What’s your job again? Understanding arts management

What’s your job again? Understanding arts management

Aside from creators, there are a host of other people involved in bringing the arts to its audience. We discuss the definitions, issues and challenges faced by those working in arts management.

By Tan David

Prior to embarking on a journey to learn about arts management, I used to think that artists just somehow create their works, and the works would just be there for everyone to see and talk about.

This, of course, can’t be further from the truth. There is an entire ‘industry’ (whether this term is apt to be used in arts management is discussed below) of managers, administrators, artists, promoters and supporters that facilitate the creation of art in all its forms and mediums. Arts management is also now internationally recognized as a discipline in management that is continuously evolving in practice.

What exactly is it?

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Arts management (or administration; the terms are used interchangeably) is defined by William Byrnes in Management and the Arts as the management of business operations around an arts organization. To further break down the subject in a practical discussion, however, I needed to seek some input from a learned academician with extensive experience in arts and cultural management.

‘People in the education and research field of arts management including the cultural and creative industries have been and are still questioning the definition of the term, and whether or not this term is still relevant today,’ says Sunitha Janamohanan, lecturer of arts management in Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts.

She continues, ‘There is on the one hand a very managerial aspect of work in the cultural sectors in the running of an arts organization and this is where Byrnes is coming from with such textbooks.

‘On the other hand, … it can refer to a range of job functions and this can include producing, promotions, curation and exhibition-making, festival direction and also the various administrative areas in the operation of an arts organization,’ she adds. Sunitha elaborates that a good arts manager should also know about governance, legal frameworks and policy, and other such vital aspects of the arts and its ecosystem.

It would require an entirely separate article to break down the various types of arts managers and their functions, but for now, it would suffice to say that there is no one-size-fits-all definition for arts management.

In addition to what Sunitha mentions, arts managers may be involved in staffing, budgeting, marketing, logistics and public relations. However, these aspects can change, expand, or contract depending on the type of arts manager one is.

As a programme manager focusing primarily on arts and cultural festivals in Malaysia, I mentally shuffle between the different responsibilities that come with staging and producing theatre productions, music performances, and visual arts exhibitions, often in a single festival. I must also work in tandem with other managers under the direction of a festival director in the ‘macro’ management of a festival. This includes looking into festival curation, funding, overall marketing, and other essential features in producing a festival.

Arts management is business management?

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Going back to Byrnes’ definition, he appears to infer that arts management is business management itself. On the façade, they do overlap; part of the job of art managers include financing responsibilities such as sponsorship and sales income, in addition to administering paperwork and other usual business operations.

Art in its entirety can be a viable and sustainable business. However, equating arts management with business management, and to say that the arts should be treated like any other businesses, is a generalization not supported by the bigger picture.

So, art needs the skills, attention and focus of managers, as all businesses do. However, Sunitha raises salient points in cautioning against comparing arts with other industries.

Arts management requires the nuances, subtleties and creativity which may not be inherent in managing other kinds of commercial entities.  

‘Yes, a big part of working in the arts is trying to make a living and therefore a big part of arts management training is on fundraising and increasingly, being entrepreneurial etc.,’ Sunitha comments.

For her, to understand how an industry works is to understand production and value chains, desires and consumer behaviour, the logic of supply and demand. She added, ‘However, the arts, quite simply, is not just like any other industry. The business of selling works of visual artists in galleries is not the same as theatre-making, for example, and these in turn are in no way the same as making automobiles or advertising or other industries. Scholars in arts management and cultural policy and cultural economics have spent years tackling the fact that the same rules do not apply in the arts.’

It also requires different management skills depending on what kind of arts management one does; be it as an art gallery manager, a festival director, or an artist manager. On top of that, there is also the task of adapting to different localities.

For instance, I might find it a challenge to secure a suitable venue for a major theatre production due to the lack of options in Penang. If I were planning it in a bigger city like Kuala Lumpur, this might not be a major concern. My concerns might then be about managing a bigger budget as costs are higher in the capital city. However, I am more likely to secure private sponsorships and partnerships due to the relatively higher concentration of funding sponsorship in Kuala Lumpur.

Challenges as an art manager

Beyond the challenges encountered inherent in the profession such as a lack of interest in the arts, funding issues etc., perhaps the most fundamental challenge faced by arts managers is a lack of recognition of art itself as a career path.

It is almost a pandemic across Malaysia that there is almost no understanding or interest from the public, policy makers and stakeholders when it comes to arts management.

For example, due to the lacking interest and inquiries, there are very few public and private educational institutions which offer arts management as a graduate course. This in turn adds to the perception that it is not a viable career path, creating a negative feedback loop. Contrast this with Singapore, where there are well-known tertiary educational institutions offering variants of arts and arts management courses, buttressed by a relatively strong support from governmental policy towards the arts in general.

This should not deter individuals from taking on the task of managing the arts, however. No job is without its own set of challenges and trials. All said, it is certainly an enriching journey to embark on, and there is a sense of pride when the work is done.

Cover image by Keisuke Higashio on Unsplash

Tan David is a Penang-based festival programmer.