Building better businesses - guest blog from David Brownlee

Building Better Businesses

I admit that the title wasn’t immediately appealing, but ‘Business Models in the Visual Arts’ was one of my favourite reads of 2011.  In a straightforward English (no MBA required), Susan Royce painted a picture of an increasingly successful sector that was at risk due to weak business models.  Never pulling her punches, she accurately described the key obstacles for the sector and came up with a list of practical suggestions for how visual arts organisations could develop better and more sustainable business models.  Top of her list was increased ‘audience focus’.  This is the mantra of Audiences UK and fundamental to our manifesto.

Other key recommendations were centred on Business Skills Development, Smarter Support Operations and Financial Strategy.  Underpinning all of these key areas is a four-letter word that some professionals in the visual arts really don’t want to hear.  I’m worried that as soon as I mention the word, half of you will stop reading, and I know those who turn away would benefit most by hearing what we’ve got to say.  Stick with me. Please.

The word is data.  You need it to make informed business decisions.  You can use (and abuse it) to make your case, prove your impact and increase your funding.  It needn’t be boring and it is not the exclusive domain of cultural organisations that sell tickets.

After working with the Arts Marketing Association and over fifty visual arts organisations on a training needs analysis, we’ve specially designed four training courses that match what the sector feels it needs to know about using data.  With fantastic trainers, a range of bespoke sessions aimed at Chief Executives, Marketers and Fundraisers in the visual arts, we think the value of the training will be enormous.  Thanks to funding from Arts Council England, all training sessions will be free of charge.

With just 150 free places, one might expect that these courses, designed to help build better visual arts businesses, would be filled immediately. But everyone I talk to says they think it will be a ‘hard sell’.  Susan’s report would back this up:

‘The culture of the contemporary art world has a strong individualistic flavour and a traditional ambivalence towards, if not rejection of, the values of the economic world. From a purely business perspective this is problematic: business is a collective endeavour and it is hard to be good at something you do not value.’

Has there been a sea-change in the attitudes of the sector in the last six months?  Has it stopped being ambivalent about the values of the economic world and does it now really want to be better at business?  Levels of bookings for our demand for our training should be an interesting indicator.

If you work in the Visual Arts and want to know how you can use data to build a better business, you can find out more about the national training programme and book your place here.

David Brownlee, Chief Executive, Audiences UK