Cultural entrepreneurship, market research, museums and libraries

For the past few years together with a colleague I‘ve been involved in market research for a few museums. Last Friday I attended a workshop at the annual museum conference and I heard that quite a few museums are rather unfamiliar with market research. Or rather: some do some research, others don’t, and others are getting acquainted with it. And quite a few seem to wrestle with the question how to get people/groups in the ir picture that do not visit their museum. This morning we held a presentation on market research for a group of librarians involved with bringing a library IT product, it concerns public libraries to the market. For both museums and public libraries the what, and how of market research and especially WHY they should engage in this activity seems unexpectedly hard to explain. As with the museums Friday the libraries this morning wrestled with the question how to get target groups in focus that are not in the least bit interested in them. The binding question between museums and the public libraries thus being: how do we engage in a good, meaningful conversation about the needs, wants, feelings etc. of people whom we are not in touch with to explore where we can meet?

Museums, libraries, market research….. an until recently uncommon equation. With the call from government and the general public for more accountability over tax money spent and for increasing amounts of self generated income in public libraries and museums market research becomes a necessity I feel, a practicality that fits in the wider framework of the call and need for cultural entrepreneurship. Or rather, let’s call that: entrepreneurship for public libraries and museums. Because cultural entrepreneurship seems a container term already, covering anything from artists going commercial to companies doing something cultural.

What fascinates me is that there seems to be little or nearly no attention for the practical side of this entrepreneurship for museums and public libraries. I can find – and have done so! – rather generic training modules for entrepreneurship in libraries and museums, but I do not feel that these modules meet specific needs nor do I believe that this pars pro toto approach befits the needs of the sector. I strongly beli eve that a very individual approach is needed, as per organisation so many different people, skills, talents, ambitions etc. are involved. For example, some public librarians I met and assisted in developing their skills are excellent salesmen and –women. Others are happier structuring the back office. So different people, different approaches, and different tasks. But entrepreneurships is not only about skills. It’s also about processes within the libraries and museums. I feel that one cannot develop entrepreneurship without addressing those issues as well. All the more surprising that there seems to be so very little attention for this practical side of entrepreneurship, for the fears, joys, transformations, surprises and what have you that people encounter when taking the first steps on this rocky path. I think that especially this attention is so much needed to marry museums, libraries and entrepreneurship. Because I am passionate about it and based on my current experiences and practice I am convinced that it can be done, that there are ways. Practical skills can be awakened, shaped and taught and there genuinly are (many) professionals in the museums and library sector who (potentially, in the Platonic way) have what it takes. And moreover: I strongly feel that museums and libraries should profit from these professionals to make themselves and their products more visible. Any experiences out there with hands on cultural entrepreneurship in various countries? I would be delighted to hear and if anyone is interested I would be happy to explain how we organised several trajectories.
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3 comments for “Cultural entrepreneurship, market research, museums and libraries

  1. 20 februari 2011 at 15:57


    First of all my apologies for my somewhat belated response to your questions. Which I think are good!

    About the research that can be conducted in a museum or library, I can relate to the direction you think in: check facts, historical research etc. But if you look at these insitutions from a broader point of view these institutions can also be seen as rich learning and studying environments with opportunities for e.g. action learning, behavioral approaches etc. When thinking of these institutions, think of them in terms of objects, buildings, ideas and (human) infrastructures. And THEN try and think of the research that can be done! Does that help you at all? For further inspiration on this, please also look at an article that some colleagues and I wrote for Emerald a couple of years ago: Supporting lifelong learning in public libraries across Europe (which wasselected as a winner of one of Emerald’s Awards for Excellence 2008) (

    With regard to your question about cultural entrepreneurship, I’d say that there are many, many answers. Some see artists who have to live from their work as cultural entrepreneurs. Others see cultural institutions who have to start earning (a larger part of) their own income as cultural entrepreneurs. In this blog that is how I use the term. And you can do that by relating products strongly to certain target groups and markets (i.e. educational materials for formal educational institutions, or hosting events in your museum space). Another, in my opinion complementary take on the cultural entrepreneurship is to also see it as an attitude. A way of dealing with issues, a way of looking at your own institution, its target groups, marketing and services (which of course already is an entrepreneurial way of thinking, but then again: I am a consultant:-)). My point is: entrepreneurship in the cultural sector encompasses all levels, from vision to skills, from the board and directors to the receptionist. It is an attitude, that needs to be trained and complemented with the skills to actually make the vision become reality.

    Checking if you have the right employees, if you are doing your things right AND if you are doing the right things (!), promotion of the museums activities, partnering, it is all in the game of entrepreneurship. Take nothing for granted, listen to your customers, find your markets, identify your target groups, dare to choose with respect for yourself and your customers…that is what entrepreneurship in the cultural sector is about. I would like to add that the skills people in my experience need to develop in the cultural sector can be trained on a more generic level, but the entrepreneurial strategy will vary per institution as it depends on collections, vision etc.

    Now, I realise I am rather long again, but is this helpful to you? If not, or if further questions or thoughts, please post again, I think there is great need for thought and action in this to me fascinating field! That will also have its international differences. Where are you based?

  2. SMS
    20 februari 2011 at 17:15

    First of all, thank you very much for taking your time answering my questions.
    The “long” speech has indeed helped me into understanding what cultural entrepreneurship is all about.
    Actually, many parts of what is entepreneurship has similar things as communication (to know what customers want/need and how employee should be/know/have), another discipline in which we study how companies work in the real world.

    Altough my course is mainly based in promotion, museums and heritage, I study many different things, from photography to video, rights to economy, arts and tourism and so on.

    Once again thanks for your time.

  3. 20 februari 2011 at 17:34

    Yep, entrepreneurship is closely linked to communication. However, it also entails estimating and taking (financial) risks. It is a wonderfully philosophical question you’re askin here. If I can help you out, let me know!

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