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Supporting the arts: A portrait of our work in the culture sector

When Kristin Van Ausdal joined a McKinsey team to help an acclaimed orchestra develop a digital strategy, she brought a unique perspective to the table: she had performed as the first violinist with The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the “big five” in the U.S. When a national museum needed leadership development, Lulu Chang, a concert pianist, stepped in to help. When cultural institutions are looking to digitize, Loic Tallon, former chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can offer critical expertise.

Kristin, Lulu, and Loic are part of growing number of McKinsey colleagues who are combining a passion for the arts with digital, strategic, and organizational skills to take our impact in the cultural sector—which we have been serving for over six decades—to a new level.

“Cultural institutions, from museums to science centers and the performing arts, play a crucial role in making a more creative, equitable, and empathetic society,” explains Ian Jefferson, a senior partner based in Washington D.C. “They employ some 29 million people around the world. Our work in this sector speaks directly to our purpose of creating positive, enduring change.”

Joshua Hsu helped lead the team’s work with the orchestra. “What we can offer institutions is a tremendous depth of expertise. In this case, we tapped into a community of 50+ McKinsey and external experts in virtual reality, mobile apps, video-on-demand and streaming platforms to help develop a digital transformation.”

The team worked with Leap by McKinsey colleagues, who specialize in helping organizations build and scale innovative new businesses and ways of doing business. They mapped out 10 digital journeys across the orchestra’s internal and external stakeholders, including performers—where Kristin’s expertise as a professional musician proved invaluable. They also conducted workshops to identify and develop six big digital initiatives to engage audiences that aim to transform the organization over the coming decades. “This is just the beginning of our partnership,” says Joshua.

In another project, Lulu, a classical pianist and McKinsey associate, worked with her team to help a national art museum create an operating model and develop leadership capabilities to support their new management. “We designed a series of workshops focused on team effectiveness, new ways of working, and leadership,” explains Lulu. According to one museum participant, the experience was essential. “If we hadn’t spent time building team trust, we’d never be able to execute on our ambitious strategy.” The museum team has been enthusiastic about implementing changes, and in turn, have been teaching McKinsey colleagues about their art collections.

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From left: Kristin Van Ausdal, manager of professional development; Joshua Hsu, engagement manager; Lulu Chang, associate; Loic Tallon, expert associate partner; Ian Jefferson, senior partner.

Elsewhere, we have worked to assess the impact of COVID-19 on cultural institutions, which have been devastated by the pandemic. Many had already been struggling, as donorship has dropped and new technologies and forms of entertainment offer compelling alternatives. An estimated one third of museums may permanently close their doors in the US, for example, unless they receive financial help.

“The cultural sector is at an existential moment,” says Ian, “When organizations have an acute, important problem, there can also be an amazing opportunity to change their trajectory. This is often when we can help clients.” Cultural institutions can face the same challenges as the private sector: How do you reinvent yourself using technology? Mobilize your leadership? Stand up a new branch, while remaining open to the public?

In the past five years, our work in the cultural sector has broadened from serving local institutions to working with 100+ organizations around the world. “We want to be a long-time partner to the sector, use our global network of experts, and codify our assets so they can be shared, repeatable, and dramatically increase our impact for clients,” explains Loic. The team has been innovating our service model: co-investing with government and philanthropic organizations on large-scale programs; developing cohort-based client projects; and creating new assets, such as a tool that assesses the socioeconomic benefits a cultural institution creates for its communities.

Our cultural institutions, from museums to science centers and the performing arts, play a crucial role in making a more creative, equitable, and empathetic society.

Ian Jefferson, McKinsey senior partner

Diversity is another critical challenge. “As public-facing organizations often funded by government, cultural institutions have a larger duty to represent the diversity in our society,” explains Cassiope Sydoriak, an associate and former art historian leading diversity development within the sector. “For many, this means rethinking their recruiting and hiring, the programs they create, and the communities they serve.” To date, employees from over 50 cultural institutions have attended the McKinsey Black Leadership Academy.

“One reason I’m passionate about this work is that it has revealed how many of our colleagues are directly connected to the cultural sector: dancers, musicians, comedians, writers, acrobats, artists,” Loic says. “It has inspired a groundswell of passion: colleagues who want to step up and support a sector that is too often over-looked, but which they believe is critical to the health of society.”

In the culture sector, we serve governments and ministers of culture, NGOs, foundations and philanthropists, arts related businesses, and cultural institutions. For more information about our work, contact culturalsector@mckinsey.com

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