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How can we weave purpose-led organisations with commercial thinking in the cultural sector?

The arts and cultural sector is focused on telling important stories, illuminating voices and reflecting society back onto itself through art, museums, galleries, live experiences and a myriad of engagement activations. Its role is vital to a ‘culturally ambitious nation’[1] such as Australia.

However, in order to thrive and continue to play an important role in the lives and imaginations of us all, it needs to face the financial reality of ‘who pays?  For as those on the front-line know best of all, the era of relying solely on government funding is long-gone.

For some in the sector, commercial is a dirty word. However, the notion that we can’t be focused on enhancing our society through culture and arts AND be commercial is out-dated and frankly dangerous.

The either/or notion of values-based leadership or commercial is out of step with current thinking and is a major blockage to seeing our sector flourish.

But how can we weave purpose-led organisations with commercial thinking without compromising values or the survival of institutions? This question is at the heart of how cultural organisations will not only survive but thrive in our current environment. 

What does being commercial in the context of the cultural sector mean?

First and foremost, it means ensuring a sustainable future in which an institution can operate to fulfil its mission and core purpose. It doesn’t mean compromising on that mission or purpose, or devaluing the brand, assets or experiences of visitors, students, teachers or stakeholders.

When I work with government agencies and not-for-profit organisations needing to determine a strong future for their organisation, many are fearful that a ‘commercial’ mind-set will mean giving up what is important, broadening their audience to those who don’t value them; limiting access to those who do; damage or increased risk to their assets or proliferation of retail outlets that ‘detract’ from the core purpose.

None of which needs to be true.

Mostly, being commercial is about looking at the institution’s layout, stakeholders, community, collections, programs, history, brand and reputation through a different lens and asking ourselves, how can our ‘assets’ work better for us? How can we fund our plans with what we have? How are visitors wanting to engage with us – but limited by our own barriers? And, how can we do things differently to ensure we are here for generations to come – not just providing education for future generations?

How commercially minded is your organisation today?

I’ve seen firsthand some very savvy commercial thinking within the arts that would not necessarily deem themselves to be so. However, this thinking often gets stopped at the operational or systemic level which is ill-prepared to support the ‘work’ of commercialisation. Like any function of an organisation such as HR, finance or marketing, there needs to be processes in place to support the financial goals, which support the organisational objectives.

To test your current commercial status, here is a list of questions to ask yourselves:

  1. Do you have profit centres as opposed to revenue centres?

  2. Have you identified opportunities from existing partnerships that enhance visitor experiences?

  3. Do you know the dwell time and visitor flow through your institution/s?

  4. Is your membership program working to meet financial and non-financial objectives?

  5. Have you identified additional revenue (or profit) streams from your members or donors?

  6. Do you have one CRM (customer relationship manager software) that supports all functions - visitor, member, donor and other stakeholder’s engagement with your institution/s and offerings?

  7. Do you measure and have targets for growth or profit (not just revenue or visitation numbers)?

When thinking about adding revenue sources, walk around your site (the physical and digital) or review your programs with the following questions in mind:

What new revenue sources could you leverage from what you have now? For example, how does your retail work for visitors/the institution? Can you start online or wholesale retail operations? Do you have unique locations in which to hire out for events? 

What do people value and what will they pay for?

When institutions start asking themselves these questions, there are often blocks put in place by people who say, ‘no that won’t work,’ or ‘no one is interested’ – and perhaps they aren’t, but the best way to tell is by collecting data on what experiences visitors/stakeholders value and what they will pay for. Insights from this type of questioning will be key to determining successful strategies.

A great example of thinking about what people will pay for is the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Foundation Gala which coincided with the opening of their exhibition Esher x nendo I Between Two Worlds. This star-studded event held in the NVG was a huge success[2], and attracted support and sponsorship from the arts, corporate and music world.

The Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition space is the perfect example of how they have used their striking physical assets and created a unique venue for hire. Many organisations have used this space for launches, award nights, conference dinners and more. These spaces – often blocked by the ‘purists’ – are often the most talked about experiences months or years after the event took place; a legacy well beyond the two-hour commercial event.

The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in New Zealand allowed Jaguar to stage a product launch of extraordinary proportions in and around their exhibition. The results are stunning and a win-win for all involved. Watch the video:

There are many ways to entice a new paying audience to your organisation, however the fundamental question needs to remain: how can we bring more people to our doors that wouldn’t otherwise come?

It can be done, and many organisations have successfully navigated a path to do so.

So where to begin?

If this sounds where your institution needs to head, it is important that you have the right systems and processes in place to support a commercialisation strategy. Especially, if your institution develops new product offerings and hires people to sell and manage them. Cultural organisations need to be mindful of the support they can give to new and existing talent to develop commercial outcomes. For example:

  1. Does your institution have clear decision-making guidelines that can be acted upon quickly? Day-to-day commercial activities can’t wait for the bi-monthly board meeting or next Executive meeting.

  2. Does your institution have easily extractable information on visitor demographics, member/donor behaviour and marketing databases? This is important for measuring and monitoring growth and determining what strategies work.

  3. Does your institution allow for new and innovative thinking? For example, in the business events, major events and festivals sectors, the sponsorship space has transformed significantly. Your team need the space to develop contracts that allow sponsors to engage with your audiences whilst enhancing their experiences; slapping up logos just doesn’t cut it anymore – and has not for a very long time.  Strong partnerships with a deep understanding of your institution’s objectives are able to enhance audience engagement and, in some cases, bring back past visitors and find new ones.

With the right plan in place, art and cultural institutions could go to a whole new level in the fulfilment of their mission.

Commercialisation in the cultural sector needs to be focused on ensuring the important work of institutions continues for generations to come. However, for our sector to survive, we need to mesh the divide in the thinking between our purpose and ways to support it.

We must, the work of the sector is too important.

For more information and support on developing your commercialisation strategy, contact Deanna Varga, Mayvin Global on


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