The arts sector in Australia has become a source of ideas and inspiration for business with many corporations finding they can get more out of alliances with arts organisations than they put in. Cameron Cooper reports.
The egos, charisma and hand-wavingClaire Booth sees an orchestra conductor as a CEO with a baton.
As Chief Executive of the Queensland Orchestra, Booth is accustomed to the often eccentric behaviour of elite musicians. However, she says conductors and, indeed, most artists are increasingly aware of the importance of balancing their creative and business goals.
Singing from the same song sheet is really critical, she says. You can’t have a conductor who is going off on their own tangent and doesn’t know where the business is going.
Long dismissed as a brilliant but financially irresponsible entity, the arts, through sponsorships, training programs and other initiatives, is delivering results for many businesses.
Airline giant Boeing Australia and the Bank of Queensland are among a host of corporations that have benefited from Queensland Orchestra’s innovative leadership program, Knowing The Score. At the urging of Boeing Managing Director David Grey, the program started three years ago, using the orchestra as a metaphor for organisations and the conductor as a symbol of leadership. Business people attend a rehearsal studio with the conductor and a full symphony orchestra, sitting among the musicians, noting their attention to detail and observing the leadership skills of the conductor. They later discuss the range of skills required to achieve the highest level of artistic performance and draw parallels to the business world. Then they attend the actual concert.
Booth says getting up close with musicians is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most executives, it delivers lessons about team management and, most importantly, it is fun.
As successful and disciplined units that have survived for hundreds of years, orchestras must have something to offer the business sector about teamwork, Booth says.
People are starting to realise that there must be something about these perennial art forms that we can learn from.
Big business is starting to acknowledge what arts groups have long known: creative industries often do more with less in terms of staff, resources and money.
Through her controversial 1999 Major Performing Arts Inquiry, Chair Helen Nugent a high-profile business leader herself noted arts organisations’ ability to produce under financial duress. She recommended reforms, mergers and greater engagement with the business sector to secure their future.
Jennifer Bott, CEO of the Australia Council, the nation’s peak arts body, is an advocate of greater interaction between the business and arts sectors.
When they can get down to the tin tacks and work together it’s not hard at all, she says. The major problem can be the mythologies that keep people apart.
Bott says business groups are eager to examine solutions developed in the arts sector, which she notes has very complex stakeholders.
It is obviously more than profit and efficiency that is driving you in many cases but, nevertheless, increasingly, business is looking outside the square for solutions to problems.
For tough business assignments, few can beat that which confronted Scottish-born Elizabeth Ann Macgregor when she took over as Director of the troubled Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1999. With exhibition attendances at rock bottom and cash in short supply, Macgregor admits the MCA was seen as a basket case.
Steeled from her days in Britain during the budget-slashing Thatcher regime of the 1980s, Macgregor quickly alerted stakeholders to the fact that salvation would come primarily from the MCA itself, not external entities such as government.
The solution? Macgregor switched MCA ticketing from a general admission charge to a free access model with select ticketed exhibitions (leading to massive growth in visitor numbers). She negotiated funding for the museum with the NSW Government (securing its long-term stability). And she mounted a PR offensive to win over the media and public and kill off negative stereotypes about contemporary art (resulting in an image turnaround for the MCA).
We had to take on a hearts and minds campaign, Macgregor says. We had to mobilise the sector, and I was fortunate that there was a core group of really good supporters who were a bit disheartened but who just needed to be wound up.
Under her reign, the MCA has gone from strength to strength, with visitor figures continuing to climb and high-profile exhibitions winning over the doubters.
Macgregor says all organisations need to be inventive to flourish. You need creative people in organisations. You need people who think outside the box.
Creative workshop and casting agency, the Maura Fay Group, prides itself on its creativity and business-savvy approach.
CEO Jane Kitching says her staff understand that creativity and the bottom line must be aligned. We (know we) can’t have fun and be creative unless we are being competitive, she says. That’s what usually wins people over.
Over the past 15 years, the group has pioneered corporate training programs the Maura Fay Workshops using performance actors and accredited trainers to enhance skills around presentation, consulting, sales, leadership and communication. Based on the principles of a Chinese proverb translated to What I hear I forget, what I see I remember and what I do I understand the workshops require participants to engage in role plays and explore behavioural characteristics within work-related case studies. The likes of GE, BOC, ANZ and Hertz Australia have recently used the sessions for staff training.
They are learning by doing, Kitching says. Once people understand the rationale behind it and how it will improve their performance in the workplace, then they buy into it.
Getting the balance right between the creative pursuit and the need to work to a budget can be complex.
Just ask Adrian Collette, the Chief Executive of Opera Australia, a former baritone and publishing director who left the mainstream corporate world eight years ago to concentrate on his love of opera. An emotional and very public debate erupted over OA’s decision two years ago not to renew the contract of internationally renowned music director Simone Young. A $2.3 million operating loss for 2002 contributed to the Board’s decision to cut ties with Young, who was accustomed to working with the big budgets of European opera companies.
Collette is unrepentant, saying it was a tough business decision that had to be made and that the vision thing has to be paid for.
