Painting by numbers

Business Leaders in non-Business Places (BLiNBP) is a program aiming to spread business insight and expertise, by placing prominent members of the business world in non-business areas. We catch up with Michael during his time at the Royal British Gallery

Michael is the COO of a global logistics company, with an MBA from Harvard Business School, and 30 years of management experience. As part of BLiNBP, Michael has taken a six month sabbatical to work at the Royal British Gallery, the UK’s largest public art collection, with full responsibility for the future direction of the Gallery.

“When I arrived, the place was in a state of uncertainty,” explains Michael, “with funding and visitors at an all time low. My job is to get us out of that rut. I actually didn’t really know much about art, when I joined, but if there’s one thing I do know it’s organizational change, so I was quietly confident”

The first major change was with regards to real estate.  Despite the Gallery being, in Michael’s words, “a vehicle for displaying paintings”, Michael identified that only a small proportion of the available wall and ceiling surface area was actually being used for that purpose. “I mean most of the place was just plain old white paint, which is no good to anyone. I saw that as an opportunity for a quick win, and we made a pretty penny selling three quarters of the Gallery to property developers, fitting all our paintings into a fraction of the space and dramatically reducing overheads.”

This not only saved money, but also made the visiting process much more efficient. “Instead of wasting time looking at the same paint you could see in your own sitting room, not an inch was wasted, with canvas next to canvas next to canvas,” beams Michael.

Buoyed by this positive start, Michael quickly dug into the interest ratings for each and every painting in the Gallery. “What I found, to my surprise, was that 80 percent of customers were coming to see only 20 percent of the paintings – a classic 80:20 ratio.”

Michael saw only one logical response to this, which was to “cut the long tail”. “It is unfathomable, in the era of Big Data, for such a tail to exist,” Michael told HBR. “Why are we showing things people don’t want to see? And on the flip side, why were we not showing more of the popular paintings? For example, Dutch car rental firm Van Go’s paintings were an incredible draw. Why didn’t we have more of them?”

After speaking with his Accounts department, it became clear that Dutch Van Go paintings were rather expensive for the cash-strapped gallery, as well as being in short supply. However this was nothing that Michael hadn’t seen before. “It was like Finance hadn’t come across outsourcing! I’ve worked with difficult Western European factories before, and the only sensible reaction is to ship the work off to China.”

Which is exactly what Michael has done. Taking the gallery’s “Sunflowers” as a prototype, Michael has commissioned 200 exact copies of the painting, due to arrive at the start of next week. “The quality of the work is incredibly high,” explains Michael. “You can barely see the Made in China label in the bottom right.”

So Michael is confident that things will finally turn around: “By my calculations, these paintings should boost visitor numbers by 200 percent per annum, but the sky is the limit. Van Go’s Sunflowers is currently our most popular painting, so imagine what will happen when we have 201 of them. I cannot wait!”

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