Twenty-one years ago the Harvard Business Review ran an article entitled ‘How the arts can prosper through strategic collaborations’. The piece declared: “The arts have been hard hit by shrinking audiences and rising debt. Cuts in government funding have become severe, and many sources of funding – especially government agencies and private foundations – have been earmarking grants for specific programs so that less is available for general operating budgets.”

Although looking specifically at the US landscape, the sentiment remains just as relevant today as it did in the 1990s. Perhaps, one might argue, even more so. Arts and cultural organisations around the world have had to up their game when it comes to forging collaborations, not just with business and industry but with tech companies and even other countries, as they seek to create engaging visitor experiences – and generate much-needed revenue. In recent years there have been some quite extraordinary alliances.

Take, for example, the collaboration between the iconic Louvre Museum in Paris and the creation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due to open this year. To put it mildly, this surprising alliance has caused some raised Parisian eyebrows. Purists are horrified. Reporting on the new museum, Wallpaper magazine said that many felt it was akin to “creating ‘a branch’ outside the country. Franchising is for McDonald’s, they sniff, not for a treasured national artistic institution that has been France’s bastion of high culture since 1190.”

Maybe. But the Louvre stands to make a record US$1.3 billion in fees, of which about half is solely for granting Abu Dhabi the right to use the Louvre name for the next 30 years. The rest of the money meets the cost of the Louvre’s curatorial expertise. Wallpaper added: “Martinez [Jean-Luc Martinez, the president-director of the Louvre] retorts that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not a branch of the Louvre. Nor is it even French. ‘It is not for the Louvre or, indeed, for France,’ he says. ‘It is a new museum for Abu Dhabi. It is from this country, by this country. We are working for current and future generations here in the UAE. That is its heart. Bon!’.”

Not to be outdone by its Parisian sister, the Centre Pompidou has just announced the launch of Centre Pompidou Shanghai. The new gallery will be installed as part of a long-term cultural collaboration project between France and China that will start in 2019 and continue until 2025. The Centre Pompidou described it as “the highest-standard cultural exchange project of such long duration between China and France in the cultural field”. And no doubt highly lucrative, too.

There are many other examples of collaboration between cultural bodies and others outside of their normal sphere of activity, although not all have the same high profile, or financial windfall, that the Louvre project does. For example, Google collaborated with New York’s Metropolitan Museum to create an immersive experience for its ‘We Wear Culture’ fashion show, which utilised Google’s Daydream platform; Microsoft has collaborated with the Museum of Digital Art in Zurich, Europe’s first physical and virtual museum dedicated to digital arts; and the Sydney Opera House is looking to appeal to a new generation of travellers through a two-year tie-up with disruptive global travel brand Airbnb.

“The Opera House is keen to appeal to Airbnb’s demographic, and for everyone to belong there. Together, we can help open up the Opera House – the symbol of modern Australia – to new global communities, highlight Sydney as a destination, and support the Opera House’s flourishing contemporary music and environmental programmes,” Sam McDonagh, Airbnb Australia Country Manager told AdNews.

At London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, a groundbreaking collaboration with China Merchants Group (CMG) will support its plan to develop an ambitious new Design Society located in the Sea World Culture and Arts Centre in Shekou, China. It is the first time the V&A has developed such an international collaboration. It, too, is due to open this year. Also in London, Shakespeare’s Globe has created some wonderful collaborative programmes around the world, of which more below.

One of the most dynamic examples of a multi-group collaboration is the ‘Hold the World’ project that London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) is working on with media giant Sky, tech company Factory42 and Sir David Attenborough – an icon in his own right – to create a revolutionary VR experience unlike anything ever seen before.

David Attenborough Hold The World VR Project

Photo credit: Sky

“The premise of ‘Hold the World’ is very simple,” Sir Michael Dixon, director of the NHM, tells Observe. “David actually talks to you about an object that you can take apart, make bigger and smaller. He appears as a hologram in front of you but he looks like a real 3D person. He explains the object to you as you ‘manipulate’ it in your hands”. As we go to press, the NHM is expecting the new VR app to be ready by year-end.

For such an innovative project, harmonious collaboration is the key to its success. Many of the protagonists in this four-way partnership have worked together before, which certainly helps when it comes to resolving issues – be they technical, financial or even academic.

