Arts Centre/Conference Centre: The Balancing Act

Lindsey Cook, Head of Communications for mac birmingham, offers an insight into how the venue deals with the challenges of balancing its artistic ethos with the commercial demands of its meetings and conference trade. 

I often think of our arts centre as a bit like the fountain in New York’s Central Park. If you sit there for long enough, everyone in the city passes you. And oh what a city! Birmingham is an incredibly diverse melting pot of cultures. It’s also Europe’s youngest city, surprising new visitors with the lush greenery of parks and suburbs and celebrated miles of canal.

An arts centre thrives best when it reflects its home. mac birmingham changes according to those in its building; a heady mix of artists and audiences. But situated in one of the city’s most popular parks we accept that many use us for our cafe, shop and – to be brutally honest – our five star award-winning loos. On the crossroads of four very different areas; affluent Edgbaston, the student populous of Selly Oak, the boho-chic of Moseley/Kings Heath and the predominantly Asian neighbourhood of Balsall Heath, we strive to be a welcoming gateway to the arts for all of these communities.

However, our greatest challenge comes not from serving the 916,000 visits we receive each year, but from the imperative to ensure our doors remain open to all; welcoming, accessible and affordable. To subsidise our artistic activity (frequently free of charge) we work with our funders and supporters to provide the £4m+ it takes to stay open every year. And the commercial efforts of our subsidiary company, mac Trading Ltd, have never been more important in balancing the books.

Since our £15.4m redevelopment saw us reopen in 2010, our catering offer has been designed to reflect the high-aspirations of our contemporary arts venue. Gone is the teabag in a paper cup, and in its place baristas serving Fairtrade lattes. Where we once simply sold tickets to our myriad of events, courses, screenings and performances, we now also have a shop selling cards, books, gifts and anything else coveted by our park-loving visitors.

But perhaps it’s the evolution of our meetings and conferences trade which has taken the most adjustment. Where once we hosted the odd children’s party, rehearsal or meeting, mac now offers a comprehensive service of hospitality, catering, marketing and technical services, which last year turned over almost £1.5m. When the income is this high, and in the face of dwindling financial support from core funders, there is temptation to allow the space to become a conference centre focused on servicing the “suits” in preference to the artists who should be at the core of our work.

In the last four years a way of working has been forged and tested between the teams working in the commercial operations and artistic areas. Aside from the economic imperative, we recognise that our commercial users are important audience development targets, increasing and diversifying our footfall. There are naturally tensions over the use of space: when significant conferencing income is lost in favour of a niche film with an audience of 15 or when exhibition spaces are clogged with trestle tables of teas and coffees. But that is where our core ethos must be the over-riding factor in decision-making. We are an arts centre.

And if anything, the sharing in skills across departments is boosting our resourcefulness. Our Head of Event Sales, guided by our Arts team, now programmes additional performances which may not sit clearly within our artistic priorities, but does offer more opportunity to promoters, artists of all levels and the audiences who desire to see them. And in reverse, our Arts Team can refer quality commercial product, boosting income without compromising their arts development objectives.

And aside from all of this, having the strength to reject income in favour of the art, is a focusing tool for our whole team. It’s why we’re all here. It’s a shared vision and a shared passion which connects everyone in the organisation. mac makes arts an important part of people’s lives.

Any way we can.

Lindsey Cook, Head of Communications, mac birmingham