What we think

How the Cultural Sector is responding to Tight Times

October 2017


We are in the midst of unsettling times. And for all our clients instability is just further drive for the need make more money – an issue that comes up in every conversation we have. The need to change, emphasised nowhere more than in the latest round of Arts Council funding announcements, resulted in the demise of some and forced others to completely rethink who they are and how they function.

But with all this doomsday talk it’s easy to forget that tough times can also inspire great moments of creativity and innovation. Having less money but needing to do more with it  provides the impetus to think differently, try new things and be more entrepreneurial. The UK cultural sector has been experiencing the cycle of public funding for many more years than other parts of the world and we have become good at the creative use of our resources. And fortunately for the cultural sector, we have also seen a change in consumer behaviour – less concern about owning stuff and much more interest in buying experiences.


The museum or gallery ‘Lates’ format is a perfect example of finding that sweet spot of programming learning experiences, wooing new audiences and generating income.  National organisations, such as the Tate, have pioneered this format.  But the breadth of the ‘Lates’ offer this Halloween is testament to the creative thinking of so many organisations from small to large.  Two personal picks of small organisations being really creative with the theme are the Surgeons Hall Museums Edinburgh hosting a Cabaret of Pestilence – and the Museum of the Order of St John’s Late at the Gate Ye Olde Tavern Quiz.

Following on from the late night theme, we’re also seeing growth in ‘sleepovers’. Literally spending the night in vast museum spaces out of hours is another positive (if slightly baffling) trend, from Dino Snores at the Natural History Museum to ‘Champing’ – sleepovers in historic churches (an idea that has been so successful, Churches Conservation Trust are adding new churches every season). 


Another interesting area, borrowing an approach universities have tried and tested, is converting existing knowledge, embedded in staff and faculties, into training courses or consultancy to earn income and reach new audiences.  The massive growth in online learning can provide new platforms for distribution – MoMA’s portfolio of courses are a superb example of this in action. 

And let’s not ignore the more traditional routes of money making that continue to professionalise. You only have to look at the number (and quality) of sector professionals attending the Association of Cultural Enterprises annual conference as testimony to the growth of expertise in the sector. 


The developments that catch my eye are usually the result of robust partnerships. Having run the commercial enterprise for a small national museum I know how constrained all organisations are in terms of resources.  So working with partners, however challenging, can provide specialist knowledge, marketing might and much needed distribution. Licensing provides that much-sought-after ‘win win’. The new V&A-inspired John Lewis design collaboration is a ‘perfect-fit’ example of this.

Designing, defining and launching a licensing programme is no small undertaking. Having done exactly this at the Soane Museum I know how tricky it is to find those ‘commercial’ partners. But in my experience, as long as you are absolutely clear and confident about what your organisation stands for, the value that can be mined from your collection – and you treat your commercial partner with respect – anything is possible. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Soane Museum’s recent launch with Gainsborough Silks and Chisel & Mouse.

Every single one of our clients is facing the same challenges: doing more with less. So we’ve responded by developing JWA Concentrate – short sharp interventions to help move organisations forward. If you need a little (or a lot) of help boosting your commercial offer then please get in touch!