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Updated: December 13, 2010 08:16 IST

In their own voice - The business of the arts

Anil Srinivasan
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Anil Srinivasan speaks of business fundamentals in the arts. Photo: D. Krishnan
The Hindu Anil Srinivasan speaks of business fundamentals in the arts. Photo: D. Krishnan

"We seem to have tremendous difficulty in being able to assign economic value to the performing arts. From concert pricing and infrastructural budgeting to artists’ honoraria, there is discomfort in the air," says classical pianist Anil Srinivasan

On a recent trip abroad, I was drawn into a discussion about funding the performing arts. Opportunities and challenges were given equal emphasis, and some of the speakers were quite vociferous in their views. There were two distinct sessions — one that dealt with public-private partnerships that could foster better infrastructure, education and opportunities to artists. The second session focused almost exclusively on the idea of keeping corporate participation minimal and improving managerial acumen in the non-profit domain more organically.

As an individual equipped with a doctoral education in management, I found the first discussion filled with words that I was used to in business school classrooms including “strategic finance”, “leverage” and “positioning”. In the latter discussion, I was allowed to revel in the world of the stage that I am used to as a performer. Phrases such as “inadequate sponsorship”, “declining/fickle audience interest” and even “changes in media priorities” were exchanged freely.

In comparing and contrasting the two schools of thought, I have come to the following conclusions. One, we seem to have tremendous difficulty in being able to assign economic value to the performing arts. From concert pricing and infrastructural budgeting to artists’ honoraria, there is discomfort in the air — discussing it almost always leads to awkward moments and misunderstanding. Two, there is often a lopsided view as to the relevance of the performing arts to a larger community. Either it is over-emphasised by performers and performing arts organisations, or it is trivialised by those who feel that it is not worth their while to even attempt a more systematic valuation of artistic output. Three, too many individuals adopt normative views on the topic, often sounding didactic and judgmental (without intent, hopefully!).  This is further complicated by the counterproductive view that the arts (specifically in the case of Indian classical music) must be exempt from economic discussions as they transcend all material considerations.

We need to return to the basics. A simple look at business fundamentals and arriving at an intuitive understanding of economic value pricing can actually help foster a more informed and co-operative dialogue. Unfortunately, very few people want to talk this language. For instance, what is the size and composition of the audience demographic for classical music? What psychographic profiling can we undertake? What areas for public-private partnerships actually make economic sense? What sustainable models can we envisage (music technology; music pedagogy and education; audio CD production and distribution) that can create a more cohesive ecosystem for the performing arts sans independent political agendas and egos? How can we change from a culture of self-imposed financial dependencies in the performing arts to a paradigm of self-sustainable financial freedom?

Unbend staid mindsets

We all know that the audience for classical music as a proportion of the larger economically advantaged population is low. However, the path ahead is not merely in creating greater awareness and elementary education. We need to create an atmosphere for possibilities and unbending staid mindsets. Many in the corporate space look at classical arts performers as fringe participants to the larger economic dialogue. Worse, they tend to look at the performing arts as a drain on economic surplus that could be written off in CSR worksheets. I believe that this is wrong. The arts are India’s greatest intellectual assets, and valued right, could boost our place in the world economic pecking order in more ways than we imagine.

The visual arts have fared a lot better, perhaps as a direct consequence of the international market for it. A closer look at how this domain has functioned might also be additionally useful. Also, why do we not have more individuals capable of understanding the corporate milieu and the realm of the arts in equal measure? I am always surprised that the plethora of management institutes in our country has not yet found the need to investigate a full-blown specialty in arts management.

On the flip side, I find that even some of the more educated members of the performing arts fraternity shy away from discussing the state of the economy. Barring a few, I have often found myself rebuffed with lines like “I will just focus on my art. Why do I need to know all that?” Any attempt at probing deeper brings out an innate mistrust of anyone or any entity whose primary objective is the fine art of making money.  To be fair, if we as performing artists do not take a greater interest in the workings of the economy and current business challenges, why should we expect to be treated with anything more than superficial respect and marginal importance?

To be sure, more lasting solutions to commercially strengthening our performing arts will only come with greater education. Only, I am not just discussing teaching our children music or dance.

Anil Srinivasan is a Chennai-based classical pianist (www.anilsrinivasan.com)

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