Printer Friendly

The art of the form: a configurational perspective.

This essay offers a counterpoint to Le Breton-Miller and Miller's argument that family firms are the ideal organizational form for arts-based businesses and creative work. While the notion of the isolated, individual genius artist has certain romantic appeal, we offer evidence that demonstrates that considerable artistic creativity occurs within the context of a large diversified corporation, at the level of the industry and at the level of the cultural field.


The innovative Spanish artist Pablo Picasso once observed that "from the point of view of art, there are no concrete or abstract forms, but only forms which are more or less convincing lies." With this quote, Picasso challenged the prevailing assumption that art was determined primarily by skill in the use of form. The form, he countered, is an illusion or lie and the true source of art was dependent upon the artist's skill in connecting form-to-ground or figure-to-context in an effort to evoke the aesthetic essence or true character of the art. From the perspective of management theory, Picasso's innovation was in moving the artistic field from contingency theory, in which artists search for the ideal form, to configurational theory, where the form is less important than how specific archetypes or essential clusters of organizational values might "fit" with its context.

In their essay entitled: The Arts and Family Business: Linking Family-Business Resources and Performance to Industry Characteristics, Le Breton-Miller and Miller (2015), focus on the form, but neglect the archetype. They argue, quite convincingly, that family-based businesses are the ideal organizational form for success in arts-based (often termed "creative" or "cultural") industries. Arts-based businesses, the authors observe, are based on three significant ambiguities--ambiguities of taste, of trust, and connections with diverse communities of actors. These ambiguities, however, match neatly with three key resources that Le Breton-Miller and Miller claim to be unique to family firms--tacit knowledge, reputation, and rich social networks. The family firm, thus, offers the ideal organizational form within which the business of creating or promoting art creation might occur.

There is much to like about this argument. Artistic activities are inherently ambiguous. Art markets are volatile, creativity is a black-box, and consumer preferences are notoriously fickle. Le Breton-Miller and Miller (2015) observe that much of this ambiguity is best managed by the inherent traits of the family firm. Family firms are small (or at least such is the stereotype), and therefore flexible. They rely on tacit modes of knowledge production and dissemination and they are much more attuned to the importance of traditional values of reputation, trust, and the importance of relationships.

One wonders, however, if the family firm is the only organizational form suited to the inherent ambiguity of art production. Lampel, Lant, and Shamsie (2000) identify five key ambiguities that managers must navigate if they wish to achieve success in the cultural industries. They are artistic values versus mass entertainment (i.e., should the intrinsic value of art drive decision making or should decisions be driven by the economic value of mass production), product versus market innovation (should artistic products focus on novelty or familiarity), demand analysis versus market construction (is the consumption of art driven by consumer tastes or are consumer tastes driven by the artist), vertical integration versus flexible specialization (which system of production favors creativity, large in-house production and distribution, or a flexible network of small producers), and individual inspiration versus creative systems (is creativity an individual or collective product).

These five ambiguities or tensions each revolve around the question of what organizational form is best suited to the production of art. One view of art is that it is an inherently individual, craft-oriented, and mysterious act of pure creativity. If you consider Lampel et al.'s (2000) five types of ambiguity as existing on a continuum, this view of art draws exclusively from one end of that continuum. That is, art is driven largely by artistic values, holds a high preference for novelty, consumer tastes are driven by the artist, is best produced by a highly flexible network of small producers, and is inherently the product of an individual or small group. This view of artistry maps nicely onto Le Breton-Miller and Miller's (2015) understanding of art and explains why the family firm is an ideal organizational form for its production.

However, if we focus on the other extreme of the continua described by Lampel et al. (2000), an entirely different sketch of arts-related business emerges. In this view, art decisions ought to be driven by mass-market considerations (think Justin Bieber rather than Gary Jules), art should emphasize familiarity rather than novelty (The Hangover rather than My Own Private Idaho), market demand over artistic taste (Boston Pops rather than Mahler), vertical integration rather than craft production (the studio system for film instead of independents), and collective over individual creativity (i.e., Pixar over Chuck Jones). Viewed from this end of the continuum, the ideal organization for the production of art is a vertically integrated, multinational corporation.

