary about homophobia in Jamaica, and it’s certainly not easy, but it’s been rewarding.

We’ve got a great board of directors, headed up by Pavel Rutherford, a finance director at Stanford University, who keep us focused on our goals and make sure we keep learning from our mistakes. So where is Traveling Muse now and what dreams are we continuing to chase? In the short term, we’ve got a documentary to finish, and that includes a lot of detail work and fundraising. We’re working to make sure we don’t focus the entire company on the project, as easy as that can be with a small team. In the long term, we’d love to see Traveling Muse grow into a voice for change, not only through the stories we tell, but through how we operate.

We set out to create a company that not only told artistic, social-justice oriented stories, but one which mentored filmmakers and provided them a space safe enough to explore their art and make mistakes. We wanted to dig deeper into the inherently collaborative nature of film and subvert some of the power structures within the film industry. Can one maintain the necessary hierarchy of a film set while treating all members of the crew as financial equals? What does a set look like when everyone has the same amount of risk and reward? What happens when we encourage the heavy cross-pollination between filmmakers and artists from other disciplines? And how does this all work within a business model, which still provides the non-profit with a viable surplus?

We don’t have answers to many of these questions yet, it’s what’s so exhilarating about this journey. We’re still figuring a lot out, but I like that we’re creating exciting work along the way. It’s not often you get a chance to jump off a cliff and chase a dream; I don’t think I’ll ever regret that leap.

If you’d like to find out more about Traveling Muse, you can visit www.travelingmuse.com, you can find our films at www.vimeo.com/travelingmuse and read much more about our documentary “Until We Have Faces” at our donation page http://travelingmusepictures.wordpress.com/donations/