Artsy Business – The Montana World Trade Center at the University of Montana is Integrating Arts and Culture with International Trade

Geoff Sutton has always known that art opens hearts and minds. After trips across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans this year, he now knows that art also opens doors to international trade.

by Amy Joyner The Montana Business Quarterly


Many thanks to Shannon Furniss at the Montana Business Quarterly
for allowing MATR to reprint this article. Please visit the website for subscription information.- Russ


“It is difficult to find products to export from the Rocky Mountain region in general,” Sutton noted in an interview after returning from his third trade visit to Ireland. “Montana is a very culturally rich area. We have a plethora of the arts.”
In October 2002, Sutton sold his Missoula art gallery and joined the Montana World Trade Center as a consultant on fine art from the Rocky Mountain West. His position is partially funded through the U.S. Department of Commerce Market Development Cooperator Program.

His assignment: to integrate arts and culture with MWTC’s development of international trade.

The Montana World Trade Center is a nonprofit organization that helps businesses establish and strengthen their international commercial capabilities. The Center develops untapped international trade opportunities, then works with businesses to capitalize on those opportunities.

Since joining MWTC, Sutton has traveled to Ireland, England, New Zealand, and Australia, as has Fraser McLeay, the Trade Center’s senior manager. Their initial visits to Ireland – McLeay traveled in April 2002 and Sutton in October – provided a preliminary assessment of potential European markets for Montana and regional businesses.

McLeay explained: “We were trying to identify their industry sectors for our products and services in Ireland. There are a large number of art galleries. So, we chose art.” The resulting list of art exhibits is part of MWTC’s work to generate trade relations between Ireland and companies from the Rocky Mountain region.

Subsequent trade missions to Dublin in July and September each began with an artists’ reception at a prominent location, rich in cultural esteem. The premiere events welcomed business, government, and cultural leaders and acquainted them with contemporary Western art, while beginning conversations that could lead to new business agreements.

In July, a delegation of companies, accompanied by staff from MWTC and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s office, participated in a trade mission to Dublin, which has resulted in roughly $2 million in sales, including numerous pieces of regional artwork.

“It’s a very innovative way of introducing new products and services to a new environment,” McLeay said. “These countries value their artists. Our exploratory visit showed that art and industry made sense in Ireland. People really see Montana and regional art as something that is unique. It really creates an interest.”

During the initial search for a venue to house an art exhibit, the Irish were skeptical, Sutton found. “I knocked on a lot of doors, visited galleries and Irish cultural centers. I got rejected time after time,” he said. A break came when he met with Barry O’Kelly, cultural attaché for the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. O’Kelly signed on when he saw Sutton’s portfolio containing the work of 24 Rocky Mountain artists, 12 men and 12 women.

The Bank of Ireland Cultural Center agreed to host an exhibition during a trade mission to Dublin held June 28 through July 4. Representatives from three businesses went on the trip, while McLeay hand-carried promotional information from seven other companies.

This type of trade mission is affordable for many businesses interested in reaching new markets, McLeay said. For about $100, some marketing materials and samples to send to Ireland, a company learns exporting basics, he said. “They are getting a lot for that little bit of money, and the end aim is to put businesses in a position so that they have larger accounts in Ireland and Europe, and can handle the export process themselves.”

Officials at the Montana World Trade Center do the legwork, and for very little money a company can test the performance of their product in a foreign market. In July, the test market included the art brought by Sutton. Forty paintings, originals mostly presented on canvas without frames or glass, were displayed at the Bank of Ireland. Three artists sold paintings at the premiere for roughly $1,200 each, which included sales commission and taxes.

Many of the 10 participating businesses forged profitable alliances with European importers, as well. McLeay said the mission produced $500,000 in written orders and an estimated $5 million in long-range trade contracts.

Jane K. Forte, acting U.S. ambassador to Ireland, gave the opening remarks before more than 200 people who visited the July show on opening night. Sutton was interviewed that day by Myles Duncan for RTE Radio of Ireland. As a goodwill gesture, Sutton shipped Duncan a half-dozen copies of “Undaunted Courage” after returning home.

