Arts PR: Learning the fine art of communications - Arts organisations from the Royal Opera House to the Royal Academy and the Tate are under pressure to perform in public relations terms as well as artistically

The re-emergence of Britain as a cultural epicentre has coincided with a turbulent period in the PR history of the arts sector. Rarely has the dirty laundry of the fine arts world been so prominently displayed to the public as in the last couple of months.

The re-emergence of Britain as a cultural epicentre has coincided

with a turbulent period in the PR history of the arts sector. Rarely has

the dirty laundry of the fine arts world been so prominently displayed

to the public as in the last couple of months.

The internal wranglings of the Royal Academy over ’Sensation’ - its

tribute to the new generation of artists such as Damien Hirst - and the

ongoing crisis faced by the Royal Opera House, have exposed the

labyrinthine organisational structures that have created many of these

PR problems.

’We have 80 academics, 13 of which sit on the Council (which controls

policy), they all have their own views and they can express their


It isn’t our position to stop them talking,’ says Catharine Jones, press

and promotions officer at the Royal Academy who has recently witnessed

resigning academics criticising its decision to court the likes of


The ROH suffers a similar problem, according to Quentin Bell, who was

brought in by its chairman Lord Chadlington earlier this year to chair a

PR think-tank.

’In a commercial organisation at the end of the day there is a boss and

a board, but in an arts organisation there are so many people who have

vested interests,’ says Bell.

According to Bell, the ROH’s communications, like that of many other

arts organisations, has been hampered by its attempt to walk a tightrope

between its artistic principles and commercial imperatives.

Such is the complexity of the task that the ROH is now splitting out its

marketing and communications function and is currently interviewing for

an external affairs director.

This is only one of several significant appointments over the last year,

which indicate a move away from sponsorship-driven marketing towards the

need to address more diverse audiences.

Earlier this year, the Royal National Theatre appointed its first head

of public affairs, Vivien Wallace, whose remit is to address the

theatre’s ’wider constituency’. In September, the Barbican also

appointed its first director of public affairs, Ruth Hasnip, whose brief

is to co-ordinate event publicity, but perhaps most significantly to

communicate a corporate brand for the Barbican, which encompasses a

multiplicity of art forms.

It is this move away from the event-by-event approach, that has tended

to characterise arts sector PR, towards a concentration on the corporate

brand that represents the most significant move forward in terms of


’Venues haven’t perceived the need to market their own brands if they

have a lot of touring events coming in which have their own publicity,’

says Hasnip. ’But the Barbican is a chameleon, so it is important that

we understand our own brand.’

The day-to-day pressure to generate audiences has led some organisations

to bring in outside consultants to take an objective view of their


The Royal Academy has used Burson-Marsteller for the past year as an

adviser on its broader brand strategy, and the National Portrait Gallery

has brought in Colman Getty to work on specific projects.

Significantly, the Barbican has just appointed an education officer -

Gillian Barker - whose role it is to communicate the value of the

Corporation of London’s pounds 18 million input to the arts to the

diverse local communities of the City, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and


The need to communicate the benefits of arts projects to the local

community has been greatly enhanced by the Millennium Commission which

requires applicants to prove public support for its projects.

Damien Whitmore, head of communications at the Tate Gallery, for

example, made brilliant use of promotional tie-ins with Harvey Nichols

and Pret a Manger at the time of the Tate’s application to the

Millennium Commission, to ensure that its Cezanne exhibition generated


Having secured funding, he now faces the challenge of extending the Tate

brand across two Tates - the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art due to open

at Bankside in the year 2000 and a new Gallery of British Art on the

existing site. Whitmore is also working with arts PR agency Erica Bolton

and Jane Quinn and on a pro bono basis with GJW on communicating the

importance of the project, not just in artistic terms but also as a

means of local regeneration. ’Culture is an important way of

regenerating,’ says Bolton. ’Getting the support of the community has

been a very important part of the project, emphasising the economic

impact on the area, bringing in new money and new jobs to an area of

high unemployment.’

It is this range of audiences - from sponsors to audiences, funding

authorities to local communities - that need to be addressed by arts

organisations to raise the professionalism of the industry.

But it remains to be seen whether some of Britain’s most prestigious

institutions will be able to successfully take advantage of the cultural

climate and finally bring art to the masses.

Changing times at the ROH

Lord Chadlington, chairman of the ROH and Shandwick, has come under fire

for his handling of the ROH. Having claimed the ROH faced insolvency

last week, he produce a pounds 3 million rescue package just in time and

claims that a financial structure is now being put in place which will

restore confidence in the House. ’We have to address the way in which

communication and management systems are established. It is not a

dysfunctional structure but it is pretty close to it,’ says


’We must run the Opera House and other institutions within an envelope

of cost. That is the change of culture I am trying to get into the Royal

Opera House.’

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