The Arts are a Risk Business

by Keith Diggle


The art of analysis is to omit nothing that is relevant and to include nothing that is irrelevant. The analysis of marketing that I have proposed elsewhere (See A.D.A.M. Model) is no more than a list of areas where decisions must be made. Such a list is useless unless it is comprehensive. My list has worked for me and for others for a long time. It is a good working analysis. It probably fits the bill. But, paradoxically in the light of my claim for its comprehensiveness, there is something missing.

It concerns the confidence and energy of the organisation making the decisions; it is about the belief the organisation has in its ability to succeed, its wish to succeed and its ability to sustain itself if it fails. This ‘missing factor’ is to do with the skills, experience, motivation and creativity of the personnel and is significantly influenced by the financial resources of the organisation. If the factor is missing then marketing will only work if a seller’s market obtains. There is rarely a seller’s market in the arts.

All businesses need to operate in an atmosphere of confidence. If risks are reduced then fear of failure is reduced. Hence the importance placed on market research. Market research is essentially an attempt to reduce the risks that are inevitable in any speculative venture. The danger is that it is very easy to convince oneself that once the research is done the risk is gone. All businesses face risk of some order. The arts organisation faces a higher level of risk than almost any other; indeed, when it is operating as it should, risk is woven into the fabric of its life. In the arts, market research never eliminates risk.

How does an arts body cope with risk? How does it develop the belief that the organisation and its people have the ability to face up to and overcome the risk of marketing failure? This is where the missing marketing factor comes onto the scene.

Before there were the arts organisations as we know them today there were impresarios. Theatre managers, concert promoters, producers of various kinds: people whose principal characteristic was their overwhelming belief in their ability to pick winners and, on occasion, to make winners out of also-rans. They frequently went bust and either went to run a pub, jumped off a tall building or conned some money out of an elderly aunt and started again. The successful ones combined three vital factors: knowledge (of marketing – not formalised but knowledge just the same), confidence (deriving from earlier successes) – and prudence; the possible financial loss was containable, there was money in the bank to cover it. So one flop did not make a disaster. In such one-man businesses there was a significant measure of ego, as well.

The arts presenting body of today finds it hard to act like an impresario bound as it is by the need to be accountable, controlled by committees the members of which are themselves liable in law for losses sustained. It is even harder when the funding body, whose job it is to meet the difference between income and expenditure, has no concept of how marketing success is achieved and would laugh at the idea of keeping money in reserve against a rainy day. Successes are achieved although many opt for the cautious path.

The ultimate in caution I found in Malvern (England) in the sixties when I went to look for places where the orchestra I co-founded, English Sinfonia, might play. There I met a man who, if he were around, would fit in very well with the arts bureaucrats of today. He was in charge of a very nice little theatre and he had observed that every time he put on an event it lost money – so he kept it closed and spent the money he had on keeping the place very clean indeed.

Business activities tend to work in a spiral form; they either spiral upwards and outwards, growing and feeding their growth from their growth, or they contract. The contracting spiral is the destroying disease. You take less money so you spend less money. You spend less money so you take less money. You either end up running a clean little theatre in Malvern or you vanish up your own deficit.

Arts businesses are organic. They are born, they grow, they fade but they rarely die. People move on, people are kicked out. New people come in. New goals are created. New strategies. New energies. Confidence blooms. And then the trough is passed and you are riding on the crest again.

And how we gain confidence to overcome the fear of failing that risk induces? We learn how to be very good practitioners of Audience Development Arts Marketing, that’s what we do.