The Corporation Can Be Creative

In fact, there is considerable empirical evidence that the corporation can produce art as effectively as more craft-oriented organizational forms such as the family business. This observation is based on the broader theoretical idea first proposed by White and White (1965) in their monumental study of art markets (Canvasses and Careers) in which they observed that art is not really an isolated act of individual genius and creation but, rather, is part of a much broader system of inter-related institutions of art production. Their detailed historical analysis of the fall of the royal system of academic art production in France in the nineteenth century and the emergence of Impressionism had little to do with individual artistic innovation, but more to do with the mechanics of production and the important role of large industrial actors, art critics associated with newspapers, large gallery owners and interrelated networks of organizations, investors, and occupational communities. A number of subsequent studies over the intervening 50 years have demonstrated that art and culture is, inherently, an industrial mass-market phenomenon (Coser, 1978; Peterson, 1976) or the product of a broader self-reinforcing organizational field of cultural production and consumption (Bourdieu, 1991, 1996).

Viewed from the perspective of an organizational and social field, thus, art consumption is driven by the market rather than the artist. Writing in 1955, C. Wright Mills observed that mass media, albeit unintentionally, had a profound influence in shaping consumer tastes and, ultimately, American culture.

A cultural production perspective also suggests that many creative industries are characterized by high degrees of vertical integration rather than large numbers of smaller craft producers. Peterson (1990) demonstrates that four corporations dominated the U.S. music industry during the "Swing/Crooner" era. Lee (2004), similarly, shows the increasing concentration of U.S. radio stations. In 1989, the largest radio corporation owned 20 stations, but by 2002 a single corporation owned over 1,200 radio stations. This high degree of industry concentration, Lee demonstrates, restricted the number of songs in airplay and ultimately determined which songs became popular.

Similarly, a cultural field view of arts-based industries suggests that creativity is not an act of isolated individual experience fostered in a family environment, but rather is often the result of collective effort. Based on a longitudinal study of the occupational careers of artists, Becker (1974) concluded that creativity emerges from sustained engagement with a creative community attached to a prominent cultural field. Artistry emerges from a cultural system, not individual inspiration.

As a result, corporations can become loci of sustained creative artistry. Pixar, for example, has been identified as an icon of technological and cinematic creativity. Created in the 1990s, Pixar was one of the first animated studios and over the next 20 years produced nine award-winning films, generated dozens of patents, and has become recognized as an icon of "collective creativity."

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, cofounder Ed Catmull (2008, p. 4) dismisses the idea that creativity is an isolated act of individual inspiration:
   A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They're in
   the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the
   design of characters, sets and background, in the locations of the
   camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and
   other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the
   ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200 to 250
   person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be
   present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the
   organization. The leaders sort through a mass of ideas to find the
   ones that fit into a coherent whole--that support the story--which is
   a very difficult task. It's like an archaeological dig where you
   don't know what you're looking for or whether you will even find
   anything. The process is downright scary.

Catmull (2008) concludes that Pixar has internalized creativity as a core function in the corporation and argues that the degree of resources and complexity required by the production process of animated film are uniquely associated with the corporate organizational form.

Collectively, these studies contradict the assertion offered by Le Breton-Miller and Miller (2015) that the family business organizational form possesses unique resources suited to the production of art. Rather, large corporations possess homologous resources that can serve as useful proxies or even extensions of the unique assets of family firms. Brand, thus, is an extremely effective extension and formalization of reputation (Fombrun & Shanley, 1990). The notion of collective creativity, exemplified by Pixar, suggests that the modern corporation can effectively institutionalize the management of tacit knowledge. While family firms may well possess deep and tightly knit network connections, there is substantial research that suggests that creativity and innovation, in both art (Cattani & Ferriani, 2008) and science (Powell, Koput, & Smith-Doerr, 1996), is actually favored by the more extensive and shallow networks enjoyed by the corporate community.

Configurational Theory: One Size Does Not Fit AH

Despite this stream of research and theory that indicates that cultural creativity can occur within the context of large-scale corporate production to mass markets, there is something intuitively appealing about Le Breton-Miller and Miller's (2015) argument that some elements of creativity and artistry are better suited to the "clan" (Ouichi, 1980) characteristics of the family firm. Indeed, despite the contrary evidence above of the importance of markets and hierarchies in cultural production, one suspects that an equal number of studies could be produced in support of Le Breton-Miller and Miller's thesis. It is quite possible, perhaps even probable, that both the cultural production theorists described above and the family business theorists advocated in Le Breton-Miller and Miller's paper are correct. That is, both clan-type organizations (i.e., family firms) and bureaucracies (i.e., the corporation) may each have unique resources and expertise that foster different types of creativity.

