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Actors Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman are two of the most visible ambassadors of Australia’s arts industry. But when it comes to exporting the arts, there’s plenty more going on behind the scenes. So here’s a close-up of arts exports.

The breadth of the sector makes it hard to set a structure around how to export arts, especially because arts businesses have different business models to most, due to their unique product. The arts encompass a range of creative industries and the entertainment sector, which includes, but is not limited to, visual and decorative arts, performing arts (music, dance, theatre), film and television production, literature, and some aspects of design.
However, there is an increasing professionalism in the arts, says John Odgers, export advisor in Austrade’s Arts, Culture & Entertainment department. Odgers says the current generation have benefited from having business courses run within arts education: “They don’t want to be starving artists in the garrets who win prizes but don’t earn any money.”
Sandra Bender, director of market development at the Australia Council for the Arts, agrees. “People don’t talk about their art as a charity. There’s a new generation of artists who want a viable outcome—it’s not just financial, it’s an audience. There’s a much bigger focus on how do you create demand; how do you facilitate that demand; and how do you make that audience connection?
“The international scene is becoming like that. People don’t go overseas just because they got an invitation. People are now saying, three years out, is the UK my target market? If it is, what are the calculated risks I’m willing to take and how do I negotiate fees, the travel and tour itineraries? They’re driving it,” she observes.

New Arts Exporters

Compared to exporters in other industries, market evaluation is particularly important for new arts exporters. Compared to exports like wheat, trends and demographic affect the arts significantly, because it is often considered a luxury, especially in developing countries.
While there are a number of resources for new exporters—for example, Austrade runs programs including coaching, business planning and market selection—networking is also a good way to learn how to approach the overseas market.
“Because it’s a small sector, most people learn about their market and access through colleagues, both in terms of contacts and in terms of mistakes made,” says Bender. “Sometimes they’ll be seduced by government policies, or because DFAT [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] is focusing on certain country profiles.”
Having contacts in the industry plays a significant role, as advocates often speak to one another and can spread the buzz. For example, a festival director may recommend an artist to a colleague hosting a festival in another part of the world, a promoter may attend the festival and approach the artist for additional performances, or emerging musicians could tour as a supporting act for established musicians to widen their exposure. This type of advocacy occurs mostly in the performing arts, and sometimes in fine art exhibitions.
New exporters also need to expect plenty of paperwork. This may range from working visas for performing artists, to entry tax for artworks. The cost of necessary bureaucracy may even affect whether you’re likely to sell in your market.
“If you’re going into China, the various taxes work out to be about 30 percent of the price. Once you take a product from Australia where there’s a high labour cost and then have a 30 percent impost on that, you’re talking about a very serious disadvantage for the artist in terms of the price,” explains Odgers. “You have to be careful about your market in terms of who your buyers will be and whether they can afford your work.”

Existing Arts Exporters

Existing exporters will undoubtedly seek new trends and opportunities to expand their exports. Bender says there are plenty of trade shows and events to promote Australian talent. This includes everything from the APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] conference in New York to the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as one-off showcases presented in specific countries.
“We also bring buyers into the country. Increasingly that’s our focus because it’s more cost effective than shipping a theatre company out,” says Bender. “We know who we’re targeting so we can engage with them and say ‘come in to Australia and see the work in its context’.”
Australia Council also invests in events such as the biennial Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) to attract international buyers. Then there is the delegation to showcases such as the Venice Biennale that allow the council to handpick the artists they think will translate well internationally. A variety of other events, festivals and fairs occur throughout the year, in Australia and around the world, for every arts sector so it pays to keep on top of dates relevant to your business via industry associations.
You should also consider being more strategic about your exports, finding where the markets are for your business rather than following trends that might work for other businesses. For example, the hot market for literature right now is in French-speaking and Spanish-speaking markets, reports Bender. “In population you might focus on China, but that connection in terms of getting books published is not as it is through Latin America and a number of French-speaking communities.”
She also advises that exporters look at changes within a country that may make it harder, or easier, to export. The radical conservatism evident in the USA might mean a slower market there, for example, but the recent opening of 400 new performance venues in South Korea indicates an opportunity.
Odgers says not to forget other non-arts opportunities, for example, arts movements that often accompany sporting events. He cites the annual Taipei International Marathon and fun run, accompanied by the ING Street Theatre. Further work may emerge from the corporate sector, such as at gala dinners or conferences.

