The Business of Culture

For many people, the words ‘business’ and ‘culture’ don’t sit comfortably side by side. Some people assume that culture has to be non-commercial to be valid, and therefore to apply commercial thinking to cultural endeavour is to pervert it. But even charities and ‘non-for-profit’ organisations in the arts and cultural sector need to be business-like, even though the traditional business motive of profit maximisation does not apply.

Many people in the arts are reluctant to use business terminology, despite being very professional and successful in achieving their aims. When I was interviewing creative enterprises for my book ‘T-Shirts and Suits’, several managers said that they had never devised a ‘business strategy’ or used ‘market research’. These terms were simply alien to them. In fact they did do these things, but didn’t use those words or document these processes conventionally. More often than not they were skilled at growing their business and excellent at listening to customers. Ironically, cultural organisations and creative businesses are often keen to shun commercial jargon whilst actually using smart ‘business thinking’ to achieve success in their own terms.

My own background is in the cultural sector and later I also studied at business school, so I’m comfortable with business jargon but at the same time I understand the sensitivities within the arts about business vocabulary. Recently, in preparing a training workshop for arts organisations I was asked not to use the term ‘customers’ but use ‘audience’ instead. It’s a matter of choosing vocabulary appropriate to the context. In my book I feature the Windows Project, a cultural enterprise which devised a ‘Development Plan’ rather than a ‘Business Plan’ because that term fitted better with their ethos. Despite its name, it’s as robust as any business plan from the commercial sector.

The cultural sector can and should learn from other sectors, but it’s a matter of sensitively adapting techniques to fit into a different context – and maybe changing the terminology too. Equally, the commercial sector can learn from the cultural sector, but need to see what’s actually happening rather than being put off by the lack of business jargon. For example, I’ve been engaged by international corporations for revealing to them management techniques which are commonplace in the arts world, but I’ve expressed them in business-speak to make them more acceptable to pin-striped clients.

So it’s the terminology that’s the issue, not the reality. Lack of business jargon doesn’t indicate an absence of smart ‘business thinking’. It’s a point worth making, for two reasons. Firstly to dispel the myth outside the arts sector that cultural organisations are somehow ‘amateur’, simply because they use different language. Secondly to challenge the belief held by some in the cultural sector itself that using business terminology to describe what they do inevitably means somehow ‘selling out’.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not we choose to use the jargon of business. What really matters is being clear about our definitions of ‘success’ and then achieving it. Then we can all become even more successful by using appropriate management methods and techniques which fit the objectives and ethos of our organisations – in the cultural sector or elsewhere – whatever vocabulary we choose to use.

David Parrish designed and delivered the ‘Fit for the Future‘ project to help cultural enterprises become even more financially sustainable by using a combination of cultural passion and smart business thinking to succeed both artistically and commercially in the business of culture.