Why our arts organisations need to take the initiative in merging and remodelling

Colleges may be thought to be more conservative institutions than arts organisations, but this week’s report that three Edinburgh further education colleges are moving along a path towards merger has turned the tables.

It is shocking but not surprising that subsidised arts organisations have not taken the initiative to remodel and regroup through mergers to become fitter through the recession.   Subsidised arts organisations tend to batten down the hatches and use all endeavours to preserve their existing activity and business model in times of economic or other change.   They then look to the public funders to tell them to change, reward their change, or financially support any consideration and design of change.  And they don’t tend to take the initiative to change or remodel, relinquishing that responsibility to the public funders. 

This is a pity, because there are some great creative and managerial skills in arts organisations which could be applied to regrouping and merging to create 21st century creative enterprises.  These enterprises should have a strong core with a flexible body able to contract and expand according to need and priorities. 

Arts organisations should be looking ahead instead of burying their heads in the sand.  There will be less public subsidy around over the next few years.  It’s not just about this year’s largely static settlements from arts councils and local authorities.  During the next few years not only will the central funding be further reduced but it will bite harder.  Taken together with the reduction in private investment and the reduced spending power of audiences, this is a serious situation which should not be ignored.  Arts organisations should innovate.

Currently, most arts organisations are trying to sit out the recession by spending less and less on the programme in order to pay the staff and the electricity bills.  

Those of us not protected by subsidy – creative and other businesses – have to change in the process of  evolution.  The independent television sector is in a continuous process of consolidation – as our arts organisations should.   Businesses and business models are being deconstructed and reformed at an accelerating rate responding not only to the economic crisis but to the impact of the internet in the ways that we communicate, create and trade. The public sector itself is being ‘simplified’ by governments. But subsidised arts organisations are last in line.

I have been involved in several investigations of mergers with arts organisations – always at the behest of the funders.  In most cases, the arts companies were so resistant that the business case could not stack up.  The core argument against mergers was always around artistic integrity, uniqueness or, to put in another way, about ego.  Artistic Directors would take up adversarial positions and this would drive the arguments.  The Boards would support the Artistic Directors rather than talk, board to board, about what would be best for the community, efficiency etc.  And would always see themselves as having to defend their position against the funders.

There could be another round of this coming up as intermediary cultural agencies are faced with declining resources.

Those of us with knowledge and not fixed to a single organisation or ego can challenge arts organisations who are in similar businesses, providing similar services with shared audiences in a defined community, for example:

  • How can you each justify a single box office and marketing operation?
  • How can you justify the cost of the time it takes to coordinate with the other publicly funded  arts organisations, forums, agencies and other itermediaries when those resources could be used to create more art for more people if you were to consolidate?

While arts organisations are generally resistant to change they show great ability to remodel when the chips are down.  The chips are coming down fast chaps. Talk to your colleagues.  Think the unthinkable. Deconstruct. Regroup. Maybe Merge.  Take the initiative – don’t wait for the public agencies to do it for you.

  1. interesting post in 2007 Mark. I am not suggesting the large taking over the small necessarily but a genuine collaboration, deconstruction and remodelling.

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