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Don't let business mindset stifle the arts

  • 20 February 2018


The practice of appointing business people to oversee arts bodies is as questionable as referring to the arts as an 'industry'. Business and the arts work on almost diametrically opposed rationales. Understanding this might go a long way towards assessing the art world more intelligently.

It is true that in both business and the arts money changes hands and costs should not exceed revenue. But that is about where any similarities end. Although in the early stages of a business there is often some creativity involved, once a product has been devised that is profitable, the aim is repetition. The point of the enterprise is not to be creative, but to be efficient.

In the arts, the purpose is to be creative, which means avoiding repetition. Successful artworks should be unique, not like what has come before. And such uniqueness has almost no relation to the monetary value: it may be 'worth' a lot, or it may be 'worth' little or nothing. But in an environment where financial materialism dominates, the absence of a meaningful correlation is easily missed.

The point is easy enough to demonstrate. Consider two of the greatest painters of the last 150 years: Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Both created unique, timeless works that took the visual arts into new territory. Few would dispute that they were at the very pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Van Gogh sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard, which was exhibited in 1890 in Brussels. It went for about $2000. It is estimated that Picasso sold about 50,000 works, for a combined total of about $250 million. Does that mean Picasso was 125,000 times better than Van Gogh? In business, such a comment might make some sense. In the arts, it makes none. Yet that kind of monetary evaluation is undertaken all the time to assess the arts 'industry'.

In the 2017 Philip Parsons Lecture, lighting designer Nick Schlieper identified four sources of income for the performing arts: government funding, box office, corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

Schlieper argues that relying mainly on the box office is 'actively deleterious to the whole idea of developing an art form' because the aim then becomes to provide continuity and a predictability, which means almost no new offerings. Audiences keep coming because they know what they are going to get. The result is stagnation.


"The principle skill for artists too often becomes the ability to network with bureaucrats rather than