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How marketing can ensure the sustainability of cultural institutions

Paying their own way.

“In for-profit firms, the perception is that there’s a trade-off between profitability and sustainability. It’s thought of as a natural dichotomy – and it’s a battle that’s been going on for 40 years,” said Dr Mark Wickham from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

But if we take profit out of the equation, we can see sustainability for what it really is.

As a researcher and senior lecturer in social enterprise strategy, Dr Wickham is focussed on isolating the factors that contribute to long-term success in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. 

A major part of this is understanding how sustainability is achieved in various kinds of ‘non-traditional’ organisations that can see profit-making as a means to an end (social enterprises) or a major challenge in the face of public perception (arts and culture).

Social enterprises generally perform better than any other type of business in terms of sustainability, because profit-making is part of a wider strategy around social good, rather than a top priority. But for arts and cultural institutions, profit-making can often be a struggle.

Using his expertise in marketing strategy, Dr Wickham has been focussing on approaches that can help art galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions stand on their own two feet in the absence of the government funding they relied on back in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Before this change, they didn’t really have to compete, because the government was giving them money,” said Dr Wickham.

The arts sector now has to pay its own way, which means it’s more responsible than ever before for marketing and fundraising.

Dr Wickham recently partnered with Dr Kim Lehman from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics to understand what the public wants when it comes to paying for a cultural experience – and how galleries and museums might actually meet those expectations.

“We are bridging the gap between marketing and the arts,” said Dr Wickham.

The project originated as a survey run by Dr Lehman and a colleague in the UK, who were looking at how visitors are motivated to go to galleries and museums in regional areas.

“In metro centres, we all know why they go there – because it’s convenient. But there hasn’t been much research on how they engage with a regional product,” said Dr Wickham.

“We’re asking, what else do these regional cultural institutions offer, and how can they position themselves to be alternate forms of entertainment? For example, do they need to hire marketers and be like a café? You’ve got to get right into the professional business side of it,” he adds.

“We’re interested in assisting a regional arts and cultural organisation in improving its marketing strategies, and we want to provide them with consultants reports in the process.”

Dr Wickham’s expertise has also been applied to a recent study led by Dr Tommy Wong at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics on the experience of Chinese entrepreneurs living in Tasmania.

“What are the factors driving them here? What are the barriers to being successful? We want to take that report further and turn it into actual recommendations,” said Dr Wickham.

Results from this pilot study showed that a lack of understanding of local bureaucracies – which can be prohibitively complex and opaque – can get in the way of the success of newly established businesses in the state.

Dr Wickham is now conducting a follow-up study, and hopes that insights from his research will inform local policy around outreach to this particular demographic.  

The implication for the state was that outreach is crucial, and for entrepreneurs, it’s about ensuring that they know where to go for support.

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