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Networking on behalf of the arts

Paul Revere's Ride

The ninth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts

The growth of a small or medium sized arts organisation (SME) is disproportionately dependent on effective networking. Only by physically embodying the organisation and introducing yourself to an eclectic cross-section of people and institutions can a new arts brand hope to make headway. The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) has been no exception to this, and has benefited greatly from the power of networking. In this essay I shall explore my own experiences of networking and how this has contributed to my work in the arts.

Going to lots of parties

In the noughties I was a regular guest for a while at the networking salons of the media consultant Carole Stone and her husband the former Newsnight presenter Richard Linley. Carole would host drinks parties in their stylish apartment in Covent Garden and the rooms would be packed with a great assortment of people ranging across the media, arts and minor celebrity. Along with the influencers and the commentators were a rather random cross-section of people, including a Saddam Hussein look-alike. As I understand it this eclecticism was very much part of Carole’s philosophy. These regular gatherings were a backdrop to her more regular business of connecting her clients, and they helped to consolidate her reputation as ‘the networking queen’. She used her wide and extensive network to reach out to anyone and everyone who she found interesting, including those people who her clients most wanted to meet. The point about good networking is that it is broad and inclusive and allows time for relationships to build and opportunities to open up.

At that time I was running my previous arts organisation (Poet in the City), another arts start-up. I used to say that I was getting nowhere with it, sitting at my computer screen, until I started going to lots of parties, at which point the organisation suddenly began to gain some traction. There is some truth in this. Only a few of these events were ‘parties’ as such, but all of them involved me getting out and circulating in rooms full of people. I intentionally cast the net very wide. As well as poetry, arts and literature events I also attended conferences involving law and business, finance and investment, corporate sponsorship, ideas leadership, digital innovation, architecture and mental health. At all of these events I made a point of asking one of the first questions from the floor, and of getting noticed. Whenever I could I availed myself of opportunities to speak, whether from the main platform or at break-out events, always ensuring that my remarks were focused on the mission and goals of my arts organisation. I arrived at the event early, and always stayed for the drinks afterwards and, by the end of the conference, had usually given out a box full of business cards and received a box full in return.

Importantly, I also followed up promptly with all these connections by email, suggesting ideas for collaborations or partnership working involving the arts, or simply suggesting that we continue an interesting conversation over coffee sometime. In doing so I did not make any assumptions about whether or not a person (or the organisation they represented) would be interested in the arts. Instead, I listened carefully to what their areas of interest were and then gave some thought to how the arts (and my own arts organisation in particular) might be able to assist them. This is a subtle but crucial difference from simply importuning people for sponsorship or support. The focus is, from the start, on what the arts can do for your interlocutor.

This general and eclectic approach to networking might, at first glance, appear to be time-consuming and unfocused. There were certainly moments when it felt like a waste of time. Sometimes a person’s eyes glazed over at the first mention of the arts, and they rushed to excuse themselves. On a handful of occasions an individual literally just walked off. There were also occasions when the mere presence of an arts leader at a conference or event consisting mainly of non-arts delegates was regarded as slightly baffling. But there are very few areas of life which are not touched by the arts, and very few institutions which cannot benefit from them in some way. Far from being an exercise in futility this assiduous networking was responsible for virtually all of the sponsorships, partnerships and innovative collaborations which have benefited my arts organisations. Conversations at parties or conferences have led, for example, to headline sponsorships by HSBC Bank, Lloyds TSB, Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market), Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Pernod Ricard and other big companies. They have also led to innumerable partnerships with venues, suppliers, educational institutions and publishers. And it has led to a steady growth in individual members and to a burgeoning database of loyal supporters.

