Partnerships for Success: Building a Presence in New Markets

14th February 2022

Asia’s art market boom has led to the emergence of new cultural institutions. Over the last decade, it is estimated that in China an average of 100 museums were built every year, with Forbes reporting an astonishing 451 museum openings in 2012 alone. But how do organisations -whether private corporations or cultural institutions – tap into this frenzy of cultural growth to build their international footprints authentically? To explore answers, Boster Group hosted a panel of four art world leaders from Russia, China, Hong Kong and Japan as part of our annual lecture, ‘Entrepreneurship in the Creative Industries’, at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.

Maggie Schroeder, from Boster Group, was joined by Mami Kataoka (Director, Mori Art Museum in Tokyo), Suhanya Raffel (Executive Director, M+ in Hong Kong), Philip Tinari (Director, UCCA in Beijing), and Nic Iljine (Advisor to the General Director, State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) – pictured above, from left to right – to discuss each panellists unique perspective on the development of cultural programmes and institutions in emerging markets. Above all, it was clear that building a presence in new markets requires the adaptation of existing business models alongside effective partnerships to create credibility, differentiation, and growth.  

The Evolution of Western Business Models 

The establishment of contemporary art institutions in key Asian economies has largely taken place over the past 20 years. In some cases – for example, at the Mori Art Museum – western business practices such as flexible working terms and departmental specialities help to differentiate institutions. However, institutions have also taken advantage of their comparatively late starts to adapt and iterate on existing western business models. 

UCCA provides a case study of a new institution adapting the western model to local audiences. A few years into its existence, Tinari created the UCCA Patrons Council and Gala, a programme based on American fundraising practices, and the first program of its kind in China. Capitalising on the globalisation of the Chinese art market – exemplified in part by Art Basel’s acquisition of Art Hong Kong in 2011 – UCCA’s Patrons membership had an unforeseen effect, effectively signalling the credentials of its members at the new fair. At the time it piloted something unique in China: a mutually beneficial way to cultivate credibility, a valuable resource in a new market. 

However, not all western models are quickly adopted in new markets. The panel had a lively debate on the divisive topic of blockbuster exhibitions, citing their high risks and unsuitability for a post-COVID, hyper-local audience base. Nic suggested that blockbuster exhibitions have reached a saturation point in the mature markets of Europe and the US. Mami, Philip and Suhanya, meanwhile, were adamant that blockbuster exhibitions remain relevant in Asia due to the potential for additional audience growth. Not only do they continue to positively impact key metrics ranging from sponsorship to footfall, but there is still considerable scope to capture audiences/market share using the existing model. Mami explained that this is particularly true if blockbuster exhibitions evolve to include Asian art and artists, noting that “traditional collections from Japanese museums and local major artists could also evolve into blockbuster shows.” While Western institutions will adapt through necessity to drive incremental growth in mature markets, organisations in high-growth economies are watching and learning, taking advantage of significant growth potential while identifying new ways to improve on existing models.

[We’re] making the case that contemporary art is something that can be part of a meaningful life here.” – Philip Tinari

Hyper-local and International Relationships – Audiences, Artists and Governments

“Everything we do is about building partnerships, whether that’s with individuals, corporate entities or government organisations,” Philip Tinari remarked in his opening statement. Suhanya also stressed that managing stakeholder relationships is key, especially when a city like Hong Kong is investing significant resources in the cultural sector for the first time. She remarked that good governance and stakeholder relationships that ensure local relevance as well as creative independence are key to ensuring that institutions are able to join global museum communities.

Suhanya also highlighted the importance of hyper-local relationships. M+ and UCCA are located in the cultural districts of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District and Beijing’s 798 Art District, respectively. Localised creative networks of institutions, galleries and artists provide a foundation for growth which is then expanded by wider international networks through partnerships. Suhanya highlighted that M+’s regional partnerships (which include UCCA and Mori Art Museum) ‘are particularly key’ for the museum. There is power in aligning with likeminded institutions for the purpose of establishing good practice and credibility on the global stage, or as Suhanya put it, “relying on each other for the work that we do ensures that our voices are heard [by] the broadest of audiences; to work together means that we just amplify that.”

“[Contemporary art’s] nature is to seek the truth and the essential condition for the human being, and sometimes that contradicts government policy. So where do we start as a contemporary art museum?” – Mami Kataoka

Nic elaborated on the importance of nurturing government relationships in countries with more restrictive cultural policies: “You have to make sure they understand that you’re helping promote the image of the country.” Nic explained that it is important to be sensitive towards local and religious traditions and not engage in one-sided political discussion. Managing partnerships across industries and regions is multi-layered and complex, but relationships are integral to establishing a sustainable footprint in a new market. As Suhanya remarked, “A museum is more than just a building. It’s collections, people, audiences, relationships.”

Fostering Mutually Beneficial Collaborations

In Europe and the US, corporate/cultural sponsorship models have become more collaborative in order to elevate brands further and create new revenue streams. There is clearly a trend towards more transformative partnerships as both the cultural and corporate sectors seek to build more sustainable businesses in both the East and the West. For example, a previous Andy Warhol exhibition at UCCA – the first in China – was made possible through a collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, USA. Philip said: “I don’t see us competing against other contemporary art institutions. We’re competing [together] against a whole range of other options people may have.” Building partnerships is also key to brand differentiation and new audience experiences, which is particularly important in the increasingly saturated Chinese market.

Sponsorship veteran Nic Iljine expressed on more than one occasion during the panel that to build effective partnerships, it is imperative that both partners understand the target markets and mission statement of the other, and design a cultural offering suited to that while considering all stakeholders – including private investors. Nic highlighted that aligning the value proposition with each partner’s strategic social impact capabilities is key: ‘if you can prove that, you’re in good hands’. This aligns with Boster Group’s own research and experience; we have always worked with clients to foster partnerships based on complementary resources and values.

Sustainability and social responsibility have played a much larger role for the last 5 years […] if you want to find a partner, it’s vital that you [align with] that.” – Nic Iljine

The conversation made clear that cultivating local and regional relationships to innovate on existing business models is key to building a sustainable presence in a new market. Local partnerships provide the foundations a stable and competitive offering; regional and global relationships are the vehicles through which businesses can fortify and expand their international reach and credibility. As the rest of the world looks to Asia for opportunities – estimated to account for up to 60% of global growth by 2030 – the lessons learned by the leaders and entrepreneurs in the cultural sector offer a roadmap to better collaborations and returns for all.