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Art vs. commerce

Magdalena Tomaszewska, Student, MA Innovation Management,  Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design

Exploring the business case: does money flow naturally from the execution of good ideas or should creative thinking be driven by the desire for sustainable business models within the arts? Should artists think about return-on-investment when creating innovative new ideas for digital platforms; if not, what are the consequences for longer-term funding and sustainability?

The topic of art and commerce has never been an easy one, and looking at today’s digital landscape, there are more uncertainties, challenges and opportunities for organisations than ever before. The world has not only been flipped on its head, but also flattened out, compressing time & space to transform the way we interact. Entering this new realm of art and commerce requires one to shake their perspective of any old-school concepts completely.  Today the competition is endless, your customer is 140 characters away, the economy is driven by what's free and your brand value is your greatest currency.

Chris Anderson, Wired magazine's editor, has explored the new digital economy in two notable books. The first, The Long Tail, explores how our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of mainstream products and markets ('The Hits') and moving towards a huge number of niches. Due to the Internet the cost of production and distribution has fallen and with it the need for mass production. Without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, niche products and services can be as economically attractive and accessible as the mainstream.

It's only now, 15 years into the great experiment that is the internet, that industries are starting to surface with innovative models, which embrace the digital era. It appears industries are finally understanding and embracing the new terms of 'free'. Free has always played a part in commerce ('2 For 1' cross-subsidy) however the idea plays out differently in the digital landscape. Chris Anderson's book Free explores these new concepts, like Freemium (think Flickr, LinkedIn), advertising and the gift economy, among others.

In a recent project briefing we asked our client why they didn't want to enter the app market given they were a content creator/supplier. They said the market was too crowded and the quantity of apps they would have to sell wasn’t worth the time and effort needed to create and manage it. We were bemused, wouldn’t you give it away for free? Wasn’t it worth the customer experience? The fact that the customer would have you in the palm of their hand?

Now this doesn’t mean that you are to throw all your products, service, IP onto the Internet and the money will flow. What this means is that you as an organization, as a brand, have to assess your value, your USP and your customer more than ever. The Internet is a crowded space, fueled by what’s free. It's your job not only to create a strong brand that can assert itself in the market, but also have a clear idea of who your audience is, what they value in you and the experience you create, and how they engage with your offering.

The museums and galleries partaking in Google's Art Project know they need to have a digital presence. And while they are allowing Google to capture their collections online, allowing the world to access and view them for free, they are making sure the real-life, physical experience is far richer and more engaging, ensuring people keep coming through the door.

This isn’t a competition of who can manage the most social media accounts. This isn't about copying and pasting your analogue offering into the digital realm. Your greatest challenge is that you are entering the era of the Social Business. You need to think about your brand, your products/service and where the value lies. You need to strategically think which digital platforms will tell your story best. You need to consider what kind of experience your audience wants to engage in (online and off) and what they will pay for it (if anything). You need to think about how your organisation fits into the digital realm. Digital platforms aren’t simply marketing & communications tools, they can transform your organisation's potential profitability completely - if you only let them tip it on it's head.

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