Once again the museums sector faces an existential crisis in the form of the lockdown and subsequent financial stress as we enter a period of further economic downturn. The last real crisis we faced was the global financial crisis (or GFC to use the favoured acronym of Australians). At the time I was 2 years into my first board position at the National Gallery Company. The impact on the museum was significant, but obviously survivable.
This time around it’s different. While the GFC threatened the funding from DCMS and major sponsors, it didn’t threaten our daily bread; it didn’t stop the public crossing the threshold to buy sandwiches and postcards and pay to enter exhibits.
So in this current time of weirdness we should heed the words of that immortal strategist Hunter S Thompson “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.
As I set about searching for inspiration and was pointed to a lecture given by Chris Michaels, Director of Digital at the National Gallery. (Thanks Louise) Michaels gave this talk at the MuseumNext conference in June 2018, ten years after the GFC, and it is clearly informed by the impact of that event on the cultural sector.
In discussing how museums develop strategies for survival and growth Michaels refers to a couple of concepts explored in the book ‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The first concept is a reprise of the idea from Taleb’s previous book Black Swan; you can’t plan for the next crisis by looking back at the last crisis to prepare for what might be about to happen. This is for the simple reason that the worst thing to happen, by definition, has got to be worse than the next-to worst thing that you’re using as your benchmark. Little did Michaels know that we’d be living this only two years after he gave his talk; planning for a repeat of the GFC and a reduction in revenue but then being served up Covid19 and the annihilation of your revenues is a perfect Black Swan event.
The second idea is what Taleb proposes as the solution to surviving crisis; turning them into opportunities. This is the idea Taleb explores in Antifragile; a thing that gets stronger the more it is put under pressure. Antifragile is the way that bones develop strength the more that they are stressed and allowed to recover. And so Michaels’ talk is an exploration of what kind of museum might be able to not just survive crises like this, but in fact flourish; “the weirder things got, the stronger it became.”
To do this Michael suggests that museums switch from seeing their mission as creating better societies to one of creating better economies. Specifically he suggests that they locate themselves within a part of the creative industries as these are a critical and growing part of the British Economy, a fact underpinned by some key reports released that year by DCMS.
Ways to become antifragile
Michaels identifies 5 different ways that museums can do this and gives examples
- Align with relevant partners in the creative industries. Examples being the NG partnering with Google, the BBC and Facebook and the ultimate expression of this which his NGX; a sort of fine art accelerator in partnership with Kings College and Google Culture and Art
- Get out of the arts funding ghetto and partner with non-culture based government departments who have programs designed to drive innovation. Examples given include Catapult , the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund and the Creative Industries Clusters program.
- Find relevance with educational institutions; see the Liverpool cultural education partnership and the above NGX partnership with Kings
- Bring the creative industries inside the building and house industry businesses, incubate startups, facilitate new ideas, products and ventures. He gives some great examples including the Singapore National Gallery’s innovation lab , Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand’s accelerator program Mahuki, and New York’s New Museum’s New Inc, “an 8,000 sq ft cultural incubator”
- Embracing different business models such dynamic pricing and monthly recurring revenue. I’d add to that the latest phenomena to challenge retail; Direct to consumer (D2C) in which new brands form direct relationships with consumers through digital, predominantly social, channels.
I think what all of these do is encourage institutions in the cultural sector to think and then hopefully behave differently. By partnering with different types of organisations we massively increase the chance of combinatorial thinking and the likelihood that when stressed that museums will produce non-standard responses. Responses that could in fact increase their audience, their revenues and their relevance.
This kind of new thinking is what is referred to in brand strategy as a brand extension; finding new places and ways that the brand can operate. When successful, brand extensions result in new products and services, a larger addressable market and stronger revenues. In antifragile terms it means taking a stressor and responding with an innovative brand extension that makes the museum stronger.
An illustration of this from Michaels’ examples is the New Museum’s IdeasCity program. IdeasCity was developed by NewInc, the museum’s incubator.
“IdeasCity operates on a two-year cycle. Each cycle focuses on three cities around the world and comprises high-profile public conferences and residency programs that provide in-depth insight into cities through the lens of local experts and initiate new projects designed to tackle key urban issues. The cycle culminates in IdeasCity New York, a major international event in which the ideas developed during the cycle’s earlier public conferences and residency programs are presented in New York.”
The way that NewInc describes this initiative is a classic brand extension; “IdeasCity builds on the New Museum’s mission of “New Art, New Ideas” by extending the Museum beyond its walls into the civic realm.”
These are weird times and with museum teams on furlough and institutions fighting for their very survival it seems unreasonable suggest that they should ‘innovate their way out of trouble’. Unfortunately however, this is not the last of these crises.
Michaels ends his talk with the rather upbeat prediction based on Geoffrey West’s ‘Scale’; “In the next 30 years we will probably get two massive disruptions in society one way or another – it’s ten years now since the recession and I don’t think users have really absorbed even the shock waves of the last major shift. So in 2030 and 2040 we will get another of these great hits.”
COVID didn’t take a decade to arrive and there’s no knowing how long it’s impact will be felt or what the next surprise the fates have in store for us. But clearly museum business models that rely on physical proximity are not fit for purpose. So as unreasonable as it may be, we really are going to have to become anti fragile; what doesn’t kill us is going to have to make us stronger.