Pegram Harrison





By Pegram Harrison

Managing Cultural Organisations: a research conference

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Few universities are older than Oxford, but the Università di Bologna is most certainly one of them.  Founded in 1088, it is the Alma Mater Studiorum, the nourishing mother of intellectual study, and the oldest continually operating university in the world.  Bolgona provided a very suitable location for a conference on Managing Cultural Organisations, being such an organisation itself and running one of the most prestigious teaching and research programmes in the world specialising on cultural heritage.   

Jessica Stitt, Janet Smart and Pegram Harrison, from Oxford Saïd Business School, along with our colleague from the British Museum Dr Anna Bülow, travelled to Bologna for the conference in December 2015. Hosted by one of the world’s great experts in this field, Professor Luca Zan from the business school at Bologna, this was the 5th workshop on the same topic since 2001. Its stated theme:


Central Bologna

Arts organisations, exhibitions centres, galleries, museums, archaeological sites and performing arts institutions, both public and private, have increasingly been put under pressure in the name of improved business efficiency and customer satisfaction in recent years. Privatisation, entrepreneurship and managerialism are often suggested as solutions for the survival of such institutions. The international financial crisis has made conflicts harder, and the survival itself of many arts organisations more challenging. In this context, the very nature of these institutions is called into question, and their offering (content, organizational arrangements, public interactions) depends to a large extent on resource availability and management.

Over two days, there about 20 papers on wide-ranging topics, mainly of a very high quality, and discussion was particularly rich and interesting.

Jessica Stitt presented a paper entitled “The Museum as a Professional Organisation: a case study of change at the British Museum”. She laid out the results of a series of interviews and other investigations into the management and leadership structures of the British Museum, and tracking several instances of substantial and beneficial change over the past ten years or so.

Professor Zan and colleagues have recently released a comprehensive book on the subject: Managing Cultural Heritage (2105, Ashgate). The opening sessions quickly scanned its main themes. One in particular concerns the dynamic of centralization and de-centralization in organisations. Cultural Heritage is just one manifestation of a context in which the real drivers of this dynamic are ill Zan_et alunderstood. For example, even cultural organisations with plenty of money and other tangible resources experience the same sorts of managerial challenges as under-funded organisations. Appropriate human resource management is a missing chapter in the field: people don’t know what to do given the special considerations of the context, nor is there even enough general training in the basic considerations of HRM in the field. A second theme, the translation of policy into practice, has strong resonance where museums are managed by the state, or strongly dependent on state support. Again, the throughput of the process (not the output) is under-researched and ill-understood. The book as a whole proposes an “ethnography of administration”, seeking to identify the right conditions for establishing consistency between resources, people and managerial routines. This is an encouraging framework for proposed interdisciplinary research in Oxford, looking at the role of the university (especially its museums and its business school) working with the city on the preservation and management of a collection of heritage sites—using the city as a “heritage lab”.

The next two papers of the conference focused on stakeholders and Scandinavia. Lasse Sonne from Buskerud and Vestfold University College in Norway asked why a UNESCO funding bid failed (Sonne & Burki, 2015), and Katja Lindqvist of Lund University investigated problems in collaborations between Swedish arts organisations (Lindqvist, 2015). In line with the key themes of Zan’s book, the insights of each study seems to lie in the dynamic between stakeholders, not in their identity—in other words, the problem observed weren’t caused by mutual incomprehension between different types of organisation (e.g. non-profit vs for-profit), but instead by conflicting external influences on decision-making across the full-span of the collaboration. New units of analysis seem appropriate for sketching out a new focus for research. Consistent reference to a recent source explains some of these common concerns, “Museums and the ‘new museology’: theory, practice, and organisational change” (McCall & Gray, 2013).

A bountiful range of references appeared in the next paper, from Luca Pareschi and Maria Lusiani, from the Universities of Bologna and of Ca’ Foscari in Venice, asking whether there is a shift in the orientation of museums toward an economic logic, causing tensions with an earlier humanistic orientation, and calling for a more detailed empirical look at how museums operate given this shift (Pareschi & Lusiani, 2015). This reference to institutional theory sits well with work emerging in Oxford from Michael Smets and Tim Morris (2012). The methodologically of this paper was particularly noteworthy: “Topic Modelling” is a specific, inductive, relational means of analysing large a corpus of textual data. This might prove a promising approach for intended work on the entrepreneurial turn in strategy research, and the intellectual history of entrepreneurship.

