— Cultural Sources of Newness

Conversions on my mind

The two corporate speakers at a private concert last night put conversions on my mind. One spoke of converting us to ambassadors for the musicians, and the other described her own conversion to their music and her experience with colleagues and clients her company had invited to the group’s concerts. The two types of conversions occupied my mind throughout the concert: the conversion of listeners to become financial supporters, and the conversion from the ranks of the “uninitiated” to active supporters of the group’s chamber music.  

The corporate speaker for the financial conversion referred several times to page 9 of the program. It was dark in the hall, the programs were left unopened. In the light of day we read that there are three official categories: Botschafter/ambassadors (€1000 or more for individuals, €2000 for corporate givers); Unterstützer/supporters (€250 or more for individuals, €500 corporate; and for Freunde/friends a mere €55/€200). It seems that is not just in the facebook world that being a “friend” comes cheap today. The program shows that the group (which is proud to abstain from public funding) now has 11 ambassadors and 26 supporters. The musicians shared their gifts generously in their rendition of a Schubert trio in the corporate space last night. Asking for money for the arts almost borders on a taboo topic: the speeches emphasized that the musicians are not in this group for the money but for the love of music. The 85-90 select guests listened, drank, ate, and were merry. How many will have been converted in the financial sense by the experience?

The other corporate speaker was eloquent in describing how she overcame her own musical limits after experiencing the group. A big orchestra plays a big sound, that has an impact, she exclaimed! But she had been sceptical, could the smaller chamber music constellation also affect her? When inviting employees and clients, she had to overcome a second kind of scepticism as well because the group is committed to juxtaposing “classical” and contemporary compositions: is that sound/noise really music? She assured us that she had been converted and so had many of the company’s guests. The company is therefore happy to support the group.

That sent my mind back and forth to my research about different kinds of relationships between the arts and business. The traditional relationship between the world of the arts and the world of business has been one of giving: the arts give pleasure, the rich (individuals, companies) give money.  Recent decades have seen the growth of sponsoring relationships:  companies contract with artists they see as representing the kind of value they want to be associated with. The heart of the deal is (big) money in exchange for (good) reputation—and both partners gain visibility. The focus of my research is on a relatively new kind of relationship: artistic interventions in organizations, processes in which people, products or practices from the world of the arts enter organizations.

These relationships usually have a learning orientation: the arts are brought into the organization to stimulate some kind of learning (e.g., creativity, new leadership models), often with the objective of improving organizational performance in some way. In some of the cases I am studying, the company already has relationships with the arts: they have been supporting an orchestra, for example, and inviting employees and customers to attend the concerts. I am interested in exploring the connection between these different kinds of relationships. Is there a greater probability of converting a philanthropist from “just giving” into becoming a learning partner, than it is to get an uninitiated organization to try an artistic intervention?  Does a company that knows how to be a philanthropist find it easier to learn from and with artists in artistic interventions than other companies do? One might expect the answer to be obviously yes, but research on organizational learning suggests that it might be easier for the “uninitiated” to learn from and with artists in artistic interventions, because they might have less “unlearning” to do than organizations that already have years of experience with managing a different kind of relationship.

The theme of conversion haunts me as a researcher in this field. I sometimes feel surrounded by believers (e.g., artists; managers and employees who have benefited from artistic interventions; and the intermediaries that connect the two worlds), by sceptics (e.g., other artists; managers and employees who have not yet experienced an artistic intervention); and by policymakers seeking ways of solving economic and social problems who call for research to provide evidence to support them if they are believers or persuade them if they are sceptics: evidence of how artistic interventions can convert organisations into great places to work, leading-edge innovators…

Unfortunately, all these thoughts and voices competed with Schubert for attention last night. I am buying a ticket for the concert tonight, and leaving my research mind behind at the office.