Tuesday, November 11, 2014

If I were King of Timbuktu ....

Imagine for a moment you're Rick Ellis and you've just been made CE of Te Papa. Whoops. Just kidding. Get up off the floor. After our pretty successful attempt at guessing the kind of person who would be picked as Te Papa’s next CE let's look at his track record and take a stab at what he's likely to do.

Ask questions. Ellis will quickly discover there's a big difference between what Te Papa claims to be doing and what’s actually going on. Basically it’s a kid's museum with scholarly pretentions, so an easy model to change so long as he doesn't get lost in the current echo chamber. Asking real questions and expecting real answers at Te Papa? Brutal.

Focus. The current mantra "Changing hearts, changing minds, changing lives" would suit a neighborhood bookstore just as well as Te Papa. Expect Ellis to take up the challenge and shift scale. The 200 (+ however many) staff of Te Papa makes it a giant in the cultural arena but in media and tech it's a minnow. As he’s done in the past look to Ellis to focus on attracting bigger audiences in the right demographics, and with no advertisers to satisfy. Brilliant.

Bring in some friends to help. It's what professional CEs always do. If he's only got three years to sort things out he's going to need help fast from people he knows can deliver. The current staff spend their time tip-toeing round in what's being called a 'toxic' culture. Rick Ellis is known to be impatient when he's slowed down by anything (especially the incumbent culture slowing things down). Watch for the rapid departure of top-level staff.

Play the game he knows
. This is someone experienced in media production, communication and digital services. He'll see Te Papa as an under-utilised brand property with commercial potential as a digital platform. And why wouldn't he.

Play the game he knows Part II
. Ellis is a money guy. He's going to expect return on the building and the assets. He believes in the logic of the market. Conventional museum shows don't bring in big profits (especially when you take into account the costs) so what's a new CE to do? Branch out, that's what.

Learn from the Giant Squid. No big secret that Te Papa’s most popular events have all been based on the cabinet of curiosities principle. More, bigger, stranger stuff. Bring on the society of the spectacle. 

Franchise, partner, whatever.
Developing new stuff from the ground up takes too long and it's too expensive. The proposed movie museum and WETA are obvious targets for Ellis's media experience and connections. Peter Jackson’s skills can bring people and cash to Te Papa and Te Papa can put the Jackson story round the world with classy packaged exhibitions in premium venues. Born for each other. And Ellis will have many other friends in the entertainment culture industries to play with. He will be furious though about the mega Gallipoli exhibition being held in the old National Museum and Art Gallery and not on the waterfront at Te Papa. But what are the chances of the government changing NZ's remembrance date for him. Not high.

Go national. The drumbeat to serve the whole nation is sounding loud and clear. Sticking the lesser collections and a few classrooms in Manukau City was never going to do it. Talking digital and interactive isn't either but guess he'll figure out the ROI and problems with content soon enough.

Pull a rabbit out of the hat. Work out how to pay for a serious digital presence and not leave the current building as a run down brand-embarrassment? (see staff cuts below).

Cut staffing levels (duh) and move to part-timers for basic operational services. He's done it before. He definitely knows the way.

 Interrogate the scholarly staff and peer review their outputs. Move them out of the building, give them targets and genuine accountability. Threaten them with absorption into the tertiary sector as Plan B. Sorted.

Get all that pesky art stuff the hell out of the building.  There’s no money to be made on it and precious little thanks (Rick Ellis pauses, looks out his window at the old National Art Gallery building in the far distance .... hmmm … he thinks to himself .... maybe after that Gallipoli exhibition…..)