Why italicize the ARTS in ARTS Marketing?

by Keith Diggle


When I read the American book Waiting in the Wings by Morison and Dalgeish (pub. American Council for the Arts 1987) I was struck by their philosophical basis; they said we must keep searching:


…for the perfect middle ground that will allow the arts to draw upon the rich resources of business acumen without allowing differences in values to distort the primary goals, the definitive purpose of art. They went on to say: When the goal is creating a love affair between people and a certain vision of art then changing the product does not help to accomplish that end; it betrays it.


These words were very much a defence thrown up against the newcomer – the board member, the sponsor, the ad agency superstar offering help ‘in kind’ – who just couldn’t see that there was a problem. You just asked people what they wanted and then gave it to them; what could be easier?

At the time it did seem that the influence of commercial marketing ideas might well put the artistic ‘product’ in its place, so to speak, making it subordinate to the need, if not actually to make a profit, then to make the marketing process as risk-free as possible by choosing ‘product’ that was safe, for which there was a predictable demand, that which was ‘popular’.

The disagreement is between those who do not believe that marketing can operate successfully in a risky business like the arts and those who do. Commercial marketing cannot tolerate the notion of having product that is out of control. Arts marketing accepts this situation as being part of the territory; by bringing those who choose or make the art close to the results of their decisions it hopes to keep feet mainly on the ground but ultimately the only real control lies in the right of the arts organisation to fire artistic directors. This is the first difference between commercial marketing and arts marketing and it is here that the philosophical basis of our work stands clearly revealed. In my second book, Guide to Arts Marketing I said:


…We know that in practice most arts organisations do their best to strike a balance between what is artistically adventurous and worthwhile (and probably more of a box-office risk), and what is likely to receive a more predictably good response. Others follow an even safer course, sticking to known favourites … Each approach is an attempt to respond to some kind of public demand as seen through the eyes of the organisation. It is guesswork, of course … The whole art of programming for an arts organisation is based on a sensitive appreciation of who the market is, what it wants now and what it may be persuaded to want in the future and the relation of those perceptions to what the organisation is capable of delivering.


I am saying that in arts marketing we know and accept ours to be a harder field to plough. We need and accept public subsidy, donations and sponsorship because the income and expenditure equation, no matter how we try, no matter how good our ‘product’, no matter how large our audiences, no matter how economical we are in what we pay ourselves and what we spend on our ‘product’ and in our attempts to persuade people to experience it, mainly ends up with a loss. If we took the commercial marketing road then we are pretty sure that we would end up with something that … wasn’t right; we might be cheaper to run but we probably wouldn’t be worth running.

When, in 1970, I first examined the business I had then been in for about five years the thoughts that came to me were uninfluenced by commercial thinking. I had no marketing experience. Most important, I had read no books on marketing. Indeed, when I published my first book in 1976 I had still read no books on marketing. I do not normally glorify ignorance but there is something to be said for an a priori approach to problem solving. I looked at the resources possessed by arts organisations, at the traditional attitudes and practices I came across, at what I was doing and why I thought I was doing it and, just about then, I was asked to give some talks on publicity. Standing in front of a group of people focuses the mind and out of respect for them I tried to come up with a useful analysis.

I started by putting the arts on a pedestal, giving them a special place free from interference; I said that arts organisations exist to provide and nurture a link between the artist and the public and that those whose specific task it was to achieve this – the people who in those days would have had the title of Publicity Manager on their doors – couldn’t cheat by trying to change the art to make it easier to sell. What I then went on to say was simple enough stuff that eventually developed into something that could lay claim to being a theoretically based methodology.

Fairly soon after this I put the two words Arts and Marketing into juxtaposition and from then on what I meant when I said arts marketing was that it was not commercial marketing.

And I still mean it.