Infusing entrepreneurial and business practices in existing arts & cultural organizations
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.
Interview with Nicholas Kondoprias, Managing Director of the Herakleidon Museum at Athens, Greece (also available here)
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.”
Interview with Haris Siampanis, CFOO of the Benaki Museum at Athens, Greece (also available here)
I have recently attended 1st seminar of The ALBA ‘unusual’ Series entitled “Cultural Hubs: Lessons on Resilience” that has been organized by the ALBA Graduate Business School. The seminar took place in Athens on February 5th 2014 and it was all about where cultural organizations have sought too for solutions in trying to stay on track during the economic crisis.
I had the chance to meet Haris Siampanis who spoke at the seminar. Haris is the Chief Financial and Operating Officer (CFOO) of the Benaki Museum located in Athens, Greece. The Benaki Museum is the oldest museum in Greece operating as a Foundation under Private Law. Haris accepted to do an interview and talk about his experience in the financial restructuring of the museum and his views on how entrepreneurial values and practices can positively affect a cultural organization.
Haris introduced himself during the seminar as a former professional of a global consulting firm who stepped into the Benaki Museum almost 2 years ago when the Board decided to restructure management and their financial model. I asked him what was his first impression from working with arts & culture professionals and what common language did he use with the existing staff.
“It was different from what I had encountered up to then and I saw many positive things in these professionals. They think out of the box which is something we don’t do in the finance sector. They are special.” I further asked him how he communicated changes to staff regarding business goals agreed with the museum’s Board in his effort for sustainable running of the museum. His answer was kind of surprising to me because, although I have been working my entire career with arts and culture professionals, the case he made had never really occurred to me up to then. Haris said those professionals have a certain difficulty in prioritizing. They find it difficult to run a process from the beginning till the end. They have a different way of thinking and are impressed with certain ideas rather than others. He believes they need guidance on how to proceed with certain aspects of their work.
Haris further explained what had been the most challenging part of his work. It was all about setting the basis for the collaboration. “One way to do this is to say the truth like you would explain this to someone that knows nothing about management. You present the problem, the solutions and the repercussions.” He admitted the Museum staff was honest with him and some understood the reasons that led the museum in a need for restructuring. Nonetheless, he said that it all happened after the first reactions. It took some time before all staff realized what had happened.
A positive aspect of this change was that some people became more active and engaged in their work. I understood that the culture had changed and it took a while before certain people could understand that the fact the Museum is supported by some prominent people in the Board, could not assure financial stability for ever. Eventually, some people failed to understand the change and engage in it.
Our conversation went on to the most important business practices that Haris had to infuse to the museum operations to get towards his set goals. He expressed his belief that a manager has to become part of the organization culture before bringing any change. He said “we have to challenge and check everything”. He gave me an example of one of his practices. He tried to explain to the staff that “every euro has to bring a new euro to the organization.” Having said this, he applied a new rule saying that if any exhibition has not guaranteed funding a month before launching, it is cancelled.
Another example was the issue of responsibility and decision making. He had to set a monthly meeting with heads of departments to start working on the culture change and effectively collaborate. Up to then, responsibility was shared among staff and therefore lost. He appointed a person for each section in order to divert work and get feedback. “It’s just a matter of combining common sense with cultural work” he said. Most importantly, the staff had to start thinking towards suggesting to management alternative solutions for each of their project costs in order to secure funding and implementation.
At this point, I asked Haris if there are any similarities between managing finances for a non-for-profit cultural company and a for-profit non-cultural company. We had a very interesting conversation on whether the end justifies the means of any action. Haris said that the biggest difference is Ethics. Other than this, there are a lot of similarities and most importantly “there has been a change in mentality regarding doing business without making any profits”.
As the conversation moved on, I asked him whether he thinks that more non-cultural finance/business people could find a rewarding career in the cultural field by bringing their business knowledge and expertise.
“The reward here is moral and it is greater than in the financial sector. If one can find this reward, a new way has opened for finance people to specialize in cultural management. This domain is underdeveloped in Greece.” So I asked, what would he say to his colleagues to attract them? “It’s the people they are going to meet in person, important people they would have found difficult to meet otherwise from the Boards of cultural organizations. Academics, businessmen, presidents of big corporations, a mix of distinguished and unique personalities etc. In addition to this, it’s the contacts abroad with similar organizations.” Bottom line, I understood it’s about the quality of the work rather than anything else.
Finally, I thought of discussing certain issues that have to do with entrepreneurship values and their fitting or not in a non-for-profit museum. Haris expressed his belief that most entrepreneurial values fit in this kind of business. He said that risk taking fits the least of all since all deals are closed with the smallest possible risk. Other than this, leadership&sound management are fundamental and bringing change and disrupting the system is necessary for implementing your program. “The whole magic is doing things in a new way”.
Closing our conversation, I asked Haris if there is any competition among museums in Greece since their funding model has not been done in a competitive spirit. He said that “there is some competition to a certain degree but not as much as you would expect in a country with so many museums”. What he pointed as more important though, is the lack of collaboration among similar organizations. “We fail to understand that we all fight for the same cause, a small part of the market, and we leave the rest of it unexplored.”One example he offered is to create a single museum ticket for all museums located on Vas. Sofias Avenue in the center of Athens like some of the Benaki collections. “Competitiveness is a paramount factor for development.” The evidence can be found in the sponsorship program, or donations in-kind and what have been achieved so far. “We found a sponsor that is willing to finance the salaries of 2 Management positions in the Museum for a year. This proves we are getting there.”