Executive by Day, Artist by Night
November 17, 2017
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Artists have long been known for having “day jobs” to support themselves: James Joyce pushed a pen as a bank clerk when he wasn’t writing Ulysses; Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison once edited textbooks. But there are others who purposefully bridge both worlds: executives who are also artists. Rather than dabbling in either pursuit, they blur the lines between art and entrepreneurship at a time when companies need innovation that’s more than a buzzword.
He opens the door to his gray stone house wearing black on black, looking as average as anyone. But when Jimmy Chamberlin leads you down a spiral staircase to a room with framed of golden records and CDs, you know this no ordinary guy—he’s the founding drummer of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, which rode the grunge rock wave in the 1990s and 2000s to international fame.
Famous for his bombastic style, Chamberlin has played with Smashing Pumpkins for more than 25 years, and today still practices an hour or two a day on the eight-drum, 10-cymbal set he keeps in his home office. But he’s also known for being an active entrepreneur and investor in Chicago’s tech scene. He was the founding CEO of the digital media agency LiveOne, which focuses on live streaming media, and is currently the CEO of BlueJ, a small consulting firm that blends entertainment, social media and branding in its work with select corporate clients.
Rock and tech may seem like an odd combination, but it’s a perfect harmony for Chamberlin. When asked how he defines himself today—as an artist or an entrepreneur—Chamberlin, now 53, replies, “Tell me the difference.”
From his early days with Smashing Pumpkins, Chamberlin says he embraced the business aspects of music performance. He managed the band’s tours, “a margin business, like any other.” But the real epiphany came from watching technology’s greater inroads into music, which sparked Chamberlin’s “huge curiosity” in tech and led him to become an active tech investor. What fascinated him was the parallel between technology and creative pursuits such as songwriting; in either, it isn’t just the content, but more about the emotional response it triggers. “For me, that’s where it started getting interesting and stopped being about [art or tech], and started being about both,” Chamberlin says.
Not far from Chamberlin’s secluded home stands an impressive structure that, in its own way, combines art and technology: the architecturally impressive Global Hub of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Here, Michelle Buck, a clinical professor of leadership, incorporates art-based teaching into her classes, combining lectures and discussions with visceral experiences of jazz ensemble, Afro-Caribbean drumming, and Argentine tango.
“Traditionally and historically, business has been dominated by rational thinking, analytic thinking, and logical thinking. And that’s still absolutely essential for strategic decision-making, effective execution, and operational excellence,” Buck says. “But more than ever, business is also about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and seeing things from a different angle. There is so much to learn from the arts and from artists.”
This way of thinking defines artist-executives as they maneuver betwen their diverse yet complementary passions. Rather than yielding to the traditional view of needing to choose one path, they embody both.
His title doesn’t quite suggest “artist.” But Mario Alberico, a retired managing partner at the global giant Accenture, has had his work featured in shows in Chicago and New York. We find him in his third-floor studio in suburban Chicago, sketching over layers of paint on a large canvas. “Innovation is the essence of great art,” he says. “It’s taking something, redoing it and showing it back to the world in a way that’s usable.”
Ironically, that’s the same approach Alberico took within Accenture’s financial services practice. An art history major at the University of Illinois, Alberico hid his lack of a business degree early in his career, but finally came out as an artist with his clients. “Whether it was being authentic or being interesting, it made all the difference in the world,” he recalls. “It changed our working relationship—especially in the case of one of our biggest clients.”
Although Alberico’s artistic pursuits made him different, he says he always sought to bring out creativity in others. “I took it for granted that they, too, could be creative—maybe it was a way of talking or a way of behaving,” he says. That attitude allowed him to instigate exploratory conversations that pushed people’s ideas about what was possible.
As a conceptual artist, Alberico says that, for him, it’s always about the ideas. “That’s the way I approach things. In business, I always had great people around me who could help execute my ideas. That’s very much like what’s happening in modern art today.”
Video by Pat Commins