What can museums learn from other successful arts organisations’ business models?

We’ve long believed that there was much for museums to learn from looking at how other culture sector organisations do business. In particular, the idea that a cultural product should be offered to the public for free has persisted longer in the museums sector than in many other areas of the arts. People don’t expect to be given free theatre tickets, do they? But there is a widespread idea that museum entry should be free. Other art forms seem to have got a grip sooner on how to demonstrate value and generate income from consumers.

So last year we started shaping an intervention to help museums to learn from other successful arts business models through a peer-to-peer learning approach. By ‘business models’, we mean the model by which an arts organisation operates as a business, including its value proposition, sources of revenue, customer base, services or products, operating systems and processes, financial arrangements, relationships with suppliers and partners, workforce arrangements and organisational culture.

We realised pretty soon that to  make this work well, we would need to invest in some pretty robust groundwork.

We needed to make sure that our identification of ‘successful’ arts business models was up to date. The cultural economy is undergoing rapid change with many organisations under significant pressure. Reductions in public subsidy mean that some arts organisations considered beacons of effectiveness are now struggling. So ‘successful’ organisations we might have identified a couple of years ago might not be in that place now.

Additionally, reduced capacity means that some organisations once willing to commit time and effort to collaboration and to peer support via networks and mentoring are withdrawing from such activities in order to focus on internal core delivery.

We commissioned arts business experts Alchemy Research & Consultancy to undertake a significant piece of research to identify 6 case study arts organisations with successful business models, willing to share their learning with museums. And we asked them to do an important, up to date report answering some key questions:

  • Why are museums thinking about business models?
  • What do we mean by business models?
  • What are other cultural organisations doing?
  • What do museums need to do?

The results of their work have now been produced and they are very exciting. The case studies and reports are now available on our website and the opportunity for museums to bid to be partnered with a successful arts organisation for peer learning is now open, closing on 20 June.

Through the research project, six case studies have been written and warm contacts brokered with the case study organisations:

Alchemy’s powerful and insightful report is really important and timely, outlining key business models found in the cultural sector: what are established and new approaches, which models are emerging as ‘successful’ in the sense of enabling organisations to continue to deliver on their missions in a sustainable way? How can museums improve their own sustainability by learning from other arts organisations’ business models?

They demonstrate a really diverse range of approaches to success in the arts. But some key messages emerge. The arts organisations that have achieved continuous innovation have a range of characteristics: strong leadership; a clear vision; appropriate values; a dynamic board; strong teamwork; access to external resources; and active inter-organisational networks. Whilst museums face some specific challenges in implementing new business models, they also have a number of advantages over arts organisations that can be exploited, not least their collections which provide a rich source of content for creative work.

We are publishing this report to provide valuable learning to the wider museums sector, along with the case studies.

As the next stage of the project, we are now offering the opportunity for six museums to each be paired with one of the case study organisations, in order to embark on an 8-month partnership of peer learning. Details of how to apply are available here: http://southeastmuseums.org/arts-business-models.

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