Dogs, Stars, Cows, Question Marks and the Art of Arts Programming.

So, you’re running an Arts Centre or a gallery or a “cultural Institution”; or you’ve just started a new festival or theatre or dance company. How do you decide what to programme? What will you actually do, and what factors – internal and external – will inform that decision? What criteria will you use to justify the massive investment of time, talent, energy and public or private money. It’s a tricky one.


Obviously you need to satisfy the Artistic Vision or Mission (not the same things), but you also have to satisfy the Funder’s criteria. You also have to keep yourself – and your team – interested and motivated, and you have to sell tickets or maintain and increase visitor numbers, and maybe you have to satisfy the expectations of your public and meet the requirements of sponsors.

That’s quite a juggling act.

Or maybe you’re a small organisation and you just have to remain true to your personal Vision. But you still need people to buy stuff or you can’t sustain what you do.

Surprisingly, this dilemma is not unique to the Cultural Sector. Every business is faced with the same dilemma. The business world – because it loves graphs, and matrices and linear thinking – has invented a range of decision-making tools to deal with this challenge. The beauty of these tools in an Arts Programming and Management context is that they provide an objective framework for discussion that all stakeholders can understand

Perhaps the simplest of these tools is the Boston Consulting Group Matrix – The BCG Growth Share matrix as its called.


From  an arts programming point of view we all understand the idea of “Stars” (even if we sometimes sneer at the idea of the “star vehicle” as if it wasn’t really “art”). The Star generates a lot of revenue and allows us to access audiences we simply couldn’t reach otherwise. The profit level may not be high but its worth it purely in terms of audience engagement, brand awareness, and cash flow. It’s the Victoria and Albert doing a David Bowie retrospective, it’s the Abbey casting Professor Snape and Harry Potter’s Aunt, it’s the regional Arts Centre programming Druid or Tim Rice – you get the idea.

The Cash Cow is not as glamorous as the Star, it’s not going to contribute significantly to the growth of your audience but it’s a steady earner, its profit rate is probably higher than the star and its a major contributor to cash flow and profit. The Cow is important. As one venue manager said to me recently, for her the amateur community (visual and performance) was her major revenue stream. From that point of view its a cash cow. The particular genre of painting that always sells, the one person show we roll out every year, the panto, the tribute bands – the cash cow takes many forms and its an essential bedrock of arts programming.

The Problem Child (or as its also called, “the question mark” is the place artists love to be. it’s the new “innovative” risky piece of work. Its getting lots of attention, it might become a star one day but right now it’s costing an arm and a leg. The question we have to ask is should we stick with it? Should we find a way of sucking up the loss and hope for its ascension into stardom, or should we let it slip down into dogville? It’s a difficult call but its the risk at the heart of all business – cultural or otherwise.

The Dogs are exactly that: we love them, we understand them, they’re loyal, they’ve been with us for a while, but they’re just not performing. It may be time to let the loyal companion slip away. It’s the exhibition we put on every year because….well, because we’ve put it on every year. It’s the show that was a star ten years ago, and even though we think its great, really nobody cares about it now. It’s the retrospective that only has meaning to a few enthusiasts.

The growth share matrix also suggests a life cycle. Problem children can become stars, stars can become Cash Cows (any West End Musical you’d like to think of) and everything can become a Dog over time. Nothing lasts forever, so you’ve got to make sure that your output has enough Stars and Cash Cows to support the Problem Children, because without enough Problem Children there won’t be another Star or Cow coming your way anytime soon.

I’ve spoken with some artists and arts managers who find the language of the Growth Share matrix offensive and fundamentally opposed to the idea of “art” and “culture”. However if we look at the output, the programme, of any arts organisation or artist we usually see them working this very model. My advice would be don’t work the model surreptitiously: commit to it openly and honestly, because it improves audience engagement, supports sustainability and it makes decision making effective,  transparent and accountable.

You can take the growth share matrix a stage further and ask yourself where the lions share of the investment needs to go. Obviously it needs to go into the problem children because a percentage of those problem children will become stars and then Cash Cows before they end up in dogville. Product development is everything. However that’s not what happens with the vast majority of state subsidy. You can decide for yourself which square the investment ends up in….

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