The Ghost in the Business Model

Doug Borwick has an interesting post this week where he suggests that vestiges of the partronage system might be lurking invisibly within the management structures of the arts, and that our blindness to these unseen forces could be what’s preventing us from making necessary changes. I think he may be on to something.

Arts pundits talk a lot about business models, but I wonder if the models we can see and describe are big enough to fully characterize what’s going on. What if there really are ghosts of old patronage models beneath the surface? Can we really change our organizations if there are invisible, ancestral operators pulling strings behind the scenes?

I used to do marketing for a large performing arts center where the management priorities often had little to do with contemporary reality and where board-level decision making made it incredibly hard to sell tickets. I was complaining about this to a friend who’d worked there for decades and he launched into a little tirade that went something like this:

“Your problem, Trevor, is that you actually believe the mission statement, which has nothing to do with why we’re here. This place was created by powerful cultural elites to be a playground for cultural elites. That’s its primary objective. The most important thing that happens here is the annual gala. Everything else – the art, the education, the audience – is there to make sure the gala happens every year. This isn’t an arts center, Trev, it’s a friggin’ Mount Olympus and you’re just a nobody mortal who’s here to keep things running so the Gods have a place to play. So stop trying to sell tickets; that’s not your job. You do marketing. Marketing is all about making pretty brochures that major donors can hold up like hand mirrors and say, ‘My, how very attractive we are!’ That’s all anybody wants from you and nobody cares how many tickets you sell. My advice to you is to recognize who’s really running the show and do as good a job as possible at being exactly what they expect you to be.”

“But what if we end up going out of business?” I said.

“Going out of business? Of course we’re going out of business. This place is a dinosaur. But you’re not going to be able to do anything about that, my friend. Mount Olympus itself went out of business thousands of years ago and everybody else got along just fine.”

I thought he was being facetious at first, but had to admit after a while that what he said made sense. The business model I’d been following up to that point said that the mission was the primary objective, that audiences were paramount and that the role of marketing was to sell as many tickets as possible. This was a surprising shift in perspective but it did a much better job of describing how things really worked, and it went a long way toward explaining why I was having so much trouble making my model fit.

It’s not that his interpretation of reality was any more accurate than anyone else’s, or that the Center was a front for a bunch of cynical, self-serving rich people who wanted to dress up and swill champagne at swanky parties for however long it lasted. The thing that impressed me was that he presented a legitimate but obscure alternate metaphor for understanding how the institution operated, one that, depending on your perspective, was as accurate and useful and reflective of reality as any obvious business model that any mortal management consultant might have described.

If we’re going to continue talking about arts business models, we might want to find one that describes not only the evident functional dimensions of our business structures, but one that’s capable of also describing the intangible cultural, historical and maybe even supernatural forces that work in different dimensions and in sometimes mysterious ways to influence how our organizations behave.

Trying to change one without fully understanding the other is probably impossible.

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