“The art gave a great intro to Montana,” Sutton said. “It was a fun way to introduce businesses and Montana to Ireland. An art exhibit will create social and cultural awareness of Montana and the Rocky Mountain region. And during an event – you can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

The exhibition also created awareness for tourism in Montana. The MWTC took TravelMontana brochures to Ireland, as well as literature describing travel destinations and activities in the Big Sky state. After meeting McLeay in Ireland, the editor of a leading Irish travel magazine booked plane tickets to Montana for the end of September. He was so intrigued that he immediately planned future rafting and hiking adventures in Montana, with possible coverage in Abroad Magazine and Irish Backpacker, both of which have wide European distribution.
McLeay added: “[The art] adds to the brand awareness for other products from the region, from snacks to industrial equipment.” Value-added agricultural products, he said, were well-received in Ireland, with a European food distributor signing a $1 million contract for Rocky Mountain products.

“A key thing is will their product sell? Will their names sell?” McLeay explained. After getting input during his 2002 exploratory trips, several companies made some packaging changes that should make their products more saleable in Europe.

Vendors attending the July trade mission acknowledged another important factor driving demand for their products: the relatively weak dollar, which reinforced European purchases of American exports.

The first art show opened July 1 at the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. On the first night, five pieces sold. The second show opened Oct. 2 at the County Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff, Ireland, where another six pieces sold. Sutton has since scheduled a handful of additional shows with one-month runs.

From Cavan County, the show will travel to Hunt Museum in Limerick for a Nov. 4 opening. In January 2004, the art moves again to Yales Memorial Art Center in Sligo, Ireland. Sutton foresees sending additional pieces to the later shows because of the interest and sales generated by the earlier exhibitions.
“We would like to send it to Britain if there is any art left,” he added. Sutton has already received several e-mail requests for dates and locations of future European shows. “Now there are inquiries from galleries wanting to represent some of the artists,” he said.

In addition to the sales recorded by the participating artists, many Montana manufacturers also rated the first trade mission as a success. Here are a few of their critiques:

Mountain Springs Spas,
made by Omega II Inc.

General Manager Russell Moody said that as a result of going to Ireland and England with MWTC representatives this past summer, Omega II – a 20-year-old hot tub construction business – secured so many new orders, it hired six more employees.
One contract with a London-based distributor who sends spas all over Europe has Omega II shipping a container of spas to England each week. Each 40-foot-high cube container holds 12 to 14 spas. It is trucked from the Bitterroot Valley to Calgary, where it travels by rail to Montreal. Finally, the containers are boarded on a cargo ship for England.

One week in mid-October, Omega II shipped 20 models to England, with a standing order for 100 more. Because the company will likely double its business, Moody said participation with the MWTC has been well worth the effort.

“It was way unexpected – the amount of business we are receiving out of this,” Moody said. “We weren’t really sure. You don’t really know until you start doing business there.” Moody will be in New Orleans in November displaying his spas at a trade show. And he has meetings scheduled with eight European buyers who will be attending.

Merritt’s Landing Nets

These individually crafted fishing nets made near Hardin found Irish buyers at the July trade conference. Irish companies showed great interest in the family-owned and operated business, which makes domestic and exotic hardwood landing nets.

Though the Irish are dedicated fishermen, the sport is a bit different on the other side of the Atlantic, said Joshua Harris, business administrator for Merritt’s Landing Nets. “We do have to make some alterations to our products,” he said. “Here it’s more catch-and-release. Over there, once they get it in the net, they want to keep it.”

In Dublin, Harris also learned that “Made in Montana” stickers added even more appeal for European clients who associate Montana with world-class fishing.

“We were very skeptical of the market. It’s a very niche market over there, both in the U.K. and Ireland,” he noted. The introduction was successful, he said, and the company expects to grow from three to four season employees to eight or nine when holiday orders start to arrive.