That is, both the cultural and family theorists may have fallen into the classic trap of contingency theory by promoting a false assumption that there is one single organizational form ideally suited to efficient and effective production. As Picasso suggested in the quote that preceded this essay, perhaps both groups have privileged either the form or the ground and ignored a third possibility--i.e., equifinality.

Configurational theory suggests that there is no single ideal organizational form for the arts, nor are there a unique set of resources that favor artistic or creative production. Rather, because the field of cultural production is incredibly complex, dynamic, and varied, there are myriad possible combinations of resource and task configurations, or combinations of figure and ground that might generate art. Again, there is considerable empirical research that supports this alternative point of view.

So, for example, Peterson and Berger's (1975) study of popular music in the United States found that the most successful forms of cultural production moved through cycles that were contingent on the relative turbulence in the industry. For long periods of relative stability, the U.S. music industry is characterized by high degrees of industrial concentration, with a few large corporations dominating production. However, the long periods of homogeneity are periodically punctuated by "short bursts of competition and creativity when various institutional barriers are eliminated for a variety of reasons" (Peterson & Berger, p. 158).

Similarly, Lampel and Shamsie's (2003) study of the evolution of film production in Hollywood demonstrated a gradual evolution from a studio era, dominated by high concentration of highly integrated corporations to a new era of flexible hub corporations that drew creative resources from an integrated network of suppliers of various forms of creativity, including artists, production experts, and even financial capital. Scott (1999) studied the U.S. recording industry and observed a gradual evolution to a two-tiered system of "majors," or highly integrated corporations, supplied by "independents," a broader and more diverse network of suppliers.

Indeed, Le Breton-Miller and Miller appear to have fallen into the contingency theory trap of over emphasizing the stereotypical attributes--i.e., the form--of both arts organizations and family businesses. That is, just as arts organizations exist in a continuum from very small, craft-oriented, clan-cultured firms to very large, corporately structured hierarchies, so too do family firms. After all, Cargill, IKEA, and Comcast may be considered family firms despite their size and obvious corporate characteristics.

Our core argument here is that both arts organizations and family businesses appear in many different forms. We should worry less about the specific form in which arts or business firms become manifest and concentrate instead on understanding how different value clusters that define these firms can adapt to different contexts and become manifest in such different forms while retaining their core character. The key question is how do both arts and family firms retain their core essence (Chrisman, Chua, Pearson, & Barnett, 2009; Chua, Chrisman, & Sharma, 1999), identity (Zellweger, Eddleston, & Kellermans, 2010), or institutional character (Selznick, 1957)? How does the institutional character of a family firm intersect with and support the institutional character of arts organizations?

The notion of institutional character is derived from Selznick's (1957) famous observation that through the historical process of institutionalization, organizations acquire an enduring set of values or a bundle of moral attributes that provide that organization or that class of organization with a distinctive orientation. Both arts organizations and family businesses possess a degree of institutional character that, although often difficult to articulate, clearly defines the type, regardless of size, structure, or other physical manifestations. This construct of institutional character could easily be incorporated into Le Breton-Miller and Miller's (2015) propositions--i.e., "Finns with a family institutional character will be superior to ..."

More importantly, however, by viewing both arts organizations and family firms as distinctive characters that exist on an interactive continuum from small, craft-oriented firms to large, corporate-oriented firms opens up a range of new potential hypothesis. One might assume, for example, that the distinctive institutional character of family-based corporations (i.e., the Cargills, IKEAs, and Comcasts of the world) might make them more inclined to support arts organizations through their philanthropic ventures, encourage executives to volunteer on the boards of arts organizations, and engage in a broad range of activities that cement the relationship between corporate-form family firms and large complex arts organizations.

The more significant question in this discussion, however, both from the point of view of arts organizations and family firms, is to map out a program of research that helps us understand how the process of infusing a distinctive orientation or cluster of moral values can persist across time, organizational form, and environmental context. That is, a key thread in this discussion is the implicit recognition that, once institutionalized, an institutional character provides a template for what an arts organization or a family firm can and cannot do; what can and cannot change; and what must, at all costs, endure. Answering these questions, which I suspect is best approached through comparative historical case studies as a means of focusing narrowly on the process of infusing moral value, is a critical means of identifying configurations of behavior, structural characteristics, and moral sentiments that define what it means to be an "arts" organization of a "family" business.

