Interview with Mark Sandiford, Executive Director, Culture PEI, Canada
When I first heard about Culture PEI it was due to a Cultural Entrepreneurship Intern position which I found so interesting because I had never seen one before in cultural organizations. I then decided to publish an article about this position entitled “Cultural Entrepreneurship Intern Job Ad” where I presented the position and the organization.
As stated in their company’s website, “Culture PEI is a not-for-profit sector council that supports cultural enterprise in Prince Edward Island, Canada. [Their] mission is to improve the outcomes and incomes of professional cultural workers in the province.” I decided to ask Mark Sandiford, Executive Director of Culture PEI some questions about his organization and CulEnt in Canada.
I first asked Mark what Culture PEI is and what kind of activities is it offering. “Culture PEI is a Sector Council which is kind of like an industry association for the cultural sector in our province. We represent Crafts, Interactive Media, Music & Sound Recording, Film & TV, Writing & Publishing, Theatre, Dance, Visual & Public Art, Museums & Heritage and Libraries & Archives.
Prince Edward Island (PEI) is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is the smallest province in Canada with a population under 150,000. One of the advantages of being so small is that we can be nimble and try new things. Another is that we tend to work across disciplines and collaborate for mutual benefit. Culture PEI’s mission is to improve the outcomes and incomes of cultural professionals in the province. The main way we do that is by supporting cultural enterprise.
Currently we have quite a few projects on the go. We are running a business incubator for young cultural entrepreneurs. We are conducting a major study into emerging business opportunities in each discipline. And we are working on creating a multi-use facility housing studios, galleries, shops, offices, classrooms, apartments and a public maker space.”
As Mark’s response gave me a little insight into the regional aspect of their work, I then wondered how cultural entrepreneurship is practiced in Canada. He then explained that “Canada, being so close to the United States, has long been keenly aware of the need for maintaining a separate, distinct cultural identity for itself. This has led to the creation of some really amazing public institutions to support the creation and dissemination of Canadian cultural work: the Canada Council of the Arts, the National Film Board of Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and many others under the umbrella of the federal department of Canadian Heritage. We also have a strong broadcast regulatory system that requires Canadian content on radio and television.
The unforeseen consequence of all of this intervention on the part of the national government was to create a very strong association between arts creation/dissemination and government funding/regulation. Even when private money comes into play, it is often valued primarily in the context of triggering government funding or allowing a project to meet a regulatory requirement. Until recently, the focus of most cultural enterprise in Canada has been on how to get the most out of this system.
However, things are changing. Government funding is shrinking. Industry players in the bigger centres are increasingly dominating access to the system. The cultural marketplace is becoming more and more internationalized. In response, cultural workers on the margins are increasingly turning to the idea of cultural entrepreneurship as the way to move their careers forward. This change is just in its very earliest stages. Most Canadian cultural workers and arts organizations still have an almost morbid fixation with government funding and regulation.”
Thinking about how similar Canada to other European and Asian countries is in this respect, I asked whether there are similarities between running not-for-profits and for-profits, since we are indeed experiencing a shift. Mark went on and explained to me how not-for-profits work in Canada. He said “In Canada, not-for-profits can make money. They just can’t return it to shareholders. They have to spend it on advancing the goals of the organization. This makes the social entrepreneurship model very attractive. Not-for-profits can operate just as entrepreneurially as for-profit companies but they must serve a double bottom line: making money and advancing their social goals.” And he further explained that the way he sees things, cultural enterprise [is] a third thing, “different from both for-profit enterprise and social enterprise. Cultural enterprise serves a different double bottom line: making money and advancing the authentic arts practice of the cultural worker or organization. Cultural enterprise can fit equally well within both the for-profit or not-for-profit worlds.”
So I wondered, could more non-cultural business people find a rewarding career in the cultural field by bringing their business knowledge and expertise?
“I think that non-cultural business people should find the cultural field very attractive” he said. And went on to explain that “cultural enterprises create value out of thin air. They are the purest expression of a knowledge economy. They also address some of the deepest unmet needs of humanity: the need for beauty, the search for meaning, knowing you’re not alone, raging against the darkness, finding bliss. These are the permanent yearnings of the human condition; in crass commercial terms, an unquenchable market demand.”
Coming back to the point about Culture PEI’s Incubator Program, I wanted to know how it fosters cultural entrepreneurship. Since I started my research through this blog in CulEnt, I found out that cultural professionals often expect very different things from an incubator. From Mark’s explanation, I understood that it is quite simple: the organization make a call for interest for interns to develop their project. There is a selection process and then the interns that have been selected, are paid by the incubator program. “We selected the five young interns with a fairly novel process. Applicants were asked to supply three things: a resume, a portfolio and a business pitch. We were looking for people with a commitment to an established arts practice who had the domain skills to actually do the thing that they were proposing and some experience running their own careers. We were also looking for business ideas that looked like they could be sustainable over the long term.”
“The incubator pays the interns a salary for three months. The program is very much participant driven. They are responsible for the success not only of their own business but of the other four as well. We have one instructional day per week, run by a partner organization. The instruction is pretty much straight entrepreneurship training using the Business Model Canvas approach. The goal of the first month is to get a business concept that the participants are happy with and looks like it’s going to work. The second month focuses on working out the details. By the third month, participants are expected to have launched their enterprises, made their first sales and failed fast if their first idea turns out to be no good.” I thought this is a great way to offer opportunities to design and maybe launch cultural enterprises.
What then came into my mind, is how this entrepreneurship knowledge or skills, is able to fit in not-for-profit organizations, and if so, how do organizations compete in Canada within the cultural market. Mark gave a very simple and clear view of how things work. “Entrepreneurship in the arts doesn’t need to be competitive in the classic sense” he said. “Culture is not a zero sum game. My win is not your loss. Because the human need for the things that culture provides is bottomless and infinitely varied, a new offering will always create additional value to the system. However, getting that value to the person who needs it is a very competitive process. There are so many cultural products and services competing for your attention that the ones that could provide a life-altering experience to you when you need it most are often lost in the noise.
I think the question of competition needs to be reframed. We need to stop thinking about how to lure patrons away from each other and start thinking about how to match people with the experience that will be most meaningful to them. We need to work together to get more of the public to start seeking out cultural experiences that are richer, more authentic and more tuned to their needs. As they say here in PEI, a rising tide floats all boats.”
I thanked Mark Sandiford for this inspiring conversation and went on to do some thinking; the more I talk to people like Mark, the more I understand the need for more organizations like Culture PEI who foster change and innovation at a local level by keeping up with global developments.
For more info on Culture PEI’s work, visit their website here.