Entrepreneurship and Risk-Taking in Arts Organizations
According to Drexel University Museum Leadership director Danielle Rice, museums shouldn’t spend time worrying about whether to be entrepreneurial or not.
“It’s about survival,” Rice said at the Museum Council of Philadelphia’s March event Risk-Taking and Entrepreneurship in Museums. “Museums are conscious of the fact that audiences have been flat for the last 20 or 30 years. It might blip up or down with a more or less popular show, but it’s not growing.”
How can museums combat the problem of getting past institutional barriers in entrepreneurial thinking and risk taking to help build more relevant and sustainable arts institutions?
Arts Administration faculty Neville Vakharia identified three barriers to entrepreneurship that emerged in his research so far on innovation in arts and culture organizations: in systems and tools, resources and leadership.
1. Systems and tools.
Adopting the systems and tools behind entrepreneurial ideas can be overwhelming, but the panelists emphasized the practice of trying something, testing it, and then moving on. Rice called this a “disciplined approach to innovation,” and explained the process with an analogy from Jim Collins’ Built to Last: First use bullets to make sure your trajectory is right, and then line up your torpedoes.
“We need to learn from the production cycle approach rather than these sporadic attempts at entrepreneurship,” Vakharia said. He recommends adopting the laboratory mindset from the product development world. “Start small and see if you can build the idea,” he said. “If it does make it, prototype it and get feedback; if that’s successful, then scale it. You mitigate risk and now you have the information to scale it successfully.”
For many, the struggle is how arts and culture organizations can be entrepreneurial while trying to keep the doors open. Vakharia said it can encompass even more: doing the right things but having the wrong people, or doing the wrong things and having the right people.
The panelists placed an emphasis on succeeding in entrepreneurship by having the right people in place at the organization. “Museum organizations don’t think,” said Museum Leadership faculty Derek Gillman. “It’s the people who work at museums who think, and they come from different backgrounds.” He noted there is a tendency for different kinds of people to be concentrated in different parts of an arts institution. Rice raised an entrepreneurial example from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that helps staff extend beyond their discipline: offering “mini-grants” from its Arts Exploration Fund.
A board’s willingness to let you take risks can be a barrier to entrepreneurship. Gillman spoke to approaching risk with the board as executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation. “Leadership was open to innovation when we were at the end of the line,” he said. “Down to four board members and down to the choices of dissolving, being taken over or relocating, this was a serious manifestation of the board’s responsibility for the future of an institution.”
To address the leadership barrier for entrepreneurship, Vakharia recommends breaking down the risk of an entrepreneurial move up front. “You can say, if we take this risk, there is a 10 percent chance the best scenario will happen, there’s a 50 percent chance this medium result will happen, and there’s a chance of failure,” he said.
The panel discussion led to a group conversation of entrepreneurship currently happening at museums, like the new membership model at the Dallas Art Museum; the Queens Museum community organizer staff positions dedicated to spending time in local neighborhoods; or the Independence Seaport Museum housing a theater company on site. As thought leaders in the museum field, the panelists hope for more examples of entrepreneurship coming from Philadelphia arts and culture organizations.
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