Now more than ever, art has a place in business. Tech startups may get the most news coverage, but the majority of the entrepreneurial engine of this country has a very different history. I've spoken a great deal in this column about the relationship between art and business. Most of my friends in Entrepreneurs' Organization didn't have a whiff of business experience, but almost all of them had some background in the arts. A theater major in college, I grew an Inc. 500 company from the ground up. Don't let the STEM folks fool you - the liberal arts are just as important as ever.
Heidi Zuckerman may be in the art world, but she's putting a little bit of "profit" back in non-profit. Now, this isn't to say she's driven purely by dollars and no cents (!) of anything else. It does mean that she's as responsible for return on investment as any for-profit CEO. Zuckerman is the CEO and Director of the Aspen Art Museum, which displays modern and contemporary art from around the world. Under her leadership, the AAM raised $120 million and built a new facility with famed architect Shigeru Ban. It also received the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Previously, Zuckerman was the Chair of the Curatorial Department at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, and the Assistant Curator of 20th Century Art at The Jewish Museum.
On an episode of my podcast 10 Minute Tips from the Top, Zuckerman shared her thoughts on how the arts offer great advice on business and marketing:
1. Tell a Story
Whatever you're marketing, you need to make an emotional impact, which requires humor, trauma, or beauty. For Zuckerman, storytelling is an excellent vehicle. "I actually grew up around art. My grandmother was a prolific collector. Every rug, every piece of furniture, every piece of silver or porcelain, was something she had hand-selected," she recalls. "But my parents were not interested. [Some of my grandmother's collection was at our house, so] I grew up with objects without any interpretation, and it was left to me to come up with my own stories." Zuckerman wants to tell a story to museum visitors, too. "What's been a defining aspect of my career is [understanding] the intention of the person who made the objects. I spent a lot of time with artists. I spend a lot of time asking them why they do what they do...I feel like one of my key roles is to be both an advocate for artists, and also to be an interpreter," she explains. Contemporary art can be a challenge for viewers, so she strives to be "someone who can look at an object, talk to the artist, and explain it to the audience to build this triangular relationship in a way that is to a greater benefit." It's powerful when the artist can more fully connect with the audience.
2. Make It Interactive
Some people may think of visiting a museum as a passive activity, but Zuckerman wants to make it an immersive experience. That's certainly part of why she believes storytelling is an important part of the art. It has other applications, too, for those who support the museum. For Zuckerman, the development of this relationship between art and viewer has become part of the fundraising. She shares, "I don't think anyone can tell anyone else how to spend their money. That's not my business. What we do is offer an opportunity to be part of something that we think matters." One element that matters is the influence art can have beyond the walls of the museum. "We're really interested in the transformative power of art. This idea that you can't provide anyone transcendence - you can't mandate it - but what we do is offer the opportunity for that transcendent moment. And I think that's what draws people to our institution," she says. By allowing for this transformation, the donor is actually creating something separate from but directly related to the art. "We believe, profoundly, that art makes the world better, and that my having the opportunity to be exposed to art, that you can be part of the creation of meaning, not just for yourself but for a broad-based community," Zuckerman says. It may not be easily measurable in dollars and cents, but it's certainly a remarkable return on investment.
3. Let It Simmer
During our conversation, I confessed to Zuckerman that I can't quite grasp all modern art. Where other art experts have looked down on my ignorance, Zuckerman celebrated it. "We are a museum of modern and contemporary art, and that can be intimidating and scary to people. Or even confusing, which actually is not a bad thing," she says. She goes on, "I think we're so focused as a society on trying to understand everything, and I try to counter that by saying, 'Wow. Take a deep breath. Isn't it kind of great not to understand something? Maybe you can learn something about yourself by being confused. Let yourself sit in that place of confusion. It's interesting not to drive the bus for a few minutes, but to maybe sit in the first row, or even the back, and see what happens." This refreshing attitude has helped me take a fresh look at the modern art I've seen since then. Plus, it's the perfect advice for CEOs who need some perspective!
4. Make It Out of the Ordinary
On one hand, Zuckerman is laser focused. "Everything we do stems from the artist and the object...As a CEO and Director, I do privilege the artist and the artwork, so everything we do comes from our program. We educate, fundraise, and market from our program. That's the essence of what we do," she asserts. On the other hand, Zuckerman has intentionally developed a relationship with the Aspen community quite different from that of a typical museum. "We live in a small rural community... we're one of only 4 accredited art museums in the entire state of Colorado, and we're the only one on the western slope of Colorado. So we do perform some social service functions that a lot of other museums probably don't," Zuckerman explains. To that end, AAM offers a variety of community collaborations with area non-profits and schools. In particular, Zuckerman points to the museum's relationship with The Hope Center, a suicide prevention and mental health advocacy group in the area. Instead of the typical museum promotions like displaying artwork of constituents or raising money, Zuckerman had a different, more directly impactful idea. She said to the Hope Center, "Why don't we make the museum a safe space? Let's train all of our front line staff in the way that you train all of your volunteers so that people can be given the name and address and phone number of the Aspen Art Museum as a safe space to come." This is an embodiment of the transformative power of art that Zuckerman wants to share, and is also an opportunity to connect more with every member of the audience. Zuckerman says, "Often the distinction between an irreparable, terrible decision and not is just having someone show you some kindness. So you cannot come to the Aspen Art Museum without someone talking to you and engaging you and making you feel at least visible, if not important." The Aspen Art Museum is doing good for its community, and it's helped make the audience experience better in the process.
On Fridays, Kevin explores industry trends, professional development, best practices, and other leadership topics with CEOs from around the world.