Mind the gap: how to focus on your purpose in the arts

By Martin Vogel

Empty gallery.

A theatre won funding to improve its engagement with disadvantaged groups. It approached the challenge as the chance to spread the word about its work. But it discovered that to get the target groups through the doors, the work would need to change. What the theatre was doing from day to day turned out to be irrelevant to a section of the community it was meant to serve. This is an example of the gap that can occur between the way an organisation behaves compared to its avowed mission, one that provides the sense of purpose from a shared understanding among everyone who works in a company.

The mission statement should inform everything people do in their jobs. Often, though, there’s a nagging doubt about whether a company is fulfilling the potential that marks its reason to exist. Arts organisations are particularly vulnerable. Being values-driven, they tend to be more vulnerable to falling short of a high ambition – and they are more likely to resist change. It’s not surprising that the purpose and actions can be misaligned. Things change rapidly; it’s easy to lose one’s bearings.

New technology transforms people’s expectations of the relationships they expect to have with companies. The global recession and the new government’s spending cuts are transforming the economic outlook for the arts. As austerity bites, it’s not just public funding but also consumer spending on the arts that will decline. The coalition’s broader policy changes for the arts are, as yet, unclear.

Change is the one given. The underlying purpose may stay the same, but the way to deliver it will always need to evolve. An organisation that fails to keep pace can quickly begin to lose relevance.

You might spot the gap around the artistic purpose: a gallery that measures success in terms of footfall, but whose traffic is consistently to its cafe not the exhibition space; a theatre that exists to promote new voices buts retreats in the face of intimidating protests. This kind of gap drives away audiences. Or the gap may open around a company’s business practices. Arts companies can be far from model employers. People may be expected to work for long hours in poor conditions. Occupants of senior roles might find their initiative stifled. There may be a culture of bullying which goes unchecked. These are behaviours that contradict the championing of creativity and respect for human potential that involvement in the arts might lead you to expect. This kind of gap damages retention and recruitment of talented staff. It leads to ossified processes and reduced ability to generate fresh ideas. Ultimately, the gap between performance and action drives away funding. When arts budgets are under pressure, companies can suffer capricious cuts. But those with clarity of purpose and a good narrative about delivery will better weather the storm.

Board members must understand the company’s role and their own part in holding the organisation to account. Management teams need to grasp how the organisation’s values should be manifested in practice. This begins with honest, reflective scrutiny of the artistic purpose. How well is it delivered? How well does it connect with an audience beyond the organisation? It extends to searching questions about running the company in a way that is congruent with the artistic purpose. How effective is the stewardship of public money? Is the cost of delivering the purpose appropriate? How motivated is the organisation to mobilise other sources of revenue? Managers also need to be clear about broader issues, such as how creativity is valued and fostered throughout the business. How are staff treated? What are the social and environmental responsibilities?

Purpose and action are aligned through an organisational culture that transmits respect for the purpose in everything it does. This is most easily evident in how recruits are inducted. If new recruits learn from their peers what people should do and why, the culture is probably in good shape. Where it’s not, managers must find ways to create new cultural imperatives. At the BBC, when Greg Dyke was in charge, he banned biscuits at meetings. A relatively trivial financial saving, but one with a powerful message: that every employee had a part to play in ensuring that the BBC’s use of licence fee money should be focused on delivering great services to the public.

An organisation that consistently asks how well it serves its purpose develops better clarity of purpose and better alignment of behaviour behind it. This kind of reflexivity creates a self-renewing culture, which promotes effective action and communicates its purpose in what it does. It makes staff more empowered, more motivated and more creative. And these are the conditions which foster experiences which delight audiences.

Originally published at ArtsProfessional.

Image courtesy Mr. T in DC.