How Can We Increase the Desire?

The Effect of Impact, or Lack of it, in the Arts


It seems incredible to me that the Arts sector is so reticent to adopt change.  When I say change I am talking about the adoption of business change not creative change as we are still the leading sector in that respect.  No, treating art like a business is a taboo, the very mention of the words business and art in the same breath grates in the mouth of most on the artistic side although we hold up as some form of Demi gods those who have achieved commercial success, one thinks of the likes of U2, Pierce Brosnan, Graham Knuttle, The Pogues, Jim Sheridan et al and yet when asked to reach those or similar heights themselves most will state that they feel as if they would be giving away their art, their creativity, their very soul.

How can we change this? Well there does seem to be a small shift in recent years, a number of national and funding organisations have taken a lead role in the promotion of professional development initiatives offering workshops and mentoring in topics as diverse as taxation, marketing, contracts and fundraising but the problem I see here is that there is no overriding structure just diverse topics covered in a diverse manner.  What we need is a concentrated development programme that outlines the aims, goals and outcomes of the scheme without taking away the core values of the individual participant, not compromising their creativity or art but enhancing it, giving it greater impact.

Now Impact is an interesting concept. Art is defining, art is stimulating but most of all art is making our conscious and sub conscious think, its job is to entertain, enlighten, provoke and provide an overview of the world situation through a set of very specific eyes, namely that of the artist.  Surely then the greater the audience means the greater the impact.  The greater the impact the greater society can change or understand its roles.  The greater our roles in the world the more we understand each other.  So what do we in the arts sector do to increase our impact? In all honesty not a lot, as throw it out there and see is almost perceived as the modus operandi.

I can almost hear the jeers from the majority here, and I’m on the train to Belfast and yes the economic pressure to put bums on seats and the issues around public funding, or diminishing lack of, has lead to the need to engage with new stakeholders and new audiences.  But are we really reaching the new or just the same old audience only new to us?  I would tend to lean towards the latter and that pot of money of disposable income and funding is becoming increasingly harder to divide.  However I digress as this is a topic for another day, not this one.

So we need to take a good inward inflection of ourselves as artists, arts organisations, arts professionals and really ask ourselves are we producing the impact that we should be? Do we engage our audiences? Do we influence society? Does society regard arts and culture as being important to defining our role in the world or is it more that arts and culture are tolerated, perceived as over funded and almost totally misunderstood by the populace.  A populace that will go in droves to see certain cultural icons, Bowie in the V&A, U2 in Croke Park, Madonna, Lady Gaga, One Direction et al but put on a show in almost any gallery, theatre, alternative music venue and we all, and I’d say without exception, that we tentatively ask the audience to attend whilst doing a great impression of a rabbit caught in a cars headlights. Again I can still hear your cries and I’m even further North now but again a deep inflective look at ourselves and I think despite the protests we would reluctantly agree. Why are we so frightened of art, be it the art we produce or the art we facilitate? Why are we so scared of the audience? How can we have an impact if we do not engage and fully engage with the audience on an almost business level, corporates are not afraid to, so why should we?

I know that corporate bodies, like social bodies, are having to change the way that they reach and engage with their audiences.  The above can be seen as a return to the we tell you do mentality but no I am not advocating that at all.  The audience that we engage with at the moment through social or traditional media already have a relationship either with us or to us, we are in a lot of respects preaching to the converted so we can have real conversations.  No the problem is with how we engage the new audience and I mean the new new audience not the new old audience to our particular situation.

Going back to the start of this, I think it would be a good idea to look at where we get the skills that enable us to engage with and ultimately impact upon our existing and new audience.  Talk to almost any artist or arts organisation out brand purpose, brand position, persuasive selling techniques, cash flows, strategic planning etc and they will turn in the opposite direction or utter those almost immortal get out words, “ah the corporate sector!” “That’s not what we do” “this is art lad” well it’s about time we sat up and took notice of the corporate sector.  We are in the privileged position to look at which methods work and which methods we should avoid at all costs.  Corporate nature is changing faster than most in the arts sector realise and we still look at the majority of corporate entities as large corporate monoliths, bastions of greed and certainly not interested in their people, only for profit.  Well these twentieth century ideas are changing.  There is a significant move towards social enterprise, more ethical, more socially aware.  Corporates look to define their purpose and by this I do not mean profit but their ethical core values, goals and outcomes as their purpose.  Now does this start to sound familiar? Do we in the arts sector not try to promote the same ethical values in what we do? Are they not in some way entering the same territory that we already occupy? Should we not be making a stance, is this a threat? Of course it is, imagine if the role society played in the world was decided by a society that was engaged by a corporation looking, despite their ethical approach, looking for profit and to put their slant on the world, they are selling either goods or services at the end of the day but offering a unique and defining experience to the user. The same applies either in business to business or business to customer relationships.

