Searching for a silver lining

By Martin Vogel

Nobody likes cuts. But is it too outlandish to see an upside to financial uncertainty? Perhaps not. Organisations that navigate the storms ahead may gain more autonomy to set their own destiny. A possible outcome could be that they reconnect with their fundamental purpose and refresh how they deliver value to audiences.

This may sound panglossian. In austerity, our energies concentrate simply on survival and the niceties of maintaining and delivering a vision recede to the sidelines. But it can be a mistake to treat the values that inform an organisation as too costly a luxury to merit attention at a time like this. Clarity about what an organisation exists to achieve is central to making good decisions in the face of challenge.

Even in good times, arts organisations can drift away from their purpose to pursue funding or revenue opportunities which may pull them away from their distinctive capabilities. Labour’s era of generous arts funding came with conditions relating to tangental benefits of the arts: social cohesion, inclusion, urban regeneration, tourism and the like. The arts prospered through being coaxed to channel effort on their instrumental value.

Hard times may allow more attention on the intrinsic value of the arts. Organisations that survive may enjoy more space to focus on their artistic mission with less jumping through non-cultural hoops.

Some arts leaders are hopeful that this could be the impact of the new funding regime for Arts Council England. Jonathan Heawood, of PEN, told The Guardian he found the new framework “more strategic” — less about bums on seats and more about supporting arts in a more general way. But with a shift towards annual funding awards, few organisations would be prudent to plan on sustained grants. It will be a more dynamic environment. If newcomers can break in with new ideas then others in receipt of funding can always be at risk of losing it.

The organisations that flourish through austerity will be those that can develop more entrepreneurial cultures which reduce their dependence on grants and seize the necessity to control their destiny. Martin Smith’s report for Arts & Business last summer, Arts Funding in a Cooler Climate, spelt out what this means: a focus on revenue generation, exploiting cultural assets, innovation to meet changing demand.

Smith points out that digital media and the quality of consumer technology are changing the way people engage with culture. The arts compete with immersive experiences that are readily accessible at home or on the move. But they are also able to realise new opportunities to deliver their creative vision, engage audiences and generate income.

This can lead organisations into fundamentally different ways of presenting their art — live transmissions of theatre or opera performances to cinemas, or the exhibiting of art reproductions in incongruous places. Such initiatives can feel disorientating and remote from the organisation’s artistic purpose if they remove people from direct experience of the art.

This is why it is important to retain connection with the organisation’s underlying values, so that new initiatives are conceived as a way of refreshing the mission for a new era rather than a compromise. Becoming more enterprising need not entail dumbing down the artistic vision but does necessitate improved relevance to how people want to engage with culture.

The counter-intuitive insight is that an organisation’s autonomy to set its artistic destiny is realised by placing mastery of the art of management more firmly at the core of its operations. Again as Smith points out, the space that artistic directors enjoy to take creative risks is linked to the space afforded to management professionals to play their role.

This means respecting the contribution of, for example, marketing managers to the development of products to exploit new ways of reaching audiences. It means recognising the craft skills of internet practitioners as a new locus of creativity in the company. And it means looking to the finance director to guide the organisation to a strategic approach to risk management that informs programming with excellent audience insight so that commercially risky endeavours are balanced by bets that are safer for revenue generation.

From my work as a coach in arts organisations, I would say that most are fortunate to employ high calibre and committed management professionals. But many of these professionals struggle against a lack of understanding or respect for the potential contribution of their skills. Their ability to take the initiative is constrained compared with their counterparts in organisations outside the cultural sector.

If ever there was a time for the management professionals to step up and make the case for their capabilities, it is now. But austerity also demands that artistic professionals learn to respect all the talents on the team.

Originally published at Arts Professional.

Image courtesy Dan Taylor.