To Market Or Not To Market?

March 11th, 2009   •   no comments   

One of the greatest challenges facing communicators and marketers in the arts is the balance between satisfying artistic input and commercial (or public) interest. 

How does one reach out to new customers and audiences without diluting one’s craft?  Should we be setting the agenda and pushing the envelope in terms of experimenting with new art forms?  Or should we cater to the most mass of markets and stick to what everybody likes to see, hear or experience?
According to some academics, the arts should be kept pure and undiluted from the transgressions of the commercial world.  Artists, curators, musicians and dancers should exist in their own little bubble of creative experimentation, oblivious to the grind of dollars and cents while dreaming up that next original work of genius.  
The role of marketers would then be that of publicists helping to generate the greatest amount of buzz, media coverage and advertising effectiveness.  Visitors and audiences should thus be attracted towards their artistic inspirations in an organic fashion.  
This is what has been termed as being “product focused”.  Build it and they will come.  Or arts for arts sake. 
iv>The other school of thought proposes that art organisations should be more visitor-oriented and market focused.  They should put in place proper mechanisms for customer feedback, audience responses and surveys.  These will in turn help to shape not only advertising and publicity per se, but even programming strategies like the kind of exhibitions to curate, performances to host, or plays to produce.  
In this case, the visitor knows best what he or she wants, and the art organisation should give it to him or her.  After all, marketing is all about satisfying a customer’s needs and wants profitably and sustainably, and the same rules should apply to the arts.
Should art organisations like museums, theatres, ballet troupes and musical quartets be then  enshrouded in a veil of pure and unadulterated artistry?  Or should they be subjected to the vagaries and demands of the marketplace, pandering to the lowest common denominator of the mass market?
Current literature in arts management seem to point towards the need for art organisations to be more visitor oriented and marketing-led.  Larger establishments like museums and symphonies often operate other revenue driven facilities like shops, restaurants, function spaces and carpark spaces, and these need to be managed with commercial sensibilities.  The reduction in global sponsorship and philanthropic funds, coupled with the current recession, makes it even more pertinent for art organisations to generate cash flow – the lifeblood of any enterprise, artistic or otherwise.
However, managing a studio, gallery or ballet troupe isn’t quite the same as a factory, bank, or toyshop.  A work of art is a multi-sensory product which doesn’t just come out from a production line.  Most artistic endeavours have a dual educational and entertainment role, as they seek to push the envelope while keeping their existing audiences happy.  
A successful art organisation will ensure that artists and producers are not fettered by the chains of bureaucracy.  Flashes of brilliance do not often come during a five hour long shareholders meeting!
Marketing’s role should be that of an integrator, enabler and advisor.  We operate the set of tools and processes needed for an art organisation to achieve its objectives, and provide professional input in areas such as communications, pricing, promotions, and outreach events.  We provide advise on audience reactions and customer feedback, all in the name of improving the core product.  Our eyes and ears should also trained on issues like accessibility, ensuring that artworks and performances are not pitched at an inappropriate level to our desired audiences.  
However, marketers and communicators should stay not impose their own sense of aesthetic judgement on the play, performance or exhibition itself.  Some room must be given for artistic license and inspiration.  Curators, artists and musicians must still be allowed some leeway to experiment and create. 
The art may be hard, but the way it is understood and appreciated shouldn’t be the case.  This is the role of communicators and marketers – to act as a bridge between the artist and the audience.
Will it be possible to achieve this fine balance, especially with this global financial mess that we are in?  What do you think?

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