The Issue with Arts Marketing

I’ve recently been consulting for a new start-up art business that is set to deliver some incredible paintwork. Throughout last year I did some pretty heavy research into what works when marketing for organisations within the arts sector, as it is significantly different to commercial marketing and comes with its own unique set of challenges. Marketing the arts ‘product’ can be a very difficult concept for traditional commercial marketers to fully understand. The unique visceral and emotive method of ‘consuming’ art often means that the normal rules of marketing do not apply.

There are two huge problems facing arts organisations in the modern economic environment. First, arts organisations need to persuade a busy and incredibly time-poor public that spending their leisure time at a theatre, gallery or concert is the best alternative available. This means that arts organisations are competing against almost infinite competition with whatever you or I could spend our time doing. Therefore any marketing message needs to not only be effective enough to differentiate arts from other entertainment options (the movies, going out for dinner, shopping etc.), but also compelling enough to motivate the consumer to get up and actively spend their limited spare time pursuing an interest. The second problem is the competition for decreasing disposable income for people to spend on entertainment. So, not only do arts marketers need to create compelling enough messages to get consumers interested, but the messages also need to persuade people to spend their money. These issues combine to make successful arts marketing a pretty tough goal to achieve.

There are many differences between commercial marketing and arts marketing that make it impossible to simply transpose commercial strategies into an arts context. The key difference I’ll explore here is the stance of arts organisations in relation to market orientation. My ‘Selling in 3D’ blog post addresses the issue of market orientation in detail, but basically a market-oriented firm will first determine the needs and wants that exist in the market and then create a product to satisfy those needs and wants. Although this is great for making sales in the commercial sector, this creates a clear problem when discussing art. As per the creative essence that defines art, artists are precisely in the business of not responding to market forces. If artists decide to adopt a market orientation strategy in the creation of their art to satisfy consumers, the artistic integrity of their work will be compromised. Put more simply, by creating artwork that exists only to satisfy the desires of consumers means the artist is really ‘selling out’. Instead, artists need to take the opposite stance and adopt a product orientation to ensure that their work is artistically authentic and expressive. This is in line with what I’ve described as the one-dimensional approach to selling, but it makes the marketing and promotion of the arts very difficult. In response to this problem, artists often choose one of two alternatives when attempting to get themselves ‘out there’ in the art scene. The first option is the ‘high culture’ approach, which pitches art at the top of the market but can fuel the exclusive and pretentious aura that often puts people off. With this approach profits are made by maximising margins through charging high prices. The second option is the ‘low culture’ approach which creates accessible art with the view to generate profit by appealing to the masses. This approach however is often heavily criticised from within the sector, and can ruin the reputation of the artist or art organisation within artistic circles. All these factors combine to make arts marketing sound like a pretty grim task, but like everything else there’s no substitute for raw product quality that can sell itself. Over to you, artistes!

JB

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