Advanced Arts Exporters

Exporters with considerable experience may be in a position to create demand or initiate opportunities. Bender says this is possible through the increasing opportunities for collaboration, particularly with investors.
“A lot of the buyers have resources to co-produce or collaborate. They’re not just looking for a ready-made product, they actually want to sit down with you and say ‘your next work is about what? What’s the theme? How are you positioning it?’ And invest in it,” she says. “The idea that they would invest in the work is fantastic because that usually guarantees a fee, guarantees an audience and guarantees an actual outcome.”
Educating a market is also an option. By spotting growth potential in a country and weathering early fluctuations, a business with a long-term view can capitalise on a market when it ripens. This is certainly the case with the fine art market in Asia, says Odgers. “It was thought that most Asian markets, except for Japan, couldn’t cope with the price level. We’re seeing that change,” he observes.
“The galleries play a big part in educating the market. They take on a big responsibility, they’ll go into the market and cover the cost, trail blaze to some degree, and we get them to understand there’s a necessity to stay in the market for several years. That’s really what we have to do; take a longer viewpoint instead of expecting to sell as well as they sell in the United States when they start.”
Matthew Proft, an Austrade export advisor focusing on the music sector, notes technology’s role in how advanced exporters can extend their business. “In the emerging markets like China, you’re not going to see much in the way of CD sales because the pirate market is too strong. We look at growing opportunities for Australian artists to tour and the exportation of both digital rights and synchronisation, like the placement of music in film and TV programs and games, which has become increasingly lucrative.”
Bender agrees. “Copyright is huge, intellectual property is huge, digital rights is massive. CD sales are a joke. You make money now by touring [and merchandise] and that’s a radically different focus than it was even five years ago.”
However, she does see technology expanding the distribution channels for the arts, especially in the mobile phone arena. “The whole mobile thing is fascinating to me. From film, to graphic design to literature to sound, you name it.”

Working with the Arts Industry

Arts and entertainment is synonymous with the hospitality industry so food and/or beverage exporters should already be aware of the opportunities to partner with the arts. Whether you’re a winemaker supplying your drop for an exhibition opening, or a caterer at a festival event, there are numerous ways to co-export.
South by Southwest is a major music, film and interactive conference held in the US city of Austin, Texas every year. Austin also happens to be the headquarters of Whole Foods Market, a leader in organic retail. “We had Australian artists playing at South by Southwest so in conjunction with Whole Foods we did an event called Aussie Tastes & Tunes,” says Proft. “Out the front of their flagship store in Austin we had Australian musicians playing, together with Australian food sampling. It’s looking for innovative ways like that to leverage opportunity.”
Indirect export is also a way to get in on the arts action, whether that’s a textile manufacturer supplying material for costumes or a promotions company providing merchandise. Technology is a broad area that could touch on various aspects of the arts—from digital books to audiovisual editing software to innovative sound and lighting equipment—as could education, considering the number of art, design and film courses available in universities and colleges around Australia.

Trade Barriers

Proft says the visa process is probably the most significant barrier to trade for the arts, especially for performing artists. “It’s quite costly and cumbersome, in terms of the timeframe, to get a visa. For a standard application to the US, we’re talking about three months,” he reports. Some countries may require performing artists to attain a performance licence.
Apart from regulatory paperwork and intellectual property concerns, the other burning issues are macro, involving politics and the economy. “The issue of terrorism is massive because of security and because of people’s threshold for risk around political content,” says Bender. “Security we can’t control. If something blows up at Heathrow next week, the whole world changes again.”
A strong Australian dollar is the latest obstacle for arts contracts. Mostly it will just affect the way companies do business, says Bender. “All contracts used to be in US dollars because that meant more money. Currency fluctuations have changed that and, as a result, people don’t negotiate contracts in US dollars any more—it might be in Euros or it might be in Australian dollars depending on the community.”
Certain areas of the arts are disproportionately affected by economic downturn, in particular visual arts. “When economies tighten, we still see an increase in musicians touring, an increase in sales of literature rights, [but] visual arts is very much tied to the stockmarket,” notes Bender.