The important things about networking in my view is not to be overly thrusting or focused on outcomes. Some people at events are so determined not to waste their time, and so focused on making contacts who can benefit them directly in terms of jobs, influence or money, that they barely have time to be civil. Not only is this extremely rude but, in my experience, very short-sighted. In the end networking is the same as any other form of social interaction. It is about establishing a connection with another human being and learning what it is that makes them tick. It is about finding out what they are passionate about. If not making new friends, it is certainly about establishing friendly relations with someone new. If someone does not like you, or find you interesting, they are unlikely to be very motivated to help you. Nor do you know who you are talking to. Sometimes a person has no obvious connection with the arts themselves but is best friends with someone who does. Sometimes it is possible to ‘move the dial’ a little bit by persuading a non-arts person to a fresh engagement with the arts. In my experience there is very little to lose from a generous curiosity about other people, and potentially a lot to be gained. What is the worst that can happen? You have an interesting conversation with someone from a different world from your own, and gain some valuable insight. Listening to perceptions about the arts is a great education in itself, giving you insights into what puts off new audiences and what might appeal to them.

Deepening relationships

All this eclectic networking activity is not worth the considerable time and effort required unless you also take care to cultivate and sustain the relationships which do develop. This is perhaps the stage which requires the most diplomacy and a high degree of persuasiveness. It is relatively easy to meet someone at a party and enjoy a pleasant conversation ending in an exchange of business cards. What is important is to find a basis on which to continue the conversation over a coffee, or at a meeting designed to explore further the possibilities for collaboration. Again, it is important not to pigeon-hole your contact. Their organisation may not be willing or able to sponsor the arts, but perhaps they would be an ideal candidate for your board. Or maybe they have a teenager interested in volunteering in the arts. Or perhaps they have an old friend who is passionate about the arts. The knack is to remain open to any and all of these possibilities. At the very least perhaps they will become an engaged member of your database, turning up at events and diversifying the audience. Whatever it is, when a synergy or mutual area of interest in established, it is best to nurture this gently, not rush into a conversation about money or outputs. Like any relationship this sort of association needs to develop from a sense of mutual trust.

For me the amassing of business cards and phone numbers is just the starting point for lateral thinking about what R&V might be able to do for my interlocutor. For instance, I met the director of the T.S. Eliot Foundation at a drinks party and engaged her interest in the poet’s Parisian year in 1911, but this was just the beginning of a series of meetings and conversations which eventually gave birth to a fully fledged T.S. Eliot and Decadence event. Once the relationship was established it became easier to identify other projects which were of mutual interest, and the Foundation went on to work with R&V on an ambitious programme of educational placements in Camden secondary schools. Sometimes the deepening of a relationship can take a long time. One of R&V’s board members is someone who I first met at an embassy event over 5 years ago. I immediately thought that she would make an excellent board member, but she was (and still is) a very busy business entrepreneur. It was three years later, when I ran in to her at a similar event, that I first suggested she join R&V’s board, and a year after that when she finally did so. Networking on behalf of an SME arts organisation requires patience and a consistency of purpose. It is about the slow cultivation of business friendships, not about quick transformational fixes. If you are looking for a ‘rescuer’, whether in the form of a sponsor, donor or partner, you are probably going about it the wrong way. In my experience strong positive connections come from the confidence which you yourself feel in the organisation you are representing, and from your own passion for the arts. It is therefore neither fake nor synthetic. It requires you to live and breath the arts brand over a period of years.

Building your own networks                            

On the other hand, there is no need to be passive about networking. If the events, seminars and networks you get involved with are not working for you there is nothing to stop you starting your own. I have written elsewhere about R&V’s active participation in both the Oxford Cultural Leadership alumni network and the Decadence and Translation network, and both of these have been great at allowing me to meet and develop professional relationships with individuals and partner organisations over a wide range of activities. For instance, through the former I developed the connection with National Museum of Scotland which allowed R&V to stage a theatre show in its auditorium as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. And through the latter R&V has forged a partnership with the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, the basis of more than one arts collaboration since. Getting involved in organising such a network changes the dynamic in your dealings with others. If you are assisting them in their own professional development goals, or helping them to network more widely with like-minded professionals, you are helping both them and your own organisation. This spirit of generosity is perhaps the most vital characteristic in a good networker. It is not just about you and your own organisation’s needs, however pressing these may be. It is about connecting people and about making things happen. And it is sometimes just as satisfying to end up helping others to achieve their goals in the arts as it is to achieve your own.

