Is Your Arts Practice Future Fit?
This article, by Sam Ackerman, appeared on The Big Idea 3 August 2020
No one in the arts and creative sector has been immune to the effects of the pandemic.
But as a nation, New Zealanders are in a far better place than many of our international counterparts - enjoying our freedoms and live entertainment culture in ways other countries are legitimately envious of.
We are not out of the woods yet.
While there is an exciting array of opportunities opening up off the back of COVID-19, most creatives are feeling bruised and anxious. Is this the calm before another torrential storm that will test your mettle even further?
Whatever forecast eventuates, one thing is certain - now is an ideal time to give your practice/organisation a health checkup. Being prepared for different scenarios is smart planning and given what we’ve already experienced, more important than ever.
Expertise to the fore
“We are moving from a time of chaos into a time of complexity,” states Anne Rodda, Founder and Director of Voyager Advisory, an enterprise focused on supporting New Zealand’s creative and arts sectors through fit-for-purpose advice, mentoring and professional services. She certainly has the credentials when it comes to this field of expertise.
Rodda has worn many hats across the past two decades, including being at the helm of some of Aotearoa’s most highly regarded programmes and events like the Michael Hill International Violin Competition since 2001, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Auckland Writers & Readers Festival and the 2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards. She’s also got a proven track record of standing up for the arts, co-writing a white paper earlier this year calling for more creatives to be included at board level.
Rodda knows first hand the importance for leaders to have the right support and sounding boards from people who have been in their shoes before.
Here are her key tips on how to get your practice future fit.
Have the courage to question your relevance
In a constantly evolving and often volatile market - having your doors open for business is impressive but not enough. For some organisations, the environment they operate has quickly shifted beyond their initial purpose.
“The product still needs to be good,” declares Rodda. “You can do all the fundraising you want, but at the end of the day, it’s just a bandaid treatment if you’re not delivering something that the public or consumers think they want or need.”
Rodda adds the way we connect with audiences and sources of revenue are changing. Understanding how best to evolve your creative content and what you offer to partners means you can take advantage of new opportunities for stability and growth.
This may require an open and honest conversation about what is produced by your team but right now, there is a significant opportunity for an exciting evolution of your organisation and what it delivers.
Get a fresh set of eyes
No one knows your operation better than you. But sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, and all of us are prone to blind spots.
“I find that business owners and arts leaders are genuinely open to reinventing themselves, but have become accustomed to crisis management - pressures at the coal face don’t allow time or head space to focus on the big picture,” agrees Rodda.
That’s the benefit of getting an outside opinion of your practice. Organisations like Voyager Advisory can be objective yet empathetic; a diagnosis from a trusted and independent expert that isn’t trying to sell you something.
“Having a deep expertise in the arts and creative sectors and a wealth of experience dealing with the same issues that many are facing has proven really beneficial to Voyager’s clients to date. Our feedback is having someone who can be independent but actually ‘gets’ the arts as well gives them real confidence in the advice they’re given.”
One of the catchphrases Post-COVID has been capability building, which surely can only be a benefit to both individuals and organisations. But as Rodda points out ”how do you know what capability you need to build? As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. You think you know the source of the ache and want to get a remedial fix, but the problem is actually further up the chain.
“What I’ve found works best is an approach where the business is considered holistically - to make sure all the parts are working well and working well together.”
Slay the sacred cows
“Trends that were underway have dramatically accelerated and have forced a need to transform business models.”
This is the time to unlock former habits and working practices. There are so many good tools and technologies coming online every month – designed to streamline workflows and efficiencies. Looking to make changes doesn’t mean your systems are broken, it just means discovering if things can be done better.
Rodda’s put an emphasis on efficiency in her career, finding the right people to work with and utilising their speciality skills to make everything hum. Whether she was managing 100 people or just a handful, the same rules applied: hire good people, empower and support them to do their job, and get out of their way. It can reduce double-handling of tasks and crucially, is more cost effective.
“In our sector where resources are tight, we are used to being multi-taskers. I see a lot of ‘back office’ jobs getting done by the same person making art, and frankly, they’re not always particularly skilled or well-suited. It becomes an onerous necessary evil, distracts from the product development and stifles creativity.
“Why not pool resources and purchasing power to free up and allow creatives to focus on their primary artistic pursuit? It’s a long game, financially, but it’s liberating and the smart move economically.”
Prepare for another wave
No one saw the devastating impacts of this global crisis coming - who’s to say if or when another one hits without remorse or fair notice again? Organisations that weathered the initial trauma still run the risk of faltering later.
“Have an action plan, a survival plan,” Rodda encourages. “If one of your main revenue sources is suddenly in jeopardy again, you need to already have a concept on how you will transform next.”
Reset the agenda
If ever there was an opportunity to work from a clean slate, this is it. Any practices that seem entrenched and difficult to break out of have now been exposed. Lockdown gave our planet a time to breathe more easily. As the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have shown, there is no longer any excuse to put up with systemic issues that have previously been ignored.
“Do the necessary work now to address climate change, social and racial inequity. Make it count - in your strategy, business plans, messages, behaviours and reflected in your KPIs.”
Adapt your online strategy
Let’s face it, in lockdown we’ve all had to become our own IT support centre and many have picked up new competencies like creating and editing videos.
The volume and quality of online content has skyrocketed and across the world, thespians are now treading the keyboards. Artists and creatives have found a global stage - and a whole new audience.
This primal need to perform and share is here, but Rodda fears we’re giving away too much for nothing. “Generally, there’s no long-term strategy behind what’s going up online.
“We’ve watched how the publishing industry and then media have had to retrain their subscribers to pay for what they used to get for free. Now we’re seeing the advent of pay-per-view from overseas performing arts organisations realising this pandemic is going to be around for a long time.”
Like it or not, Rodda thinks we need to accept this digital shift. “As a player in the broad global creative sector, we need to overcome the challenges of digital content paywalls. It’s crucial in ensuring artforms survive and artists get paid.”
That doesn't mean the end of our traditional ways of producing and providing various forms of art - the boom of Netflix didn't replace movie theatres, there's a need and a market for both. You can be in control of both the digital and physical delivery of your product.
Set yourself milestones
Your commitment to following through on this process will make it all the more worthwhile.
If you set goals for change and to improve your organisational flow, set yourself regular milestones to assess your achievements and make sure you’re on the right track.
It’s not about passing judgement, rather it’s holding yourself to account to ensure your best laid plans don’t fall by the wayside.
Getting independent advice gives you objectivity and confidence that sets you up to make the right steps forward.
Rodda points out “it’s about providing the right tools to advance a plan, not just having someone throw out ideas for you to come up with the solutions on your own.”
Remember what got you here
“Be creative, be brave,” Rodda simply states.
Being shellshocked was an understandable feeling but that doesn’t make retreating and playing it safe will keep your organisation’s neck off the chopping block.
It’s most likely that putting yourself out there and being imaginative was part of what got your practice up and running - don’t lose that creativity and desire to push boundaries.