The Future of Arts Exports

Both Odgers and Bender nominate indigenous arts as an area that hasn’t reached its full potential. Odgers sees a strong recognition of Australian indigenous arts but hopes for a more strategic approach to export. “We’re concentrating on collector’s trips into Australia, which are supported by some of the state governments. Touring the outback can be very expensive and you can’t get Australian indigenous art anywhere else.”
He also notes that social issues affect the products, including the recent Senate enquiry into some Northern Territory communities. “Art is not the highest priority for a lot of indigenous groups so supply is a key issue, as is the capability of art centres to sustain themselves,” says Odgers. “Things occurring in Australia need to be addressed before there’s real engagement with a potential customer database overseas.”
Conversely, another emerging market is the exploration of Australia’s diverse population. “That’s an area Canada benefited from enormously—the cultural diversity of Canada became its platform in the international scene. Relationships in China were heavily tied to the fact that Canada had first country/second country stuff and I see that happening in Australia between the Italian, the Lebanese, and the diversity of Asian communities,” relays Bender. “There’s a variety of different cultural communities that are very distinct and I think that’s a big selling point.”
The opportunities to export in the arts—whether you are an arts business or not—is as broad as the sector itself. It’s time to take your cue and enter stage right.

Supporting Arts Exports

Sponsorship has been a mainstay of the arts for a long time. Non-arts exporters benefit from the exposure an arts exporter brings as the main attraction, while arts businesses use sponsorship to further their work.
“Audience thresholds are becoming more unpredictable, but the edgier work will always likely need subsidy of some sort whether it’s government or private,” says Sandra Bender, director of market development at the Australia Council for the Arts. “Some companies are not looking for a profit return, they’re looking at a community engagement. Sometimes there’s commercial outcomes, sometimes there’s not.”

Exporting and the Australian Film Industry

The Australian film industry is an old hand at the export game. Production businesses access international markets via pre-sales because broadcast licence fees in Australia don’t cover the full cost of production—long-running soapie Neighbours is an example of that—but there’s still more the sector could do to work around increased competition and tighter budgets.
Collaboration has been a strong earner, especially in the children’s television market and in animation, says Bethwyn Serow, policy manager at the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA). “Most markets have government subsidies and most countries have concepts of local programming; if you get a co-production treaty classified as local content in both markets you can get a better price for your product, but you have to go through all the hurdles.”
Offshore production, where other countries come here to film or conduct post-production work, is also a fairly strong earner especially as some state governments offer incentives. However, the rising Australian dollar means more competition from countries like South Africa.
Serow believes we’re not capitalising enough on selling formats. “Thank God You’re Here is a format. We haven’t been strong at selling our formats overseas because you need to get them on air here and the free-to-air broadcasters have been buying proven formats from overseas,” she says.
Another trend is the worldwide budget pinch, which is actually an opportunity for Australian exporters to step in. “Once upon a time European producers didn’t need us because they could get 100 percent funding in their domestic market. Now they can’t, so in some ways they’re opening up a lot more for business.”
Then there’s the emerging Asian market with its increasing demand for content. Serow says we need to learn to leave the comfort zone of countries that have production models similar to ours—such as the UK, Canada and France—to foster ties with growing markets like India, Singapore and China, despite the perceived risk. “If we really want to grow our markets we have to understand that there’s risk and how to mitigate that risk.”

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Adeline Teoh

Adeline Teoh

Adeline Teoh is a journalist with more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business, education, travel, health, and project management. She has specialised in business since 2003.

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