Who should be running our arts organizations?

Artists. I have settled on artists.

I have flip flopped on this very topic for close to twenty years.

At some points I thought we need individuals from the private sector to work in our arts organizations to share their experience, manage staff, coordinate projects and keep on top of trends. In other moments I have seen managers work 18 hour days cleaning up after fundraising events, soothing an upset artist during a rehearsal and being moved to tears during a particularly emotional performance. Does it have to be a choice between empathy and talent? Between experience and passion?

A few weeks ago I was involved in the promotion of a show and sales were really slow. I was convinced no one would come and I was too afraid to go because I couldn’t stand that metal-on-tooth-filling taste that would result if the hall was empty. I could imaging my belly sinking as the actors gazed out into a virtually empty hall.

I realized the core of my fear is not my personal failure, but a guilt for the artists’ reactions. I wouldn’t make a revenue target and that could effect my annual goals, but the concern of all arts administrators comes back to the artists. The years of hard work and the desire of artists to communicate with an audience and their passion for their work – that is what fuels those who work in the arts.

Most arts admins whom I have met throughout my career have studied one or more artistic disciplines themselves… and the road to working in the office can be a rocky one.  A friend of mine from music school is classically trained and now plays sousaphone, sings and does much more with various bands. He posted this article last week – ‘How quitting music made me an artist‘.

It really hit me when reading this article  that feeling of despair when I realized that I didn’t want to sit in a practice room and repeat scales and excerpts every day, and that the opportunities were just not out there to be taken. I had to build my own creative process and be entrepreneurial to make a living. It felt great to promote the amazing work of other artists, but I saw many of my friends and colleagues struggling for years to find this balance. There is a sense of respect, tolerance and patience that most arts admins have for artists, if they can get over their own sense of failure that they couldn’t ‘make it’ as an artists themselves. Trained artists offer something that someone – anyone – who doesn’t have a passion for the arts cannot bring to the job – empathy.

Why this matters:
What our arts workers really need is complementary education to equip them with core management skills that the artists they are working for depend on. The intangible qualities for the job fit are already in place, and now it’s time to set them up to allow individuals thrive for the sake of the health and sustainability of the arts in Canada.

Now it’s time to figure out just how to do it.




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