But as well as trying to regain the ground that we have lost we need to look at the methods of how they got there in the first place.  They have skills that we need to learn, skills in how to run a successful business from operations to engagement.  They have leaders envisioning the way the world should be. At present we have the vision, we lack the true leaders and the skills.  By leaders I mean those who are preparedness o put their heads up and engage with the new new, not those who present themselves as engaging the new new whereas they are only engaging the existing.  Look at the champions and influencers we have in positions of power, real power, the ones who can influence society and the influencers, the powerhouses –  still trying to think of one, yes me to.  We need to be honest, we have no representation on real influencers and again if you don’t agree look at the coverage art gets when compared to other activities that are after disposable income like sport and eating, both of whom get far more coverage, debate and audiences than the arts generally do.  Take out the 80,000 in Croke Park for U2 or the like, but the day to day audience who engage with art.

Now if you look at the demographics of those with disposable income that are our existing audiences what is the one overriding factor that the majority have in common? They work, they work for corporations, they have a passion for the arts, they also have influence.  Think about it, the majority of people employed work for Small and medium enterprises, companies that have less than 250 employees of which the vast majority have a workforce of less that 50.  Now in a company of that size no one is very far away from the decision makers.  People talk, not just amongst their friends but also their colleagues.  If we really engaged with these people how much greater would our influence be?  People in corporations are used to being addressed In a specific way, the public is used to being seduced by unique experiences offered by goods or services, just think of some of the most popular “cultural” icons in Ireland and before you say that we cannot take them on think about it this way, how can they help me to increase my impact?  To have impact you need to have influence, to have influence (I was going to say you need reach but no this is wrong) you need to be reaching the people who can be influenced, the people who will become champions and strangely enough we already know these people.  We just need to have that conversation, or rather have had that conversation as you more than likely spoke to those who can influence the influencers the last time you went to an event. Only we lack the skills to really engage these people, we lack the plan if we do engage them, we have not stated our purpose, our goals, our aims and I am not talking our artistic, ethical or societal aims but our business, brand or personal aims.  Without these we cannot hope to increase our share but to see it diminish it even more.  We will eventually be steamrollered by organisations that do only to be left of the pavement shouting and screaming at how unjust it is, no it’s not unjust as we have the power to change, the power to adapt, he’ll we even have the most creative brains in the world that would allow us to achieve it, so why don’t we just do it?

Ah money, the root of all evil, the catalyst to creative detriment, satan personified. Bullshit.  Money or currency comes in so many different forms.  Cash, pro bono, barter, exchange but it’s all currency, a way of getting reimbursed for what you do.  There is nothing evil about it, nothing that having some will make you a bad person, you will only be evil if your creativity, values, aims, goals and outcomes are not aligned.  No, how can you expect to increase your impact if you do not increase your income.  To coin the words of Tom Suddes fro the For Impact Organisation, every organisation deserves the income it is getting.  Think about that, for conversely and I think in this case it is true, no income means no impact.  Tom would argue the reverse in that impact drives income but I would tailor Tom’s idea a little in that to start to have an impact you need to have some income, and income here can be very general from real income to financial support, but to have a greater impact you need more income and income only comes from impact.  Increase your impact, as in engage more people but the right people, people with influence, people with influence who are outside of the sector, people who have capacity and who we already have a relationship with.  But to do this we need a certain set of skills so that we can turn these conversations into results.  We have to have a set of values, aims, goals and outcomes to work with, something that we can refer to, something that we can show people, something that we can influence people with.  You wouldn’t drive to Spain without some form of navigation device, either map, mobile or sat nav, so why do we not treat our principle activity the same? Why do we force ourselves headlong into the fire with no navigation device, we think we might have one but do we really? Could I see and understand your road map? Could you influence me?

The ridiculous part of this is that steeped in the history of the arts are artists and organisations who have embraced “corporate” culture.  Most of the great artists that we look back on today owed their success not to chance, throw it out there and see, but through some form of payment, sponsorship, exchange.  It is also worth noting that the status of artists in society was far greater than it is today.  Now maybe I am looking at this in a far too simplistic way but is there some form or correlation here, albeit a tenuous one?  No I think that there is a definite link between the two, payment equals influence, influence equals payment.  We also still today take their view of society and the world as being the true picture whereas in all honesty it is just a representation by the artists.  I know some would argue that this view was a paid view and therefore not the artists view but the view of the purchaser and you might be right but still these works and their influence survives.

So I think it is clear, the more financial clout that you have the great you can impact society. We are at the cusp of a new way in funding for the arts, almost as I iterated above a return to the days of artist and patron, only in the present day situation the patron could well be a corporate entity.  But these corporate entities need to know that the artist exists a scenario that is down to the artist to be found and not for the corporate to go looking for.

So comments?

The Views expressed are those of the author only.