Equifinality: The Art of the Form

A key tenet of configurational theory is that there is no single "best way" to organize production (Meyer, Tsui, & Hinings, 1993). Rather, a broad range of structural arrangements for organizing emerges in response to different demands imposed upon the organization by its environment. These demands change over space and time. Although one might assume that this will produce an infinite number of organizational types, Mintzberg (1979) reminds us that organizational structures tend to congeal into distinct clusters, gestalts, or archetypes. It is this synthetic union of organization and environment into clear patterns that echoes Picasso's observation about form. Like artists, organizational theorists are right to attend to form. But form is not everything. It exists in a context or a ground and it is the interaction of figure and ground, form and context that offers true insight.

DOI: 10.1111/etap.12181


Becker, H.S. (1974). Art as collective action. American Sociological Review, 39(6), 767-776.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). The love of art: European art museums and their public. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1996). The rules of art. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Catmull, E. (2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 64-72.

Cattani, G. & Ferriani, S. (2008). A core-periphery perspective on individual creative performance: Social networks and cinematic achievements in the Hollywood film industry. Organization Science, 19(6), 824-844.

Chrisman, J.J., Chua, J.H., Pearson, A.W., & Barnett, T. (2009). Family involvement, family influence, and family-centered non-economic goals in small firms. Center of Family Enterprise Research Working Paper Series 09.04. Mississippi State, MS: Mississippi State University.

Chua, J.H. Chrisman, J.J., & Sharma, P. (1999). Defining the family business by behavior. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 2J(4), 19-39.

Coser, L.A. (1978). The production of culture. Sociological Research, 48, 2.

Fombrun, C.J. & Shanley, M. (1990). What's in a name? Reputation-building and corporate strategy. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 233-258.

Lampel, J., Lant, T., & Shamsie, J. (2000). Balancing act: Learning from organizing practices in the cultural industries. Organization Science, 11(3), 263-269.

Lampel, J. & Shamsie, J. (2003). Capabilities in motion: New organizational firms and the reshaping of the Hollywood film industry. Journal of Management Studies, 40(8), 2189-2210.

Le Breton-Miller, I. & Miller, D. (2015). The arts and family business: Linking family business resources and performance to industry characteristics. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, doi: 10.1111/etap.12177

Lee, S.S. (2004). Predicting cultural output diversity in the radio industry, 1989-2002. Poetics, 32, 325-342.

Meyer, A.D., Tsui, A.S., & Hinings, C.R. (1993). Configurational approaches to organizational analysis. Academy of Management Journal, 36(6), 1175-1195.

Mills, C.W. (1955). The cultural apparatus. In I.L. Horowitz (Ed.), Power, politics and people (pp. 196-228). New York: Oxford University Press.

Mintzberg, H. (1979). The structuring of organizations. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Ouichi, W.G. (1980). Markets, bureaucracies and clans. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25(1), 129-141.

Peterson, R.A. (1976). The production of culture: A prolegomenon. In R.A. Peterson (Ed.), The production of culture (pp. 7-22). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Peterson, R.A. (1990). Why 1955? Explaining the advent of rock music. Popular Music, 9(1), 97-116.

Peterson, R.A. & Berger, D.G. (1975). Cycles in symbolic production: The case of popular music. American Sociological Review, 40, 158-173.

Powell, W.W., Koput, K.W., & Smith-Doerr, L. (1996). Interorganizational collaboration and the locus of innovation. Networks of learning in biotechnology. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 116-145.

Scott, A.J. (1999). The US recorded music industry: On the relations between organization, location, and creativity in the cultural economy. Environment and Planning, 31(11), 1965-1984.

Selznick, P. (1957). Leadership in administration. New York: Harper and Row.

White, H. & White, C. (1965). Canvasses and careers: Institutional change in the French painting world. New York: Wiley.

Zellweger, T.M., Eddleston, K.A., & Kellermans, F.W. (2010). Exploring the concept of familiness: Introducing family firm identity. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 1(1), 54-63.

Roy Suddaby is the Winspear Chair of Management and professor at Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 2Y2, Canada. He is also the strategic research professor at Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK.

Ryan Young is the director of Applied Learning at Leder School of Business, The King's University, Edmonton, Canada, T6B 2H3.

Please send correspondence to: Roy Suddaby, tel.: 250-721-7211; e-mail:, and to Ryan Young at
COPYRIGHT 2015 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Suddaby, Roy; Young, Ryan
Publication:Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2015
Previous Article:The arts and family business: linking family business resources and performance to industry characteristics.
Next Article:To nurture or groom? The parent-founder succession dilemma.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters