How to build an arts culture

Artist Ken Done says art hasn’t changed much since cave man days. “You make a mark.”

But while the essentials of painting may not have changed, the cave has, if Done’s studio is anything to go by. It sits at the top of a spacious and light-filled Victorian office building, and has a reception area full of sprawling couches. A secretary brings coffee as Done talks. Clearly, nobody starves in this garret.

The myth of the struggling artist is a deeply embedded one, and Done says some in the art world are affronted by his spectacular success. “Success gets in the way in this country, where it doesn’t get in the way in Japan or England,” he says. “I’m not saying anybody should be above criticism, but just because people like your work doesn’t make it bad.”

Although the arts have always flourished in mercantile cultures—think of the Medici family, who elevated their own social status by commissioning Renaissance artists—the pursuit of commerce is traditionally supposed to taint art. But these days artists of all stripes are expected to be entrepreneurial, which makes Done a poster boy for creative innovation.

Filthy lucre

“I spent 20 years in the advertising business,” says Done, describing a career that took him to London and New York. “What advertising teaches you is that there are deadlines that you have to meet, and there are problems you have to solve.”

It also taught him basic marketing skills. For his first exhibition, Done printed 12 T-shirts to give to journalists. “People liked them so much, I made more,” he says. “For the first exhibition I made a series of posters that could be sold for $25.00.” He went around to shops and offered them the posters for a wholesale price of $10.00, though he admits it was confronting. And he opened his own gallery. “I thought it was like being a chef, where you’d open a restaurant,” he says.

Today, Done’s business empire encompasses design, swimwear, clothing and fabrics, as well as art. He points out there is a long tradition of artists like William Morris branching out into fabrics and homewares, and says he’s surprised by artists who won’t muddy their hands with commerce. “They don’t want anything to do with business, yet when you see these people apply for a grant, it’s like they’re making a classic business presentation,” he says.

But how do artistic companies keep the cash rolling in, when audiences aren’t big enough to make them commercially viable? Take the Bell Shakespeare Company, a performance company with a touring and education arm. It’s an important artistic venture, but one that’s difficult to fund. Government grants make up nine percent of revenue, with box office accounting for only 53 percent of revenue.

“There are a small number of people who care about high art, but for the bulk of the population it doesn’t exist, and you accept that,” says artistic director John Bell. “We’re never going to be as popular as the footie grand final.”

In the absence of a philanthropic culture, companies like Bell Shakespeare turn to the corporate sector for funding. Bell spends time wining and dining potential corporate sponsors, building crucial relationships with companies like Optus. When the effort is successful, everyone’s pleased. But Bell warns that artists can only do so much. “You have to have some hours left for creating art,” he says. “You can’t spend your whole time working out strategies and policies. Energy and enthusiasm can wear out after a while.”

He adds the corporate sector is becoming more difficult to crack, as “shareholders get crankier about boards giving money to the arts.”

Skill swaps

One possible solution is for businesses to offer knowledge, rather than money, to help make arts companies more effective and self-sufficient. That’s one of the strategies pursued by the Australia Business Arts Foundation (ABAF), founded in 2000 to develop partnerships between the business sector, philanthropists and the arts. “KPMG sponsor an advice bank for us,” says Kathy Keele, ABAF’s executive director. “We estimate we’ve had about a million and a half dollars of pro bono advice.

She says the advice can range from developing a fire risk management plan to artistic succession planning. But she says there can also be a strong business case for traditional cash sponsorships. “If you’re an arts organisation who knows its arts base well, then you can measure how your activities together drive sales,” she says. Keele points to a partnership between Lexus and the Tasmanian Symphony that increased sales for both partners. “The obstacle is that arts organisations don’t always have ways to measure what their audience is doing.”

Getting involved with the arts can also improve employee relationships. “Employees get excited when their company does things in the community with arts organisations,” says Keele. “We’re finding we’re impacting employee retention of highly skilled employees.”