Francesco Chiaravallotti from the University of Amsterdam spoke next, on how evaluation of artistic performance occurs and asking what this says about accountability. These questions are relevant in any organisational context, but differently so in cultural organisations than in commercial ones—and understanding both the similarities and differences is instructively challenging. This work looks at the activities, nature, and procedures of evaluation along various dimensions of performance: artistic (itself sub-divided into programming, production, reception), social, organisational, and financial. Two sources seem central to this research (Amans, Mazars-Chapelon, & Villesèque-Dubus, 2015; Hooper, Kearins, & Green, 2005) in substantiating a museum-field rationality for the evaluation of performance that is also consistent with general performance metrics applied in organisations generally. Chiaravallotti shows how important it is to balance both inter-dependent meanings of the word “performance”, aesthetic and managerial, and seeks a “positive dialogue between an artistic rationality and a business-managerial rationality,” (Chiaravallaotti, 2015, p. 59)

A similar concerns emerged in the paper from Monica Calcagno and Stefano Riccioni, from Ca’ Foscari, with an emphasis on art exhibitions analogous to Chiaravallotti’s concerns with artistic performance (Calcagno & Riccioni, 2015). Exhibitions can be routes to market for an institution: as much as they are statements of aesthetic value, they are also statements of commercial value. But how is the aesthetic quality balanced with commercial success? The role of the curator outside of the museum is relevant here in understanding the continuum of stakeholders by which to evaluate an exhibition, as a figure coordinating both the production and reception of different modes of inter-dependent value.

This focus on an individual actor—in this case the curator—was also evident in the paper presented by Dom Holdaway and Angelo Tomaselli of the University of Bologna (Holdaway & Tomaselli, 2015), on film financing. Citing familiar management and finance literature showing that status and experience affect access to resources, they show evidence that the social status, more than experience, of venture market intermediaries can positively affect a film’s market performance, often more than its aesthetic qualities. The difference between the project-like nature of films and the institution-like nature of firms, they posit, is akin to the different between a venture and a going-concern. The valuation of a new venture, whether aesthetic or commercial or both, is based on assumptions and inputs more readily available to those with high reputation. In other words, “film directors presenting high status can positively influence State funding, and influence artistic performance positively, while film distributors presenting high status can positively affect private funding and commercial performance,” (Holdaway & Tomaselli, 2015, p. 1). What is significant here, in light of the other papers discussed here, is “the dynamic of centralization and de-centralization” (to use Zan’s phrase from above). Performance is evaluated (even before expression) in a counterpoint of aesthetic and managerial concerns, neither of which can be understood without the other.

The popular contemporary notion of co-production is relevant here, and was central to a paper presented by Michele Tamma from Ca’ Foscari (Tamma & Artico, 2015). Here, the dynamic of centralization and de-centralization takes the form of evaluating the benefits of collaboration between parties, where companies achieve a form of strategic exploration and museums enact a form of exploitation. Mutual benefits accrue when a cultural context is embedded in business practices (perfume, wine, fabric, etc), but not otherwise. If a museum, for example, receives no sustainable managerial learning from collaboration with a company sponsor on an exhibition, no real co-production is occur. The company is getting cheap marketing and the museum is subsidising its costs—but nothing authentic is being co-produced, or (better) nothing is being authentically co-produced.

Moving up from the institutional to the industrial level, Maria Lusiani and Fabrizio Panozzo from Ca’ Foscari looked at the rhetoric of “culture-led” regeneration of industrial heritage, and how the “business case” for complex and extensive heritage sites is made and maintained, especially with civic as well as business stakeholders (Lusiani & Panozzo, 2015). What is the specifically cultural value of regeneration? How can it be appraised? How can it be integrated into other rhetorics of evaluation? By looking at what is actually going on in industrial sites—quite literally a “field-level logic” (Smets, Morris, & Greenwood, 2012)—the authors adduce a continuum from “Industrial Culture” (a preventative discourse concerned with avoiding loss of value) through “Cultural Use” (a strategic discourse concerned with generating new value). In both cases, there is a drift toward the instrumental or material rationalisation—an economic logic—that sits awkwardly with aesthetic considerations. Sites for preservation and re-purposing are often identified for commercial reasons (they are big enough to generate profit to exceed the costs of renovation) and not aesthetic reasons (they are important, or beautiful, or otherwise significant)—and this is largely because it is easier to make the former judgments than the latter. “We should stop producing containers with no content”, Lusiani and Panozzo wisely warn, and concluding that “careful attention should be placed by industrial heritage policies in escaping functional determinism,” (2015, p. 7).



Lusiani and Panozzo’s paper clarified a strong, over-arching theme for the whole conference: measuring what one can instead of what one could is making fairly arbitrary and deterministic value judgments. The challenges inherent in the management of cultural heritage enables one to perceive that there are other ways to apprise value more holistically, sustainably, and usefully. This has implications not only for the management of cultural institutions, but also for more general aspects of management studies.




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