Increased orders are expected from Merritt’s inclusion in Lakeland Fly Tying, one of the largest mail-order fishing catalogs in England.

Rocky Mountain Market

Actually, the Montana World Trade Center is just getting started overseas. MWTC is looking for companies that manufacture products with a Western or Rocky Mountain theme to join future international trade missions, as well as to be part of promotions on the Web site,
The program, called Rocky Mountain Market, offers promotional assistance for products from these categories: home furnishings, art, outdoor/sports, and specialty foods.

Many businesses that joined the MWTC’s trade missions to Ireland and Australia this past year were Rocky Mountain Market participants. In 2004, the Trade Center will also organize a trade mission to Australia and New Zealand. With grant funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce Market Development Cooperator Program, costs to participating companies will be minimal. In many cases, providing product literature is the only requirement.

The intricacies of international transactions and logistics – the details that keep many companies from seriously considering overseas markets – will be handled by Rocky Mountain Market staff. The program is open to companies that already sell products internationally, as well as to those new to exports.

Amy Joyner is a Missoula-area writer and a publications assistant at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Art: A Centerpiece for Business

The traditional methods of promoting international trade have worked well for Montana businesses, but Fraser McLeay has found a new approach. And instead of a spreadsheet of global economies, it starts with an artist’s brush.
It’s innovative, yet simple, and that is why other trade organizations are so interested. “I have not seen this used by other states or other regions,” he adds.

In his job as senior manager with the Montana World Trade Center, McLeay brings along art from the Rocky Mountain region as a prelude to business meetings that introduce U.S. products to potential foreign trade partners. “Art can be a centerpiece for all businesses,” McLeay has learned during preliminary forays and subsequent trade missions to Ireland, England, New Zealand, and Australia.

The method worked quite well during several visits to Ireland this past year. McLeay will use the same approach in New Zealand and Australia this coming year. “It can help Montana businesses enter a market where they have never been,” he explains.

En route home from New Zealand in September, McLeay stopped in San Diego to speak with and learn from other global exporters. All were interested in the way he was introducing Rocky Mountain businesses to other countries.

“I presented this model at the National Distribution Export Council Meeting in San Diego in mid-September,” he says. “Fifty percent of the people there were export companies. Twenty-five percent were government employees. Twenty-five percent were private export-support organizations.”

Since returning to Montana, McLeay has been flooded with requests to teach other groups how to develop cultural relationships with potential foreign trade partners. So far, MWTC has found great success in opening trade missions with a gala art show that highlights pieces from Rocky Mountain artists.

“People are going to the art exhibit either because they are interested in art from the region or they are interested in the American West,” McLeay has learned. He believes that because many companies from the Rocky Mountains lack immediate global recognition, they can instead use art to introduce themselves – and their region – to likely trade partners.

McLeay will continue to test the theory in trade missions to England, New Zealand, and Australia this coming year. In each country, the trade meetings will begin with a showing of fine art from the Rocky Mountain states.

Then, everyone will get down to business.

Pacific Trade Partnerships Sought

If it works in the North Atlantic, it will in the South Pacific, too.

That’s the logic the Montana World Trade Center relied upon in September while exploring ways to promote Rocky Mountain exports to the largest Pacific-island nations.

“We were so happy with how our Ireland and England mission went, we decided to move to Australia and New Zealand with the program,” said Fraser McLeay, MWTC’s senior manager. So, just as the Trade Center did in Dublin, an exhibit of Montana and regional artwork started the dialogue and cultivated relationships Down Under, leading to new international trade partnerships.

A New Zealand newspaper, The Guardian, ran this story summarizing the visit by McLeay and Geoffrey Sutton, an art liaison with MWTC:

Art Binds Sister Cities

Missoulan visitor Geoffrey Sutton carries the banner for “art” and his Montana Trade Centre colleague Fraser McLeay for “trade.”

