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Look out and #thrive

Robert Jones is a strategist at the brand consultants Wolff Olins, whose clients include Tate, National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces. He is also one of the trainers on Building Resilience.
We’re living in a new age for museums, arts centres, theatres and many other kinds of cultural organisation. It’s the age of looking out.
You’d imagine from the media that the arts are in crisis. Local authority spending on museums, for example, fell by 31% in 2016. In some areas the impact has been disastrous: Lancashire County Council announced plans last year to withdraw funding for five museums.
But there’s another way of telling the story. A decade of squeezes has actually had some positive effects. According to John Orna-Ornstein, who’s currently moving from Arts Council England to the National Trust, public-sector funders have had to become more strategic, and arts organisations have had to become smarter.
Funding bodies now often have imaginative strategies aimed at wellbeing, liveability or economic regeneration. They’re looking out towards broader social goals, and the money is there for those arts organisations that can contribute to those goals.
Meanwhile, cultural organisations have also learned to look outwards. Museums, for instance, obsess less about their collections, more about their visitors – and find expertise not just from their own curators but also from outsiders like universities. In fact, Orna-Ornstein’s new National Trust role is head of curation and visitor experience – a neat combination of the collection and the customer.
So are these changes a manifestation of a new kind of ‘resilience’? Jo Hunter, who runs 64 Million Artists, thinks there’s more to it. ‘Resilience can feel like doing the same thing, just harder and better. Whereas actually what the arts needs now is the ability to think differently, to be more relevant by listening, connecting, giving away power and ego.’ In other words, by looking out.
And the best organisations are doing just that. They’re now pretty sophisticated about their business models. According to a recent report by the Museums Association, 35% of museums increased their income in 2015/16. Impressively, 42% of museums increased self-generated income through commercial activities such as shops, cafés and events. Creative organisations have become creative about business too.
Many realise that, for their business strategies to succeed, their own internal culture must be right. As the management guru Peter Drucker famously said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. This thought should feel natural to the arts world: the health of an organisation, just like the health of an individual or a nation, depends absolutely on culture.
And several organisations have come to believe that culture depends, in turn, on a sense of purpose. As consultant Gaby Porter says, these organisations have worked closely with their own people to define why they exist – why they matter to visitors, users, neighbours and funders. For example, Jon Finch in Preston has been leading a project ‘ReImagining the Harris’. Max Dunbar of the Manchester Jewish Museum – who was part of the AMA’s Future Proof Museums programme – is a great believer in purpose. And Janneke Geene of the People’s History Museum in Manchester has developed the concept of ‘Ideas worth fighting for’.
So business models depend on culture, and culture depends on purpose. This is a formula that’s spread across both the commercial and the arts worlds in the last decade, and at Wolff Olins, we’ve helped dozens of companies to put it to use. And as brand consultants, looking out is second nature – our job is to help organisations see beyond their walls, watch how the world is changing, and observe themselves through customers’ eyes.
That’s why we worked with the AMA to create an online course that shares some practical approaches to business models, culture and purpose, and already 200 arts organisations have benefited from it. We called the course Building Resilience, but our aim is to help people across the sector to be more than just resilient: to be creative, to think differently, to thrive by looking out.
Building Resilience — three online modules to help your organisation thrive — begins on 1 June 2017.
Book your place now.