For one week in October, entrepreneurial-minded students in the College of Arts and Architecture had an opportunity to have their art business ideas workshopped by Steven Wasser, the former owner and CEO of Powell Flutes and well-respected art philanthropist, educator, collector and businessman.
Wasser’s time at Penn State as the first arts entrepreneur-in-residence was made possible by the Arts Entrepreneurship program, which is part of the Intercollege Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI). The Arts Entrepreneurship program aims to empower artists and arts entrepreneurs by offering the business knowledge and skills needed to develop a sustainable career in the arts. Financial support for the residency was provided by the Powell Family Foundation's Richard Powell Committe (no affiliation to Powell Flutes). The foundation has been a consistent financial supporter of the arts at Penn State.
During his week at Penn State, Wasser lectured in various classes and hosted more than 25 students from the program—spending about an hour with each workshopping art business ideas and offering mentorship backed by more than 30 years of arts entrepreneurship experience.
The College of Arts and Architecture’s inaugural professor in arts entrepreneurship, Jonathan Gangi, said Wasser’s time at Penn State provided students with an excellent connection between classroom content and real-world applications.
“Steven was invaluable in delivering transformative experiences for students in the Arts Entrepreneurship program,” Gangi said. “I am deeply gratefully for his hard work, both in preparing for and during the residency week.”
Wasser, who received an undergraduate degree from Cornell and an M.B.A. from Harvard, connected with Penn State in 2015. To that point, he had amassed a unique collection of 1930s Jewish-American art that told the immigrants’ stories of their experiences in the new world. The collection, comprising mainly paintings and prints, had gained notoriety in the art world and that’s when Adam Thomas, curator of American art at the Palmer Museum of Art, asked to borrow a few pieces for a show at the museum.
Wasser was engaged in finalizing a deal to sell Powell Flutes and because the collection was either on display or in storage inside one of the company’s buildings, he needed to find a new home for the art. When Thomas approached Wasser, he had already entered discussions with a few different museums to take possession of the collection. But after arrangements for the collection fell through, Wasser immediately reached out to the Palmer.
“I felt that, while this certainly was fine art, it was also more narrative,” Wasser said. “And the opportunity to have an interdisciplinary approach to telling the story, supplemented by these graphic materials, was much more appropriate for a prestigious academic institution like Penn State.”
After a few discussions, Wasser and his wife, Stephanie Wasser, agreed to donate just more than 40 pieces to the Palmer Museum, with seven now in the permanent collection.
Over the next few years, Wasser’s connection to the University would grow stronger and he eventually served as a judge in the 2018 Arts Business Idea Competition sponsored by the College of Arts and Architecture and also financially supported by the Powell Family Foundation. His natural connection to the students, along with his experience as an arts entrepreneur and business educator, made him a perfect candidate to serve as the college’s first arts entrepreneur-in-residence, according to Gangi.
Architecture student Danielle Oriol was one of the students who had an opportunity to join Wasser and workshop her art business idea, which focuses on repurposing materials used by students for creating architectural models and prints. Initially nervous to present the idea, Oriol said Wasser was engaged and insightful, which helped her to get the most out of the opportunity.
“He brought up a lot of points I would have never thought of because I'm not an entrepreneur and I don't have the experience of running a business,” Oriol said. “He helped all of us hone in on what we are actually trying to do and challenged us to produce better work.”
Nearing the end of his week at Penn State, Wasser said the experience offered him a more nuanced understanding of the University and the College of Arts and Architecture, which strengthened his ties and validated the feeling that his collection was in the right place.
“It’s clear that Penn State is fully committed to providing students with the business tools to help them achieve their artistic goals,” Wasser said. “And for that reason and many others, Penn State is a special place and I’m thrilled to have a growing relationship with the University.”