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Calvin Arsenia
Calvin Arsenia says the biggest risk he's taken as a musician is focusing on live performances rather than recording his music. But that risk has paid off. | Photo by Christopher Smith

Playing it safe is not in Calvin Arsenia’s vocabulary

For musician Calvin Arsenia, the expense and risk of performing are worth it.

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Musician Calvin Arsenia saw several years ago that not everything can be downloaded. That is, when free MP3 downloads and music pirating started robbing musicians of royalties, he decided to play up the spectacle of his shows – no one can rip off an experience. But the harpist and singer said he’d been recording in a studio since he was just 16, so that change was nerve-racking.

“I think the biggest risk that I’ve done as a creative person and as a musician was to refocus my whole career path on the live performance rather than on recorded music,” Arsenia said. The first time he had his own show was at a Starbuck’s a block and a half from his parents’ house, which he built a special set for. He says he wishes he had had someone around to tell him: “I know that you’re from Kansas, but you get to be a part of the global community and that your art is important and that your voice is important, that your story’s important.”

Calvin Arsenia
Calvin Arsenia playing the harp. | Photo by Christopher Smith

Since then, he’s populated the stage for his shows with as many as 50 other musicians. He also hires costume and jewelry designers, dancers, sound and lighting experts, and buys lots of flowers. “Oh my gosh, flowers are so expensive and catering and the drinks and the bartenders,” he said. But, he adds, “It’s like, if you play it safe, you will be forgotten.”

For Arsenia, the expense and risk are worth it. In fact, he’s been part of a program at Artist INC to specifically learn how to manage those expenses and risks. He says that people pay him and other artists to do and say what they themselves can’t or won’t. The messages in his work are about often-taboo subject matter, such as “co-dependence or about infidelity or about just longing in the soul…. you shouldn’t be afraid to feel the full spectrum of your emotions and talk about them,” he said. He wants people to know that “Being human is messy, and it’s okay.” And someone’s got to talk about it.

Calvin Arsenia
Calvin Arsenia: “You shouldn’t be afraid to feel the full spectrum of your emotions and talk about them.” | Photo by Christopher Smith

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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