Infusing entrepreneurial and business practices in existing arts & cultural organizations
(The interview can be also found under the Interviews>Infusing Entrepreneurship values page)
Following the 1st seminar of The ALBA ‘unusual’ Series entitled “Cultural Hubs: Lessons on Resilience” that has been organized by the ALBA Graduate Business School, I had the chance to interview Nicholas Kondoprias, Managing Director of the Herakleidon Museum in the historic center of Athens, Greece. The Museum has developed a vast education program focusing on Art and Mathematics and improving STEM competencies for school children.
Nicholas is a former professional of the shipping business who stepped into the Herakleidon Museum from its very beginning in 2004. One of the things I asked him was about his first impression when he started working with arts & culture professionals.
He said that he had the chance to step into this position relatively young (31 years old at the time) while having already been trained by “the real masters in shipping”. He expressed his belief that “the principles and mentality of international shipping can be applied everywhere if properly adjusted for the specific industry.” He thinks that it’s the human relations that take business forward rather than the tools we have like say, social media or others (although very effective). There must be a balance and it takes time to develop trust no matter if it is with shipping or culture professionals.
I asked then how did he communicate his messages relating to his business goals for sustainable running of the museum with the staff. By definition, a museum is a cultural organization but behind the scenes it is a business. I approach the management of the museum as an extension of what I was doing [in shipping]” said Nicholas. He believes that all professionals are as good as their performance and conveying this message clearly from the start is his way of communicating his business goals. Allowing the staff to innovate and develop new projects is also important as they feel they are contributing to the organization. When their project is a success they feel that it is partly theirs and if it does not succeed they learn from this and they and will do better in the future.
Our conversation moved on to perceptions about for-profit and non-for-profit companies. I expressed my understanding that one has to make profit and the other is expected to come to an equal balance between costs and revenues, to make ends meet. If any profit is made, it makes the news. So I asked Nicholas to talk about the similarities between running a non-for-profit cultural company with a for-profit non-cultural company.
“The management end of the museum has to be isolated to a very small part. It is not part of the marketing message. The truth is that it’s a bit of a denial in the art world; somebody has to make the difficult decisions. You have to think always about two things: revenues and expenses. Our goal is zero – this is the main difference. You come up with a general budget through all our operations and meet –what I call- a “Positive Zero.”
So I wondered if there is anything else in terms of perceptions rather than actual budgeting and revenues. Nicholas said, “The other big thing for me, when you are a non-profit, is that it takes all the shame off the table and you can say honestly to someone, ‘I need help and money from you’. If you sell a product, it’s difficult to do the same. In a profit environment you have to present things differently. No one wants to show weakness. In non-profits, you say it’s difficult but we are doing great work. The numbers speak for themselves; in our case, we work with data and evaluations from schools or program participants. It allows us to go to people and say for example ‘I need your help with it, I can educate 5000 underprivileged children with a specific program’. It’s easier to fundraise for a project this way.”
Listening to Nicholas explain in so simple words the essence of non-profits, I thought how wrong cultural policies are framed at times considering several cultural projects as non-profit when they are really not. Yet wrong policy and legal papers suggest they should be in it. So we further discussed the idea of ‘pilot projects’ at the Herakleidon Museum. Nicholas said that “[…] working with pilot projects is like working as an entrepreneur. It’s almost like seed money. If we are right, we’ll affect so many people…” In a way, building a ‘product’ like an entrepreneur is what brings sustainable development in cultural organizations. It’s seeing in long-term planning rather than meeting ends at the end of the year. At this point, Nicholas stressed his discomfort with ‘one-off relations’. He gave me an example of a CSR project where the relation was never built around the curriculum of the Museum but rather on the promotion goals of the corporation in question. It was a one-off relation that didn’t bring long term benefits to the Museum and probably neither to the company involved. Yet, Nicholas expressed how tricky it always is to decide if you publish this kind of info or not to your audience. “If we can inspire one kid to become that future innovator or even employer, than definitely it is worth the efforts.”
Coming back to the idea of policy and government support, we discussed how the traditional cultural market is working with organizations depending almost solely on government funding. When that is cut, they have no idea how to raise funds and present an attractive proposal to a sponsor. They need to have business expertise to do this.
I was really impressed and happy to learn at this point, that the Herakleidon Museum has acted as consultants to other museums for a fee. Nicholas explained to me that “one of the fundamentals of being an entrepreneur is not only to run a sound model internally but to create branches of opportunities. Creating opportunities is an enormous part of what we do. It’s a sense, you either have it or not! This is my opinion. Others are setting trends on a global level and making a difference. Being able to recognize when there is an opportunity and then act swiftly in calculated steps is the key to success. It comes with experience. You build up momentum. A true entrepreneur is working on many projects and continuously planting seeds. If you keep the momentum and nurture then these things start to blossom!”
We agreed that it is very difficult to find cultural professionals, especially in traditional organizations like big museums, which have both skills: academic and business.
Finally, I wanted to hear a bit about entrepreneurship values in cultural organizations and how the Herakleidon Museum is competing with other museums. Nicholas explained that for the Museum, things were clear from the beginning since they didn’t have any state support and they knew they were to depend only on their own. “So we knew how to do it. I am a big promoter of inter-museum collaboration but selective. There has to be a balance. If a mutually beneficial model is established, then each party is giving something of equal value. He explained that personal relations create value for the Museum and build up to long lasting relationships with sponsors and supporters.
He also explained that every museum is competing with visitors’ free time. Being focused on the goal of the Museum (the creation of an Art and Math Research Center and Science Museum) means they have to adapt to whatever circumstances arise. “The rules don’t apply anymore. What matters is how to keep your doors open, respectfully with taste and dedicated to your mission.”