The business blog is back!

Antony Gormley, Blind Light at the Hayward GalleryFor a limited run only, my guests and I will be sharing our ideas on some of the key challenges for the visual arts sector in building better business models.

This week’s focus is on engagement and in the following weeks we will be looking at

  • What we mean by collaboration and how to make it work
  • Managing the money in tough times
  • How to be the change you seek

If you have a comment to add, an example to share or a bone to pick – do get in touch!

Re-thinking engagement

Let’s kick off with some thoughts from Sarah Boiling at Audiences London on both the problems we face and some solutions.

The hardest question that I have sought to answer during my research is this: from a purely business perspective, why should an organisation engage with (i.e. invest scarce resources in getting to know and building a relationship with) people who get in free for free?

The answer, I am convinced, is in how engagement connects the programme and the funding.  I was really struck by this 2009 article on non-profit funding models from which this quote is taken.

…non-profit leaders are much more sophisticated about creating programs than they are about funding their organisations…..all non-profits [are] in two ‘businesses’ – one related to their program activities and the other related to raising charitable ‘subsidies’

For me engagement provides the bridge between the ‘two businesses’ in six very important ways. 

Public benefit

Many TPN members are charities; they are beneficiaries of the deal by which UK nonprofits get tax breaks (business rates relief, exemption from corporation tax and gift aid), state funding and lottery proceeds in return for delivering public benefit.  Their charitable status is thus a key element in how their businesses work.  How can an organisation demonstrate that it is delivering public benefit and impact (as charities are increasingly required to do) without engaging with those whose lives are hopefully being enhanced?

Funders’ expectations

Funders, both statutory and private, are making their priorities very clear in this area.  I understand that all NPO agreements will include at least one KPI (key performance indicator) relating to audience engagement.  Paul Hamlyn Foundation says ‘The Arts programme aims to increase access to and enjoyment of the arts in the UK.’  If we do not engage with and develop audiences we will find it harder and harder to secure funds, not least because other artforms (e.g. theatre) and other sectors (e.g. museums) are already doing it better.

Paying customers

Do you have a shop or a café?  Do you have sales of artists’ work?  Do you hire out your spaces to artists or commercial/public/third sector organisations?  Do you have some paying shows?  If so, you have paying customers and the first rule of successful marketing is to know your customer; otherwise you will be offering the wrong product at the wrong price to the wrong people.


Currently a very hot topic – as Jon Treadway (formerly Head of Regular Funding, Arts Council England) explains.

Cards on the table - I do not believe that major donor philanthropy has much potential to deliver outside London and possibly one or two big metropolitan areas – there are simply not enough high net worth individuals who are interested in culture to make the effort worthwhile.  However, I do believe that many network members could take advantage of social media and the relative cheapness of computer based patron management systems to build successful and financially useful friends and member groups.


Volunteers are already a key element in the business models of many visual arts organisations as trustees, gallery assistants and unpaid interns.  Tomorrow’s volunteers are mostly likely to be found and mostly easily sourced among those who already love the venue or organisation.


In the past two years there has been much talk in the sector about the need for better advocacy.  I fully support the need for us to make our case better but there is a danger that we talk only to ourselves and those who agree with us – what we really need to do is to persuade those without our self-interest to advocate on our behalf.  We need our visitors to tell their friends about the great show they have just seen – word of mouth is, after all, the best marketing there is.  We need our participants to speak up for cultural provision in political debates.  But we cannot expect this commitment and support if we are not willing to invest time and money in quality conversations with our audience.

If you are interested in exploring any of these issues further – click here – and thanks for reading