Dixon avers: “Most good partnerships work if people bring essential things to the table that don’t reside in the other participants: Sky is bringing its distribution network; Factory42 its technical skills in creating the product; we’re bringing the content, and David is bringing his phenomenal pulling power and storytelling ability. My experience in business before working in museums tells me that these co-ventures work most effectively when you do have that reliance on different people and expertise. When both parties bring the same skills to the table, it often doesn’t work. We do a lot of things on trust because there isn’t a business model for this kind of thing. It’s an experiment we wanted to do.”

Dixon acknowledges that there can be cultural issues when working with different organisations and that there is an assumption that the public sector is much slower than the private sector. But in this case, those claims are unfounded. The NHM already has an enviable reputation for the way in which it embraces new technology for national and international audiences.

John Cassy, chief executive of Factory42, says: “We took the idea to Sir Michael Dixon and outlined our thinking about how to take their collections to a wider audience. He immediately got the idea, loved it and went to see Sir David, for whom interactive VR was a first. We developed the idea further, worked closely with the NHM curators – experts, of course, in all the artefacts – and took the proposal to Sky. They have been a fantastic backer, very forward thinking. They made a quick decision on it and they’ve been giving creative input throughout.”

Cassy adds that for this kind of four-way collaboration to work a “clear process” needs to be set up. “They [NHM] are the experts, but there are things related to tech or storytelling where we are the experts. We work out the rules of engagement and we all have to be comfortable that the rules are in everyone’s interests and objectives. We had a clear plan that everybody bought into. When things go wrong, it’s when you are not clear what your shared objectives are.”

Across London at the internationally renowned Shakespeare’s Globe its ‘Globe to Globe’ project saw it take a production of Hamlet to every country in the world over a two-year period: no less than 197 countries and 202 venues. Neil Constable, Chief Executive of Shakespeare’s Globe, told Observe: “We chose Hamlet because ‘To be or not to be’ is probably the most recognised Shakespeare phrase in the world. Hamlet has so many themes that could relate to individual countries, depending on what is happening with their own internal affairs. Hamlet can speak in a way other plays might not.”

Such a gargantuan artistic endeavour required multi-level collaboration, from local art venues in remote Pacific islands to finding a chapel to perform in the Vatican or ways to deliver the play to displaced refugees from war-torn countries such as Yemen, South Sudan or Syria.

Adds Constable: “The first problem was getting people to believe we were doing it! No one had done this before so people likened our actors to astronauts. We were only in each country for two to three days. We had significant support from local arts centres, British Council representatives and Government missions – they found the flexibility to make it work.”

An artistically led project such as this, borne out of the ‘Cultural Olympics’ in London in 2012, presented financial problems that Constable and his colleagues could hardly have predicted. “The other unknown was the finances,” says Constable. “It is no secret that the project cost around £3 million. We had to raise funding from all the venues and through other relationships to fund the whole project. When you’re considering what the cost might be of taking a group of 16 actors round all of the Pacific Islands or across Africa – they’re not the type of budgets we’re used to dealing with.”

Shakespeare’s Globe is a brand in demand. To help increase awareness – and deliver a new revenue stream – it has launched the Globe Player app. Downloaded in more than 120 countries, it is the first such digital enterprise by a performing arts organisation

to offer either purchase or streaming of its filmed catalogue. Its library of more than 50 productions performed at the Globe in London, many of them in a foreign language as well as English, has opened up the Globe’s canon to millions of theatre-goers who may never set foot in its London home.

For Constable, collaboration is an “open dialogue and an understanding of each other’s expectations, an empathy with the culture you’re working with”.

Hamlet Globe to Globe and the Globe Player app are powerful examples of what true collaboration can do to bring communities together wherever you are in the world.

So what does all of this cross-fertilisation mean for talent and the ability to find the right leaders to help navigate this sea change in arts and culture? Samantha Colt, a Partner and Head of the Arts, Culture and Heritage practice at Odgers Berndtson, London, says: “It is no surprise we are seeing more and more crossover between the commercial and non-profit arts and cultural sector in terms of talent. Within the arts sector, it is now common to see long-standing artistic and curatorial experts working alongside colleagues from the commercial world who have been drawn to the arts by the opportunity to innovate and push boundaries. It may seem counter-intuitive at first to think of the non-profit sector as the innovator; however, it has always been so from an artistic perspective, and now increasingly it is applying this innate creativity to other aspects of its activities.

“Irrespective of background, the leaders of the future in the arts and cultural sector need to be flexible and courageous; unafraid of leaping into the unknown but, as the comments above have suggested, discipline, rigour and astute financial acumen will never be far away.”

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