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Update | Fall/Winter 2023

Taking Center Stage With Arts Entrepreneur Shasparay Irvin

Chris Malina

Photography by Paul L. Newby II

Shasparay Irvin on stage with microphone

Shasparay Irvin (BS ’20, MA ’23) has always recognized a business opportunity when she sees one. Just ask the targets of the Halloween scheme she ran as a child.

“I’d be selling my candy to other kids after they ate all of theirs,” she says. “I guess I’ve always been what you’d call a hustler.” With such innate entrepreneurial spirit, a career in business might have seemed like the natural outcome for Irvin, but growing up, the Austin, Texas, native never saw it that way.

“I didn’t think business was for me, because I never saw any businesspeople who looked like me,” she says. “It didn’t feel accessible.”

These days, however, Irvin has a much different outlook. Shaped by her experiences as an arts administrator, festival organizer, performance artist, entrepreneur, and Wisconsin School of Business graduate, she sees things much differently—and isn’t letting past perceptions hold her back.

“Business doesn’t have to look one particular way,” she says. “There’s a whole cohort of people I graduated with and none of us are doing the same thing. What’s great about business is that you can really make it yours.”

Outside the beat box

Besides an interest in business, Irvin gravitated towards performance arts early in life, but was discouraged by a lack of representation and roles in her local theater scene. Seeking acceptance and an outlet for her creativity, she discovered an art form that would change her life’s trajectory: slam poetry.

“I realized it didn’t matter what you looked like, as long as you had a story to tell,” Irvin says. “For three minutes and 10 seconds, people would listen to me.”

She rapidly built her poetry skills and began competing in national competitions. Then, while attending community college and reconnecting with the theater, she applied to the First Wave Urban Arts Scholarship program—a first-of-its-kind university initiative centered on urban arts, spoken word, and hip-hop culture—which landed her as an undergraduate at UW–Madison. That’s where her interests in arts and business collided.

After taking a stage production class, Irvin began to engage in a thought experiment: What would it look like to create an interdisciplinary festival that promoted and celebrated Black artists?

As a theater major with artistic aspirations, Irvin knew she’d need experience writing grants. So, she submitted a festival proposal to UW’s Studio Creative Arts Award, mainly to get feedback. To her surprise, she landed the grant.

“I was like, okay, now I actually have to figure out how to do this,” Irvin says. “My advisors recommended I take an arts entrepreneurship class which I didn’t know existed.”

There, she met Sarah Marty (BM ’97, MS ’01, MA ’05), director of WSB’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration, who quickly became a mentor and friend.

“She took me under her wing and helped me write a business proposal,” Irvin says. “With her help, I wrote several grants that first year and got all of them, and things just took off from there.”

Shasparay Irvin wearing Black Arts Matter t-shirt, standing in front of colorful mural
Irvin poses in front of Madison’s MYArts youth arts center, where she rehearses, hosts events, and nurtures the next generation of young performers.

Building business chops

In 2019, Irvin launched the Black Arts Matter Festival in Madison, curating a blend of slam poetry, music, and visual arts with representation from local and national artists. The inaugural event was a hit.

Inspired by the festival’s success and wanting to build upon it, Irvin decided to pursue a master’s degree in arts and creative enterprise leadership, an accelerated one-year program at WSB.

Much to the surprise of her classmates who knew her as a festival founder and artistic director, Irvin says one of her favorite parts of the program was working as an assistant to others through applied learning opportunities.

“It was nice to be in a position where I could observe someone else working and being the boss in the way that I have had to be,” Irvin says. “They had all of the skills I had been trying to learn on the fly and broke things down for me, step-by-step, in a way where I could truly learn.”

She also learned that a business degree could help her in other ways—both as an artist and an administrator—like navigating what can be a sticky issue in the arts: money.

“I’m fortunate to be aware of the business side of things that other artists might struggle with, like contracts, or having to say no to jobs because they don’t make sense financially,” Irvin says. “And as an administrator, I can really respect that.”

“There’s a whole cohort of people I graduated with and none of us are doing the same thing. What’s great about business is that you can really make it yours.”

—Shasparay Irvin (BS ’20, MA ’23)

Dreaming big

There’s arguably no other bucket list in the world like Irvin’s, which includes opening an event space, getting a PhD, writing a book, acting on Broadway, and starring in a television show that runs at least five seasons.

“I am kind of weirdly ambitious,” she says with a laugh. “But my main goal is to be able to say that I’m an artist and continue to be creative throughout my life.”

So far, she’s making good on that goal. Since graduating from WSB, she’s performed on and toured with a popular storytelling podcast and starred in a recent production of “The Wiz” in Madison. She’s also exploring ways to take the Black Arts Matter Festival national, while simultaneously pursuing employment opportunities in arts administration, taking on gigs, and channeling her entrepreneurial spirit by offering her services for hire—everything from performance coaching to wedding officiating (complete with personalized love poems).

She admits that her path forward in business could go one of many ways—but wherever it goes, she’ll be doing it the best way possible: her way.

“I just hope that people are encouraged by the fact that I don’t have it all figured out,” she says. “I don’t have the traditional business trajectory, but I’m proud of the work I did during my master’s program and how it will inform my future work. Really, as long as I’m being creative, I’m open to wherever the wind takes me.”