Palmerston North city councilor John Hornblow says the two cities are ready to take the next step. “We’ve been working on the social ties of our cities for the past few years. Now we are preparing for a reciprocal trade delegation. “I’m really excited about this as many businesses in Manawatu are poised for growth,” Mr Hornblow says.

The United States men were here earlier this week to visit Te Manawa, Community Arts Council, the Maori studies department at Massey University and Te Wananga O Aotearoa. They are looking at bringing a major exhibition of indigenous art (mostly American Indian) from Missoula to Palmerston North.
Te Wananga O Aotearoa senior lecturer Vonnie Sterritt says the city is very lucky to secure the exhibition which has recently toured Ireland and Europe. Fraser McLeay, a Kiwi by origin, says trade and art will take the relationship to a new level.
“We have 15 businesses back in Missoula that are keen to attend a New Zealand art exhibition with a view to forging new exchanges – be it bio/technology or trade – which is in addition to the student and university staff exchanges we currently have,” Mr McLeay says. Summarizing the meeting at Te Wananga O Aotearoa, Vonnie Sterritt says: “It is art that bonds us but there’s so much more potential.”

With a Sister City relationship between Missoula and Palmerston North, McLeay says the New Zealand town will be the ideal location for a cultural and academic exchange to coincide with a Montana trade mission in spring 2004. The visit from artists and business representatives will begin with an art gala scheduled for April 2, Sutton said.

“We’re giving those in attendance an unusual event to attend,” he explained. Te Manawa Art Center in Palmerston North will play host to the exhibit, which Sutton expects to focus on Native American artwork. After North Palmerston, the show will move to the U.S. Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand.
And the tour – and trade – won’t stop in New Zealand. Montana is a good business partner for Australia’s booming mining industry because companies in the state have considerable expertise in the field, and the Aussies could use some help,” McLeay said.

This past September, after leaving New Zealand, McLeay met with several mining-industry leaders from the Rocky Mountain region at AIMEX 2003, the third largest mining exhibition in the world. McLeay said Australia is at the forefront of innovation in the mining industry and expertise from Montana is in demand there. AIMEX 2003 provided regional businesses the ideal opportunity to discover new directions, trends and view the latest in equipment and technology from the world’s leading mining supply companies.

TowHaul/Smith Equipment USA, Drill Pro, MSE and Crown Parts were all represented at AIMEX, either by sending a spokesperson or having McLeay present their literature.
Australia has the world’s largest commercially viable sources of diamonds, lead, uranium, silver and zinc, and is a major supplier of coal, cobalt, copper, gold, iron ore, manganese, and nickel. “Although the industry is quite robust, it relies on import businesses for 70 percent of its equipment needs,” McLeay said. And that’s the niche Montana businesses can fill.
Trade Center member and award-winning participant in the District Export Council for Montana, TowHaul had planned to exhibit exclusively at AIMEX. They joined the MWTC exhibit upon McLeay’s request. “We were able to create awareness without spending tens of thousands of dollars to exhibit at those trade shows on our own,” says Kim Wild, president and general manager for TowHaul/Smith Equipment USA. The company designs and manufactures off-road, low-boy trailers used to transport equipment at open-pit mines.

“It made a big difference for us to be present,” Wild says. For those businesses that couldn’t send someone in person, it was still advantageous to send product literature and allow McLeay and MWTC staff to act as personal representatives, she adds.
At AIMEX, Wild met with existing customers who introduced her to others in the industry who could become future clients. It will take time to see if the networking will be profitable. “Our business is typically a two-year process,” Wild notes.
From Belgrade, TowHaul sells equipment in 12 countries. “People from outside the U.S. want U.S.-made products,” Wild notes. “It’s prestigious in a sense. The U.S. is known for making the biggest and the best.”

Because of the preparation time and cost to participate, TowHaul does just two trade shows; next up is the Mine Expo in Las Vegas next September. They will also attend AIMEX 2007, either on their own or with the MWTC. “We are always happy to join Fraser and his ventures,” Wild says.

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