On the back of an attendance rise of 7 per cent across Sydney and Melbourne, which pushed box-office income to a record $30.8 million, Collette remains philosophical about budgets: We are not here for profit, but we are here to be sustainable.
Despite financial pressures, the attraction that the arts world holds for business leaders is obvious from the formidable board at OA, which includes the likes of media buyer Harold Mitchell and marketing executive Robert Morgan. Collette says business people and corporate sponsors like dealing with an inspirational organisation such as OA because it can rub off.
This is a truly creative organisation, he says. Every day we give people a licence to experience an imaginative account of the world.
Evidence of an art-business merger can be seen at other institutions such as the Art Gallery of NSW, courtesy of its role as host of the Archibald Prize, the nation’s most famous art prize. Belinda Hanrahan, Marketing Manager at the gallery, says the 80-year-plus history of the Archibalds offers lessons for corporations in marketing. It’s one of the strongest brands in the arts world, she says.
Under Director Edmund Capon, the rule is simple. Under no circumstances are actions taken that could tarnish the Archibald name. That has meant continually monitoring the financial pool for the prize to ensure it keeps attracting the top artists. The arts is about inspiration and enjoyment and Hanrahan diplomatically suggests business can learn on both fronts.
An understanding of different art forms and cultures is something that the arts can provide.
The signs are that Australia, which has for so long traded off its ocker spirit, is growing more comfortable revealing its creative side. New Australian Tourist Commission ads to shape the international branding of Australia have shifted from Paul put another shrimp on the barbie Hogan to a cultural message through talents such as poet Les Murray, indigenous painter Barbara Weir and images from the late Brett Whiteley.
The arts are the medium rather than the message it’s a very powerful message in itself and it’s saying who we are, says Jennifer Bott at the Australia Council. We are a colourful, creative people with a particular spirit that is unique.
The MCA’s Macgregor says too often in the past the arts community recruited charismatic leaders who could not take staff with them on their creative journey.
It can function for so long, but there comes a point where it just doesn’t work anymore, and quite often; it comes when the charismatic leader leaves and there’s a vacuum I think the secret to longevity is that the leader must not be totally indispensable.
At the Queensland Orchestra, signposts heralding change within the arts community offer encouragement to Claire Booth and her team. In the past the traffic of talent always seemed to be one way as artists moved to the business sector in search of the mighty dollar. Now it’s a two-way street: she has moved across to the arts sector as have the likes of Collette at Opera Australia and Libby Christie, a former telecommunications and IT executive who is now Managing Director of Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
All CEOs, according to Booth, need a balance of vision and financial savvy. That vision needs to be so cleverly devised with your team that no one feels disenfranchised (and) we don’t shy away from the financial stuff; it’s right up front.
It’s a message that is being heard in the corridors of business and in the pit of the orchestra.
The art of conducting business
Benjamin Zander, the Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra visited Australia earlier this year as part of his regular speaking tours, lecturing on creativity and leadership and the relationships between a business and an orchestra.
Zander recognises that leading an orchestra requires very much the same skill set that is needed in leading a successful business. One of his key points about being a conductor is that it is not a matter of winning over the orchestra . . . the result of a conductor succeeding is measured in the harmony within the orchestra and the great music that it produces. Similarly in business, winning over the opposition may not deliver the desired result.
Zander says that to be effective today a leader must be a good listener. He also reminds us that the conductor doesn’t make the sound, he empowers and enables others to make the sound. The conductor therefore achieves his success from making other people successful. Quoted in a recent Financial Review article, Zander said: If you want to get your way and dominate people, then the old style of leadership is fine it worked for 40,000 years but we know that’s not what we’re looking for in this era. We’re looking for full participation. Just like in an orchestra you want everyone playing their heart out, so too in a business you want everyone fully engaged.
Zander also says it’s healthy to be scared and think outside the box.
[When conducting] I go for broke all the time. I take tremendous risks and I expect other musicians to take risks with me. Resignation and complacency are the enemy.
Most people think in terms of the bottom line and satisfying the stockholders. That’s important, but it’s not why great corporations are started.
A creative age of business
Liz Burcham believes the information and technology ages have had their day and the world is now embracing a creative age of business that values everything from strategic planning to negotiation skills and team building.
Governments and businesses are also recognising the fact that people migrate to places where there are creative things happening, says Burcham, a manager at Metro Arts in Brisbane.
Those places, particularly in the arts sector, often have relatively small financial budgets. However, that can be a positive, according to Burcham, who argues that tight budgets are a great discipline.
For 30 years, Metro Arts has been a prominent support centre for emerging artists and an important vehicle for theatre, exhibitions, workshops and rehearsals.
One of its key initiatives to develop arts and business leaders is Biz Arts MAkers, a business incubator program. Specially tailored to creative businesses, it provides support in areas such as business planning, marketing and accounting through e-learning modules and workshops.
(It has been developed) with the objective to give artists greater independence, Burcham says.
Funded through AusIndustry, the program allows artists to broaden their business strategies, expand target markets and reduce their reliance on grants and sponsorships.
Burcham says Biz Art MAkers has a track record for turning art practices into sustainable businesses.
We do more with less; that’s where our creativity is demonstrated.