Manchester Cameratas change project involves the development and implementation of a unique strategic alliance with Royal Northern College of Music (RNCN). Currently without a fit-for-purpose administrative or rehearsal space, this renowned chamber orchestra has embraced the unprecedented opportunity to move into a world-famous music conservatoire and develop a range of synergies, focused both on creativity and organisational sustainability. Committing to this kind of close relationship is still relatively unusual here in the UK. However, in the USA, arts groups are merging and forming alliances at an unprecedented pace. A recent Wall Street Journal article1 noted at least a dozen examples of American groups teaming up. In Philadelphia, the symphony and the pops now operate in tandem; Cleveland's two opera houses have become one; and a shared dance company straddles the 300-mile gap between Santa Fe in New Mexico and Aspen, Colorado. Arts groups in Pittsburgh are well known for frequent collaborations, in part because of pressure from one of the largest local grant givers. A few years ago, half a dozen cultural groups started a group called Shared Services that jointly purchases everything from office supplies to healthcare. Indeed, increasingly, big foundations in the States are giving money to groups only when a partnership is involved, to make sure their dollars are spent efficiently. A recent study by Francie Ostrower, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a public-policy think tank, found that roughly 69% of foundations said they encourage grantees to collaborate, and of those, 42% sometimes won't give money unless a partnership is involved.
As the Wall Street Journal article stated, typical problems that arts organisations have to face are similar to those of for-profit companies that tie the knot, from falling short of joint financial goals, to incompatible database or accounting systems. But there are unique challenges too. Arts organisations generally have a passionate following made up of audiences and donors with deep emotional ties to that particular company. Artists sometimes express concern that joining up with another institution might result in the identity of one being subsumed by the other. There are also likely to be creative differences that are not easy to resolve. Strong personal opinions at Board and Executive level, while necessary, can make navigation tricky.
Inevitably, organisations have their own cultures which are often quite different despite being within the same artform. Bob Riley, the incoming General Manager of Manchester Camerata, says, Embarking on such a path throws up a series of challenges. It is amazing to realise that words that you use routinely in your own organisation can have a slightly different meaning in another organisation. Sitting down with each other and having a proper face-to-face conversation about issues is critical to identifying potential challenges honestly and openly, and developing shared understanding. You also need to be aware that working with bigger organisations means that your communication strategy as you go in to the relationship needs to reach across the organisation. It is also very important for both organisations to go through a due diligence process, looking at the pros and cons on all fronts. We have developed a Memorandum of Understanding with RNCM, which lays out how we work together on a day-to-day basis, to ensure the sustainability of the alliance from the start. We may not be under one roof yet, but there is already a strong atmosphere of collaboration. Joint planning leads to shared objectives, which in turn leads to mutual success.