So maybe commerce and art aren’t opposed after all?

It’s not that simple. Corporations are inherently conservative, which can pose artistic problems. One arts marketing manager interviewed for this story told how she’s had to change marketing materials that showcased provocative art, to satisfy corporate brand sensibilities. And not all artistic enterprises can quantify what they do in commercial terms.

“One of the many tricks to running an organisation like this is balance,” says Adrian Collette, the CEO of Opera Australia. “We are not here to return value to shareholders and be ruthless in a business-like way. We are here to be stewards of a very valuable cultural institution and return value to the community.”

Collette brings an interesting perspective, having been both a literary publisher and a professional opera singer. He says there are unique pressures on a company like Opera Australia, which has to provide world standard opera, tour regularly, create new works and be as accessible as possible, while remaining sustainable. He agrees with Keele that the business community can make a valuable contribution through offering expertise. “P&O Nedlloyd have revolutionised the way we move sets,” he says. “They know about distribution.”

But he’s quick to say there’s a payoff for the sponsors. “So many of our sponsors want to use the company for entertainment, so someone like the Commonwealth Bank can use us for high net worth individuals.”

The benefits flow both ways, as those high net worth individuals often turn into opera subscribers.

Doing more with less

Yet even with all that effort, the opera company still isn’t flush with funds, and in recent years has come perilously close to a financial meltdown. But there have been some interesting side effects of having to be careful about cash flow. Because the company can’t afford big stars, it has had to build an ensemble company.

“There are very few ensemble companies in the world, and this is one of them,” says Collette. “When directors come in from overseas they’re blown away by the spirit of engagement. It’s very close to being unique in the world.”

This allows directors to develop productions organically, rather than creating a shell for a star who might only be in the country for a few performances as happens in Europe. In return, the director gets a chance to work on a grand scale. “Directors like Baz Luhrmann and Jim Sharman did all their early work for the opera before they were famous,” says Collette. “Now that we speak confidently, the world is looking to us, particularly for theatrical direction.”

Collette believes this kind of creative approach to problem solving is something the arts can offer business. He tells the story of being packed off to management conferences when he was in publishing, after head office realised he was in charge of millions of dollars but had no business training. Collette soon realised he had unique insights into how to motivate people and bring them together, where the accountants and MBA graduates floundered.

“Over and over again I had the experience of ‘thank God I did an arts degree’,” he says. “Thank GOD. If you do an arts degree you respect the fact that people are motivated by different things. That’s what creativity in organisations is all about.”

Collette argues it’s time that arts people sat on boards. “Arts companies bring in business people, and it’s invaluable, but I’m waiting to see the traffic the other way,” he says. “People think the balancing of the budget is painful, but that’s the easy bit. It’s how you keep the company supple and responsive which is harder, and that’s where creative people have a lot to offer.”

It’s a model that’s already proved itself: think Kim Williams, the composer who’s now the CEO of Foxtel, or Li Cunxin, principal ballet dancer and author who is now a successful stockbroker.

In the end, no matter how entrepreneurial artists become, a small country like Australia will always need public funding if the arts are to remain viable. Done thinks that funding could work harder. “There’s a fantastic opportunity in the area of new building. Every time a new office goes up, half a percent or something should be on art for that building, and that art work should be sourced from people who have been given government grants.”

He says CEOs love being photographed in front of art. “It doesn’t matter a bugger why they’re buying it, as long as there’s art.”


Ken Done’s guide to building a better garret

Done says it’s unrealistic to expect someone to give you $50,000 for a painting, but perfectly reasonable to expect $50 for your print or poster. Put your artwork everywhere you can:

  • Merchandise. Mugs, posters, tea towels and t-shirts are an artist’s best friend
  • Open a small gallery
  • License your work, but be vigilant about protecting it
  • Maintain high standards
  • Stay off heroin

This article first appeared in Fast Thinking magazine in 2006.