Nurturing "Cultural Capital" - Singapore's Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay (A & B)

The concept of "cultural capital" has captured the imagination of many Singaporeans in recent years. But proponents of the ambitious Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay arts and entertainment complex realised from the outset that they needed to make their pitch mainly on economic grounds. The Henry Grunfeld Professor of Investment Banking Gabriel Hawawini and co-author Marci Garber Hawawini describe how the Esplanade's overseers showed appreciation for the dual needs of creating brand awareness and building a collective sense of affinity amongst their likely clientele base.

by Gabriel Hawawini, Marci Hawawini
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

"Singapore has long been regarded as a commercial success, but a cultural desert."

Choo Thiam Siew, National Arts Council of Singapore

In recent years, the Singaporean government has come to appreciate the economic value of the arts. The Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts has argued - with a good degree of success in policy-forming circles - that "cultural capital" could be systematically exploited in "creative clusters", for the long-term objective of helping in the transformation of the country into a "creative economy".

The Henry Grunfeld Professor of Investment Banking Gabriel Hawawini and co-author Marci Garber Hawawini of New York University consider the example of Singapore's new state-of-the-art arts complex, Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, as a prime exhibit of the city state's desire to position itself as a truly world-class city for business, high-tech and cultural pursuits. In doing so, the authors examine the efficacy of government as a primary catalyst for the development and nurturing of cultural capital.

The government's core rationale for the development of the multi-functional complex - which combines both indoor and outdoor venues with shopping and dining facilities - was greeted with no small degree of scepticism in many quarters. Many saw the lavish concept as a very expensive gamble, particularly in a relatively small country where many citizens, regardless of their personal economic status, tended to regard cultural pursuits such as theatre, opera or ballet as both elitist and overly expensive. As the authors describe in detail, the foremost concern for the Esplanade's managers during its development was a need to create awareness of the project's relevance to Singaporeans as a whole. In short, they would be forced to justify such heavy public expenditures along largely economic lines; "art for arts sake" simply would not fly.

As the case illustrates, the Esplanade project's overseers demonstrated a generally remarkable level of appreciation for the dual needs of creating brand awareness and building a collective sense of affinity amongst their likely clientele base. Instilling a sense in a sufficient number of Singaporeans that the arts could and should be an intrinsic aspect of their lives was a rather formidable challenge: one, as the authors disclose, that most have come to see as having succeeded admirably.

The "A" case describes the innovative employment of various marketing partnerships that proved critical in making the Esplanade project workable. Moreover, as its CEO explained, its managers "saw technology as a powerful enabler that will help to make Esplanade one of the first performing arts venues to adopt a customer-oriented culture."

The "B" case explores Esplanade's "holistic" partnership strategies, involving, in its CEO's words, "leveraging the power of arts marketing as a tool for corporate sponsorship." The centre showed creativity in its strategy of appealing to members of the private sectors not known for their largesse to the arts. It also describes the success enjoyed by the centre in attracting major corporate benefactors, including Volkswagen, Pioneer Electronics, and the Oriental Hotel.

However, even this approach was not without controversy. The Esplanade's detractors accused it of having self-servedly and short-sightedly attempted to garner an "oversized slice of the sponsorship pie". Moreover, the question remained as to how its directors could manage to prevent their main sponsors from determining programming choices, if they grew keen to exert influence in return for their generosity.

INSEAD 2004

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