What do you actually do, many people ask of Aspire. Do you provide products or services? Services or products? What do you sell? someone asked insistently this week when we were part of a trade mission to Skopje in Macedonia.
After some spinning around of the options – tickets? consultancies? projects? It occurred to me that we do all and none of things. No, what we sell are ideas. As simple and complex as that: ideas.
And we sell them to audiences, participants, staff, funders, project holders and stakeholders, past present and future. it’s not even as something as structured and regulated as knowledge or know-how although that’s part of the picture. No, It’s ideas. Widgets we are not.
The difficulty in selling ideas is that they’re difficult to demonstrate to people and say, there you are, there’s an idea. Would you like to buy it? We have neither have catalogues nor a website which advertises stuff we can sell on in a clear unambiguous way. An idea may as frequently be present on the back of a fag packet as it is in a business plan. Many of the better ones don’t even make it onto the fag packet.
Annoyingly for the accountants amongst us, ideas cannot be pinned down, measured or assessed with much confidence about their economic viability. Ideas are a bit like thought bubbles which lead to further thoughts, which lead to actions which lead to consequences –some beneficial and worthwhile, others unexpected and unwelcome.
We may –and do –produce many things over a year – but given the nature of the arts, these are frequently ephemeral, may just last for a few minutes or hours and may have taken many weeks or months of preparation for that big moment of arts production – when whoof! Its all gone in the flash of an eye, the curtain has come down, the houselights gone up and you’re left looking at a bare stage going, is that all there is?
The notion of arts as service is equally unreliable. Good arts activities will lead to personal experiences which are memorable, transferrable and irreversible. Once you participate in a workshop for example, you may not like it – but you can’t un-do the experience and you can’t take it back to the retailer complaining that you don’t like the colour, that it doesn’t fit or that you were given it by mistake by your grand-aunt. An arts workshop is for life, not just for Christmas. It’s a service you don’t always know what you’re going to be getting from it.
So, the products fade quickly and cost a small fortune to put together; the services may be modest and last for a few hours on a wet Tuesday afternoon in a school in Ellesmere Port.
But what they alll have in common is that the ideas that drives this economy lead to fundamental and vital experiences – learning, fun, play, entertainment, reflection, friendship, connection, love, humour and bewonderment.
Oh, and perhaps even immortality on a good day: a big claim for any business, to be sure, but one which ranks up there with the best of all human aspirational activity.