The biggest question on many artists’ and arts organization’s minds is—how do I make money from my art form? One South African ballet company has begun to investigate this question and is coming up with solutions to prevent closing the curtain for good.
South African Mzansi Ballet (SAMB) is a Joannesburg-based professional ballet company comprised of both classical and contemporary dancers. It has not received any government funding for the last 12 years and is struggling to make ends meet. The company is now looking for ways to make their product—the experience of live ballet—both viable and sellable.
Recently, six business administration students from the Harvard Business School visited SAMB for two weeks as part of their Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development program, which aims to help HBS students increase their practical experience in the business world. The students conducted research to help the marketability of the company, in turn gaining practical experience, while the directors of the ballet company gained valuable advice on how to maintain sustainability. "It's a fantastic opportunity for us to really get out into the world and see how people run businesses outside of the classroom," says Jonathan Herbert, one of the students.
Chief Executive of SAMB Dirk Badenhorst says it costs about $2 million to run a ballet company in South Africa, and ticket sales only recoup one-third of operating costs. For the other two-thirds, the ballet company has to rely on contributions from patrons. "Our product, which in our case is the luxury brand of ballet, needs to be sold like any other product, because by keeping us like an arts company, you literally keep us on our knees," he says.
"You're selling experience," adds Rie Yamamoto, also one of the HBS students. "It's not just a posture you're selling. It's not about tutus or the shoes or whatever; it's this special feeling that you feel when you go see the performance; it's about the music; it's about the whole new world that you see on stage and that's exactly what you're selling. It's just the feeling that you get at the theatre, so that's exactly your product."
Harvard professor Sandra Sucher believes that dance companies have to be business savvy to market professional ballet successfully. It goes beyond selling ballet as a product. "I think that there is a discipline to learning how to run yourself as a business organization that is important for an arts company regardless of whether they have government funding," says Sucher.
The HBS students conducted their research in different areas of Johannesburg, surprised to find that people were, indeed, interested in seeing the ballet. Their lack of participation was not necessarily due to ticket costs, but rather due to lack of information on when the performances were or how to get to them.
One way the students agreed to combat these issues is to bring the ballet to the people. Badenhorst agrees, stating, "It's also time that we move out of our comfort zones in the big theatres and that we actually start touring again; that we take the ballet to the army, to farmers to the plants of big, big companies and businesses, to the real man on the street and to get them to appreciate the beauty and wonder of ballet."
With sound business advice from HBS students, this collaboration may be what SAMB needs to go on with the show.
For more information on the HBS-SAMB partnership, visit the following article on CNN.com. For valuable return-on-investment tips for your arts organization, visit the e-books section on ArtsMarketing.org.