What about the old school tie?

Nowadays there is much anxiety about closed networks, as represented by ‘the old school tie’. How can anyone with a good idea or talent get a proper hearing if all the plum jobs and opportunities go to people who went to the ‘right’ school or university? These closed networks are a real problem but, in my experience, are most damaging in stopping things from happening at all rather than in channelling opportunities to a select few. And, although it may be tempting to associate this phenomenon with schools like Eton, I have encountered similar closed networks with entirely different cultural or ideological roots. Any group or network which creates barriers to entry based on artificial criteria is behaving in a way that is unfair and discriminatory and, just as importantly, is designed to marginalise or exclude good ideas coming from an unexpected source.

So, what is the difference between the ‘closed loop’ of the old school tie network and ‘good’ networking? It has to be the openness and inclusivity which characterises the latter. Far from seeking to exclude or parse individuals on the basis of who they know, or how they look, talk or dress, the good networker is constantly looking for points of synergy and convergence, for analogous problems, and shared values. The starting point is to ask how any person might find a place in your world, or how you might be able to contribute to theirs. This will not always result in an obvious connection, or in any connection at all, but it invariably does. The main question, in my experience, is not whether there is a potential connection, but whether the interlocutors have the will and the personal chemistry to explore the possibilities together. I would go so far as to say that networking is the opposite of the old school tie or closed network, which speaks only to itself and ignores all the myriad benefits of cross-fertilization. We must be curious in our networking and open to the possibility that not everything in the world is within our present purview.

What about networking in the age of COVID?

Since 2020 many people have had to conduct their networking only online. Obviously there is much that can be done via social media to reach out to interesting contacts, but something is undoubtedly lost when you are unable to encounter someone face-to-face. Nor do the conferences I have been attending on Zoom or MS Teams during this period present the same opportunities for informal networking and social interaction with other delegates. There are certainly some technical solutions to this enforced isolation, whether it be posting ideas and professional problems online in a relevant forum, or engaging in chat rooms concerned with areas of shared interest. But we should be clear about what is potentially lost in these digital approaches. That is the element of serendipity, the openness to someone and something completely different, that comes from a less focused approach. It is this aspect of networking which needs to be cherished and preserved however we can. We should not allow the technology, with its invariable focus on search terms, filtering and selection, to effectively mandate an outcomes-led approach to networking, in the process of which the unexpected synergy and innovative association is inadvertently mislaid.

The British are coming!

In his influential book The Tipping Point (also published in 2000) Malcom Gladwell re-tells the famous story of the American revolutionary Paul Revere. Tipped off that British soldiers were to march next morning to Lexington and Concord to arrest insurrectionists, he rode through the night in order to rouse patriot resistance. As a result the British found themselves confronted by armed militias throughout their march and sustained heavy casualties. This much is well known. What Gladwell notes is that two riders set off from Boston that night. The other travelled the southern route to Lexington and Concord and signally failed to raise opposition to the British along that route. It seems that the difference lay in Paul Revere’s great talents as a networker. He personally had connections in almost every town and village along the way, and knew exactly which of the local citizens would be best placed to gather and lead an armed response. His unfortunate colleague merely rode into each place along the southern route and shouted to a random person that the British were coming. As a consequence the message never got through to the key local organisers, most of whom were surprised when redcoats appeared later that day. With his great gift for picking a dramatic example, Gladwell shows us how an eclectic and well-sustained network of contacts, built up patiently over several years, can eventually bear fruit in a rather astonishing way. Fortunately I am not engaged in violent rebellion, only in promoting the arts, but sometimes a similar sense of astonishment can be achieved when carefully cultivated connections result in an event in a spectacular venue, the participation of a famous actor, or the funding of an unusual and innovative arts commission. In these cases it is evident that networking plays an important part in making amazing things happen.


Graham Henderson

Posted on:Tuesday 29th March, 2022