Cirque du Soleil: The Art of Business and the Business of Art

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Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 by a group of street performers and by the turn of the millennium, the company was valued at $800 million, staff had grown to two thousand and the show encompassed eight productions on four continents seen by nearly 6 million people total annually (Delong, 2002). Andy Warhol’s statement “good business is the best art,” epitomizes the strategy of Cirque du Soleil (Broughton, 2012). Formerly co-managed by two men, Daniel Gautier on the business side and Laliberté on the artistic side, the latter bought out the former’s stake in the company and became sole owner. Laliberté exemplifies the charismatic showmanship of Cirque in his managerial leadership style and motivational beliefs about the artistic and business directions the company takes.

The balance between art and commerce means that Cirque is exposed to the same internal and external pressures of any business based in the arts, such as show business in Hollywood, of which Cirque du Soleil Mystere itself has recently become a part through its extension into film. If he was asked the eternal question in these types of companies, whether to follow the dollar or the dream, Laliberté would likely say that businesses should follow both. Some of his employees, however, are skeptical that money is not a prime motivator in the way staff members are treated. Orchestra conductor Oberaker lamented the difference in pay and paid hours compared to his experience working in Broadway (DeLong, 2002). Middle managers, on the other hand, say that management tries to “create the best possible working conditions for everybody” (DeLong, 2002).

One employee says that Cirque has given them opportunities beyond measure including language training, good pay, and working with masters in their chosen arts (DeLong, 2002). There have been some structural problems along the path of Cirque du Soleil’s tremendous and rapid growth, including rough profits and break-even numbers outside of North America, employee dissent and permeation of “business” types in the higher positions; while on the consumer level, high-ticket prices restrict access (DeLong, 2002).

The essential take home from this case study is that managing a business that employs artists and has art as its main product is a different animal than piloting one which is purely profit-driven with a more traditional hardcore business atmosphere. Artists are Bohemian and so are the customers of the arts, businesses must be wary of alienating their staff and their patrons by ‘selling-out’ or appearing overly ‘corporate’ whether in action, marketing, or consumer perception. Overall, by including employee development, an artistic mission, and utilizing unique strategies Cirque du Soleil balances the tightrope between artsy and savvy and should work to generate a legacy and new permutations of its shows which are profitable and satisfy employee and consumer demand on an intellectual, spiritual, and financial level.

References

DeLong, J., and Vijayaraghavan, V. (2002). Cirque du Soleil. Harvard Business School Case 403-006.

Broughton, P. D. (2012). The art of the sale: Learning from the masters about the business of life. New York: Penguin Press.