Can We Truly Market the Arts?

Art or sheer marketing brilliance? (Damien Hirst's £50 million For The Love of God courtesy of Secretly Ironic)

There is an underlying tension in the field of cultural management where one has to balance between giving customers what they want and preserving artistic integrity.  This is especially prevalent in what we term as the 'high arts' like classical music, ballet, theatre and museums.

Against the ever growing competition from lifestyle activities coupled with the ever shrinking discretionary time of today's consumers, it appears suicidal for art organisations to hold their ground for the sake of their art.  Considered by many to be a discretionary expense (compared to purchasing groceries, fuel and homes), cultural activities have never faced such tremendous competition as the present age.

While I do love social media and the web (as my friends would attest to), they also present fresh challenges to physical attractions like museums.  How do you then cajole, nudge or even threaten an individual to leave his or her laptops at home when they can access a non-stop stream of entertainment and interaction, 24 by 7, most of which are free?  

I believe that there is a merit in balancing between both original inspiration and commercial feasibility.  As cultural institutions, we should always give sufficient respect and space to ourartists, curators, artistic directors, performers and impresarios to hone and perfect their craft.  Those flashes of brilliance normally do not occur in a focus group discussion or management meeting, and the last thing you want to do is to kill creativity with an overdose of bureaucracy and endless expectations.

Creators need their time out and we should give it to them.  However, it cannot be unconditional.  This is where we have to skillfully infuse their love for liberation with customer needs, wants and desires.  After all, most art organisations do not exist for themselves, but to serve a greater public mission and purpose.

One way to arrive at a win-win strategy is to look at adjusting and moulding the supporting and auxiliary services accompanying an original composition to suit the needs of audiences.  You don't have to tell your curator how to curate, but you can help him to communicate his thoughts and ideas more effectively to a layman audience.  Customer feedback is also useful in determining how facilities are designed and maintained - you will be surprised how important that loo at the back of your pristine gallery is, or how peeved off people can become over a frowning security guard!

Marketers can also be proactive in giving their inputs and feedback on programme line-ups based on their previous experience, but be careful how you do it.  Choreographing a new dance or designing a complex stage set up for an opera requires considerable passion and devotion - often over long hours - and the last thing you want to do is to quell the soul of an artist.

What may be productive though is to work within the parameters of the proposed work of art and to see how its fringe elements could be adapted or modified to suit a mainstream audience weaned on Channel 8 dramas and comedies.  For example, using analogies and metaphors that a potential audience can easily relate to when consuming the performance or show, providing self-help guided sheets, and maybe even creating blogs and websites that can "wikipedia-ise" an artistic experience.

To market the arts, you don't have to dumb down every show, exhibition or display to cater to the lowest denominator.  The core and artistic essence of the production must be kept intact.  What we can do as marketers and communicators though is to provide that bridge of understanding to help make the art more meaningful to the masses.  That is where the value of marketing the arts truly lies.

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