Howard Jang Brings Business Smarts to Arts

culture | BCBusiness
Howard Jang joins SFU in June

Departing Arts Club executive director to lead “cultural entrepreneurship” program at SFU, with message that it’s all about finding your audience and making your own break

If anyone knows how to bring profitability to the arts, it’s Howard Jang, who last week announced his departure from the Arts Club Theatre Co., after 14 years as executive director. Jang, who will step down at the end of June, will be joining SFU as the new director of its Cultural Unit, based in the Woodward’s development, and a professor of professional practice. He’ll also be developing a “cultural entrepreneurship program” to help students apply business strategies to their artistic careers.

Originally trained as a classical double bassist, Jang hung up his bow years ago to move into arts management. He served as executive director of Ballet B.C. and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra before his long tenure at the Arts Club.

BCBusiness caught up with Jang to discuss his business philosophy, and what he’ll be bringing to SFU.
What prompted this decision?
It wasn’t one of those things I was looking to move on. I would say, over the last few years, for me personally and professionally, I’ve very much been working toward and thinking a lot about the role that the arts play in developing communities, working with communities and strengthening communities. The idea to really develop a creative entrepreneurship program really intrigued me. In addition to that, my head’s still in the game; I still have to produce shows with the cultural unit. It’s a really exciting prospect to work in multiple disciplines.
Is the business side of things missing in most arts programs?
Absolutely. The creative entrepreneurship program is really meant to be getting into really deeply what it is you want to accomplish as an artist, and how to find a way to make that successful for you. Yes, at some point it’s all about the breaks that you get, but how do you create your breaks? So much of the work being done today is being done by people who create a co-op, or create a group to work together. For me, that’s the essence of creative entrepreneurship, that you really are trying to find a way to find the audience you want to find, and work with the people you need to work with.
How does creative entrepreneurship apply to larger arts organizations, like the Arts Club?
The Arts Club is a company that’s gone very much from a transactional kind of company to very relational approach to what we do. It’s like with any business, it’s understanding how to build loyalty, how to build a sense of connection and consistent connection. A lot of what I have focused on there, and I think we’ve been very successful, is building a strong sense of loyalty and appreciation. We’re one of the few companies left around that actually is still continuing to have strong, positive growth. When I started here our subscription base was about 4,000 households or so. Today we’re over 17,000. And that growth in 14 years has been just enormous and consistent. The one benchmark that I really love is the fact that we have about a 90 per cent renewal rate. That says to me that yes, it’s great to have subscribers and to convert them and all that stuff, but to really get them to come back, again and again, you have to build relationships.
So it’s about giving the audience a sense of ownership?
Oh yeah, like what SFU is doing, and what we did at the Arts Club. We worked from our neighbourhood out. We built it from around the Stanley Theatre. A study was done, and one of the things we learned was that there was such an ownership of the Stanley Theatre in that neighbourhood. I did a brochure drop literally the next day. And the return on that investment was enormous. It was in the 30 to 40 per cent range. Building from the inside out that way has been a huge lesson, and I think it’s a lesson for every business. That’s exactly what you need to do—you need to be building that loyalty. Every business depends on it.