Is it possible to develop viable business models for cultural organisations without compromising artistic integrity and values? This is the key question that Creative Lenses, a four-year collaborative action research project supported by Creative Europe, attempts to answer.
On the 13th of October 2016 more than 130 participants gathered at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London (UAL) for the first Creative Lenses forum, a day of high-level presentations, discussion and workshops exploring business model innovation in the arts and cultural organisations.
Lucy Kimbell, Director of the Innovation Insights Hub of the UAL, opened the forum by exploring why now is an appropriate time to engage with innovation in business models. She contextualised this by pointing to the context of multiple, interconnected crises to which cultural organisations are forced to react and adapt. David Crow, Pro Vice-Chancellor of UAL, welcomed participants – about a third of whom were from out of the UK – and stressed that in times of anxiety, actively seeking solutions that sustain European and other international ties is the appropriate response. Giovanni Schiuma from the University of Basilicata emphasised the role of culture in connecting people and the critical importance of sustaining the viability of arts organisations to guarantee a cohesive society. Ultimately, he noted, this can only be achieved by using all the tools available, including business approaches.
The first keynote presentation was by Stefan Haefliger, Professor of Strategic Management and Innovation in City University, chaired by Jonathan Gander of London College of Fashion at UAL. Haefliger identified four basic types of business model. These are: product based, solutions based, matchmaking and multi-sided, reflecting the relationships between an organisation and the actors they engage with and serve. Business models describe how value is created and how it can be captured. Haefliger argued that most cultural organisations tend towards a multi-sided model where they need to co-create and deliver value in a balanced way for patrons, funders, communities and audiences. He noted that the criticality associated with the arts does not cease when engaging with business practices; on the contrary, artists and cultural organisations can contribute to developing critical enterprise models, while remaining playful and experimental in their business approaches. The debate that ensued was centred on the specifics of the cultural sector and its value-driven approach. Ultimately, Haefliger noted, ‘You can exit through the gift shop, but the core is not the shop’.
Following this keynote were four workshops, of which participants selected one each to attend. One offered a practical introduction to the business model canvas methodology, led by Julie Aldridge of the Arts Marketing Association. Another focussed on using digital data, led by Andy Hamflett of consultancy AAM. He noted that while many organisations are seduced by the potential of big data, small cultural organisations very rarely have the resources and the volume of data needed to perform such analysis. Instead, he suggested that partnerships with other cultural organisations with complementary data are more suitable. Alison Prendiville and Adam Thorpe from UAL led a workshop on social innovation and culture, describing how strategic collaborations between design education and local government in the form of a ‘Public Collaboration Lab’ can lead to better solutions and an improve relationship between local administrators and communities. Lastly, Giovanni Schiuma presented research on business model innovation, describing common challenges faced by cultural organisations and how they relate to their business models.
The second keynote by Robin Norton-Hale, Artistic Director of OperaUpClose, was chaired by Mary Alice Stack of Creative United. Norton-Hale described the evolution of the opera company’s business model over several years to ensure the viability of their mission. In response to commercial success and critical acclaim for their first production, OperaUpClose took the decision to run the company solely on commercially basis. However, it soon became clear that if OperaUpClose was to remain true to its mission of challenging the elitist perception of opera, managing the company solely on a commercial basis was not sustainable. After diverse iterations their current business model combines public subsidy, donations and commercial revenues. The diversification of income sources has allowed sustained growth, with the company trying to maintain its values through paying equity rates to performers, broadening audiences and having at least some relatively low-priced tickets for each show.
The afternoon workshops allowed participants to engage with a variety of methods to explore aspects of business model innovation. Bartolomeo Meletti from CopyrightUser.org led a session on the potential of copyright as an income generation source, which is of relevance to some arts forms and sectors only. Organisational size matters when confronting copyright infringement, as litigation can be complex and costly. Catherine Bunting from Everyday Participation presented a digital tool facilitating the evaluation of cultural projects through standardised metrics that triangulate feedback from audiences, experts and artists. She stressed the need of combining qualitative and quantitative approaches to fully understand how cultural value is produced. Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice led a workshop where innovation and change were explored in relation to sustainability and volatility. In the workshop it became clear that the arts sector is well placed to try out new approaches, but environmental conditions, internal structures and resources do not always guarantee that change can be sustained.
The nuanced discussions during the day converged in the final plenary session, led by Lucy Kimbell in conversation with Birgitta Persson, of Trans Europe Halles, Seva Phillips, from Nesta’s Arts Impact Fund and Auro Foxcroft from Village Underground. The conversation centred on the question of the extent to which innovation in business models is possible in the cultural sector. Birgitta Persson and Auro Foxcroft agreed that the best way forward is not radical innovation but transformation and the continuous refining of existing business models. Persson noted the importance of strengthening relations with the community to guarantee sustainability, while Foxcroft added that strong links within the cultural sector should enable sharing of best practices. This point was reinforced by Phillips, who stressed the entrepreneurial disposition of arts organisations and their capacity to use their existing creative assets commercially.
The depth of discussion and range of approaches and topics shared in the first Creative Lenses Forum demonstrated that business model innovation can take many forms. It highlighted the value of doing research and broadening understanding in the cultural and arts sectors. Judging by the level of engagement and participation on the day, people involved in leading, managing and commission the arts are keen to learn more.
This blog post was written by Rosa Pérez Monclús, a researcher and policy officer at Culture Action Europe. Her background combines experience in the private sector as a strategy consultant, in the public management of culture in the UK and as a cultural policy assistant in the Ministry of Culture of Spain. She holds a BA in Humanities, a double degree in Economics and Business Administration and a Master’s Degree in Cultural and Creative Industries. Her deep commitment to the cultural field has led her to pursue an on-going PhD in cultural policy at King’s College London.