What the arts industry can learn from Lego

In times of challenge, organisations in different sectors can teach the arts valuable lessons about streamlining and sticking with what we're good at.
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I read recently about Lego. They had a moment when, on the verge of collapse, being outdated and not up with the times, they had to innovate. Their version of innovation wasn’t like Apple: blasting the competition out of the water with new ways of experiencing products, or creating products we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. The Lego version was about streamlining and sticking with what they’re good at, smart partnering and engaging with communities, responding to diverse markets and keeping on top of digital innovation.

Two years ago I inherited an icon – the extraordinary Brisbane Powerhouse. It’s Brisbane’s best kept secret – locals know and love it, and when tourists stumble upon it, it’s something to write home about. It was clear that people feel immense pride and ownership of Brisbane Powerhouse – the half collapsed turbine building with two theatres berthed in its middle, the spectacular back deck with ‘money can’t buy’ river views (not to mention the truffle fries), and the extraordinarily diverse mix of art on show. Responses about my new job announcement ranged from delight to jealousy, with a fair dose of ‘just don’t stuff it up’ thrown in.

But as with all non-profits in an increasingly competitive environment, we had to change, and change fast. Reviews and restructures followed and we have charted a course to steadier waters. We need to continue to change, as is the way of non-profits and indeed arts organisations, but our change now can be more incremental. And we can also come back to Lego, and what can be learnt from their journey.

Streamlining is key – cutting out the fluff, the busy work, the processes and meetings that have no outcomes. We continue to apply that lens over the business but also the artistic program choices. How to make our relationships with artists simpler, clearer and more win-win for everybody? We’ve also had some hard conversations articulating what we’re good at and sticking with that. Its very easy to stray – from expertise as well as purpose – so having a good guiding manifesto has been important.

From there we turn our minds to more meaningful collaborations. No arts organisation is an island – we need to work closely with our peers. Our competition is Game of Thrones and the lure of the couch at home, not another theatre down the road. We work more to collaborate with our corporate and community partners too – it’s about a values alignment first and foremost, then the resource support they bring.

At the heart of all these moves are our audiences. When you can buy a plane ticket, board the plane, choose your movie and get into your Uber, all with one device, the expectation is raised that all other transactions can be undertaken the same way. For us, ensuring a seamless visitor experience is a long journey of continuous improvement, always trying to keep up with the newest digital innovation (on the most meagre of resources). Some smart partnering comes in here, but also coming back to our core – ensuring what is special and unique about live interaction with art is still very much at the centre of the experience.

So what next for our future? Brisbane is at an exciting time, with development in both directions along the river, connecting the local and international through a suite of exciting entertainment precincts. We want and need to be part of that – to be relevant, competitive, and ensure that our extraordinary 100 year old building lives on as a dynamic arts centre. Positioning and sharing the potential with friends, neighbours and stakeholders is a key next step. We look forward to keeping you posted.  

Fiona Maxwell
About the Author
Fiona Maxwell is the CEO of Brisbane Powerhouse. Her career has spanned the non-profit, government and university sectors in Australia and the USA. Prior to Brisbane Powerhouse, Fiona was Queensland Manager for Philanthropy Australia, establishing the Brisbane office and supporting philanthropists and non-profits alike to grow the sector.Fiona’s role as Queensland Manager, Artsupport Australia encompassed growing cultural philanthropy as well as supporting the non-profit sector to build stronger and more sustainable relationships with its supporters. Prior to this role, Fiona was Executive Director of the Next Wave Festival. She has been Chair and board member of organisations including industry service and peak bodies, an internet start-up and philanthropic grant-making committees. Fiona holds a Bachelor of Arts from QUT, and a Masters from the University of New South Wales.