Pleased to meet you: a brief encounter with arts management.

by Sophie Weston

Defining a whole industry and its issues in a short essay is like having a five minute coffee date with an old friend. You can fill them in on the major events straight away, but it is certainly not long enough to share with them all of the intimate details of how those events came about. This essay aims to define what is meant by the term arts management as well as describing some of the issues that come with its practice. It is a too brief encounter with an elusive friend.

Changes in arts management

Culture has an integral role in influencing the identities of individuals and the places they live so it is natural that the weight of that responsibility also applies to the management of arts organisations and institutions, however it is only in recent history that this has been the case (Ebewo & Sirayi 2009, p. 281). One important historical moment for the arts was the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946, which became a prototype for arts councils that would emerge in other Commonwealth countries (Chong 2009, p. 2). Arts management has been offered as an academic field of study since shortly after that, in the late 1960s. But it was thanks to the discussion and evaluation of its practice promoted in arts management specific journals in the 1980s and 90s that important research was widely circulated, invigorating the sector and, to some extent, justifying its existence to those in doubt (Ebewo & Sirayi 2009, p. 286).

Change is one of the most significant challenges for arts managers (Byrnes 2008, p. ix). The roles of arts managers and indeed the definition of arts management itself are in a state of constant flux, even the idea of an arts industry is relatively modern notion that, to quote DiMaggio, “would have positively repelled most cultural leaders before the 1960s” (cited in Chong 2009, p. 11). An examination of curatorial practice over time has value, although just one practice within the arts management sector, its evolution is demonstrative of a greater paradigm shift in the arts industry.

Adrian George tracks the changing roles and perceptions of curators over a long time period from the 17th Century to the present day in The Curator’s Handbook. He describes the role of keepers, who were the original curators, responsible for taking care of artworks and various, often curious, collections of objects owned by wealthy mid 17th Century Europeans. After the grand exhibition format of the 20th Century emerged and became popular, things have changed a lot. While looking after, documenting and storing collections are still processes of paramount concern to modern curators, George describes meaning making, generating dialogue, provoking thought and being articulate as essential to curatorial practice nowadays (George 2015, pp. 2-19).

Shifts and changes in the arts can occur on both macro and micro levels, and they can happen also happen at vastly different speeds. Some changes evolve over decades, but others seem to be almost combustible in their velocity. Martin, describes the labyrinth like nature of change, which an arts manager must constantly navigate – from the position of an arts manager himself, Martin lists “changing external environmental conditions, evolving styles and approaches to the arts by our artists, the advancement in how we present the art to our ever- changing audiences, and the shifting competition for resources and attention” as examples of changes which constantly challenge him and his colleagues (Byrnes 2008, p. ix).

Managing the arts

Megan Matthews’ description of arts management from 2006 as “an exciting field that allows people to combine business, artistic and organisational skills with activities that make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities” is deliberately broad and open. She states that “arts management is the facilitation and organisation of arts and cultural activity” and that, ultimately, an arts manager is “someone who enables art to happen” (cited in Chong 2009, p. 5-6).

If this is the case, then it is also possible to make the claim that arts management enables art to happen. This is a great place to start, as arts management is an umbrella term that connects a huge variety of practices, jobs and roles within the arts. Using this definition is affirming. Despite all of the bureaucracy, which has increased exponentially with the growth of the arts management industry, if Matthews definition of an arts manager is true, the work that they do is all for the sake of art itself and to actually complete art via connecting it with its audience (Chong 2009, pp. 5-6, 19).

A quick glance at the About Us section of any leading arts organisation in the world will introduce you to the people who are making all of this happen. Opera Australia, for one example, has well over one hundred names listed under the broad term management on their website. This includes an unfathomable number of job titles, included in the list are customer service officers, stage managers, props hire coordinators, philanthropy coordinators, chief executive and artistic director (Opera Australia, 2016).

Byrnes outlines four main “functions of management” within the arts: “planning, organising, leading and controlling” (Byrnes 2008, p. 16). He describes how these four functions, as well as common business principles, such as time management, appraisal or team work are all utilized by arts managers to ensure the success of the projects, exhibitions, events and performances that they are working on. These managerial functions bleed into seven main areas of arts management identified by Byrnes as: “planning and development, marketing and public relations, personnel management, fiscal management, board relations, labour relations (and) government relations.” (Byrnes 2008, p. 18).

Issues for the arts management sector

Arts management has become an inherent part of wider cultural experience in the 21st Century, yet it still suffers from an identity crisis as a field. Colbert states “arts and cultural management is hampered by a twofold legitimacy problem ... it is viewed with suspicion by the arts world ... (yet) ... it is often taken less than seriously by management scholars” (cited in Chong 2009, p. 6).

Why would the arts world be suspicious of a field whose entire mission is to support and nurture it? Adorno has criticised the field of arts management for being “anti-enlightenment”, he claims that through chasing marketability and profits, the artistic process is influenced, limited and undermined (cited in Chong 2009, p. 15). Chong sums it up neatly when he states “any examination of the interdependence between the arts and business raises issues concerning aesthetic integrity and the role of artists and arts organisations in contemporary society” (Chong 2009, p. 14).

Even not-for-profit arts organisations can suffer from these issues in the pursuit of money – by having to demonstrate their excellence to funding bodies to win grants. This process, in Australia at least, is becoming harder with recent funding cuts to the arts. Eltham has suggested that the criteria for measuring excellence is biased to almost exclusively favour established arts organisations who specialise in the “canonical classics” of their art form (cited in Daily Review, 2016). Eltham’s position reaffirms that of Adorno, once money is involved, creativity is jeopardised.

Kaiser, in contrast, would argue that the largest issue facing the arts management industry is a lack of engaged and educated arts managers prepared for the future changes in technology, audience attitudes and heightened costs (Kaiser 2009).

Balancing the push and pull of all of these external forces, and many more, is possibly the hardest act to pull off in the arts industry, yet arts managers are humble. Not wanting to steal the show, they are happy to let the audience believe it is the people on stage and in the studio that have made the impossible possible.


Reference List

Byrnes WJ 2008, Management and the arts, 4th edn, Focal Press Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York.

Chong, D 2009, Arts management, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York.

Daily Review 2016, Why fund art? And what ‘excellence’ is really code for, Daily Review, viewed 10 August 2016, < excellence-really-code/46898/>.

Ebewo, P & Sirayi M 2009, ‘The concept of arts/cultural management: A critical reflection’, The Journal of Arts Management, vol. 38 no. 4, pp. 281-295.

George, A 2015, The curators handbook, Thames & Hudson, London.

Kaiser, M 2009, The biggest problem facing the arts, Huffington Post, viewed 10 August 2016, < problem-facin_b_279108.html>.

Opera Australia 2016, About us: Management, Opera Australia, viewed 10 August 2016, <>.