How Business Partnerships can Build Arts Audiences
Visitors to Victoria Square shopping centre in summer 2017 were greeted with large-scale fashion photography prints hanging from the roof. The photos were part of Belfast Photo Festival’s ‘Fashion - A Matter of Attitude’ exhibit.
Some of the exhibition was held at the Ulster Museum, but the work spilled out across the city, into Victoria Square, and also into many other public squares and spaces.
I talked to Sarah Hughes, a freelance arts consultant who worked with Belfast Photo Festival and Victoria Square to make this project happen. I asked her about how the project came about and how cultural organisations can use business partnerships and sponsorships to reach new spaces and audiences:
I was at a Belfast Festivals Forum meeting and started talking to Michael Weir, the Director of Belfast Photo Festival. He wanted to expand the planned exhibition of vintage Condé Nast photos from Vogue and Vanity Fair, so we thought about who in town would be interested in high fashion, and Victoria Square seemed to be the perfect fit. So I went away and wrote a proposal for a project. The proposal went through what audience it would be attracting, and it highlighted the opportunities for branding and the benefits it would bring to the business. We got great advice and support from the Arts and Business Investment Programme as well.
Alongside this, we started talking to Alexander Boyd Displays, who came on board as our print partner. This meant we were able to expand the exhibition space and place large canvas walls in Cathedral Quarter, St Anne’s Square and Writer’s Square.
Alexander Boyd also commissioned a piece of work from a local artist that was then displayed on one of the company’s new products – a portable digital LED screen.
The whole project was about taking art out of galleries. The festival used all of the main galleries in Belfast, but the vision for the festival is bigger, so it made sense to bring art out into the public sphere. Outdoor advertising and branding are a big part of Alexander Boyd’s business, so it was a good match for the festival’s outdoor presence in public spaces. With both partners, we thought through what we wanted our audiences to experience, what the work was about, and found a business that made sense to partner with.
A Way In for New Audiences
The very last thing they wanted the festival to be was elitist – they wanted it to be accessible, and having works in public spaces was a way to achieve this. Around 60,000 people were reached just by having the works shown in Victoria Square.
Sometimes traditional exhibition spaces can be off-putting for new visitors - have I to dress up, how will I know what to say? Do I have to drink a glass of wine?
So experiencing art in a familiar setting can be a way to break down audience hesitation that ‘galleries aren’t for me’.
We chose the works to have the ‘hook’ of fashion. This was a way to bring people in and something that made sense in the context of Victoria Square. But there were more challenging works included too and people had to opportunity to discover some really exciting photographers.
Part of the audience development aspect of the projects was getting people engaged and talking. The works had an extra impact because you were encountering something unexpected. The ‘surprise’ element of the exhibits led to people posting about it and starting conversations on social media.
Tips for Creating Successful Business Partnerships
Success is down to how well you are able to tell your story. You need to show that you know about their business and you’ve creatively thought about the potential project. Victoria Square shopping centre was not just focused on product promotion, but the promotion of an overall experience and ‘day out’ – so the photography exhibition played really well into this.
A lot of people in arts admin are used to applying for funding from the Arts Council for example, but there’s a different approach needed when working with business. It’s important to know as much as possible about the businesses you are approaching.
You need to be like a private detective. Who are they trying to reach, what’s their tone of voice, who is the audience they’re addressing? Do any of the things we do match up? It’s got to be like a Venn diagram. The business objectives, your own needs, with an overlapping audience segment in the middle that you can help them reach.
I had a two-foot high file of information about the businesses I was approaching for potential collaboration and sponsorship. Sending out copy-and-paste proposals to multiple businesses will only result in your proposal being put straight into the bin
It’s a long process – you’ll need to make follow up calls, and it’s not an exact science either. But there are eight, ten, twelve thousands out there if you know where to look and how to ask.
Sarah Hughes is a freelance arts consultant who has worked in the NI cultural sector for almost twenty years including the Belfast Festival at Queens, Queens Film Theatre, and the Derry Londonderry UK City of Culture.
During her work with Derry Londonderry UK City of Culture she raised over half a million pounds worth of corporate sponsorship for the programme.
In 2016, she decided to go freelance and set up Ava Creative Consulting in 2016 to share this experience around sponsorship and bringing art into the public sphere and to new audiences.
Want to know more about partnering with business?
Check out our good friends Arts and Business, who are the experts in this area.