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Thursday, November 20, 2003

Arts Administration Training: A rebuttal

My blog neighbor, Drew McManus, posted an entry earlier this month on 'The trouble with arts administration degrees'. The underlying flaw with these programs, he suggested, was this:

Simply put, arts administration degrees are too vague and don't spend enough time focusing on the unique attributes of managing a particular medium of art. Each branch of art (music, visual, dance, drama, and writing) is unique in its own way, and to fully understand the creative process behind that art form takes an individual intimately familiar with it.

Since I'm the director of one such offending degree program, I suppose its up to me to defend our collective honor. One frustration is that I tend to agree with Drew that there are problems with the way we have traditionally taught management leaders in Arts Administration. Luckily for the argument, however, I think the trouble lies in our overemphasis on 'unique attributes of managing,' rather than the lack of it. And I'd suggest that Drew's cure would actually make the patient worse.

Management and leadership training, in a perfect world, asks three questions:

  • What are the qualities, skills, and abilities of effective leaders or managers in the industry as we have defined it?
  • Among those, which qualities, skills, and abilities can be trained or fostered through structured learning, which are advanced through apprenticeship and hands-on experience, and which can only be recognized as already there?
  • What media, methods, context, and content will most effectively convey, impart, transfer, or encourage the development of the few qualities, skills, and abilities we can actually influence?
In arguments about arts administration training, we rarely get past the first question. It's not a surprise, since the question contains so many charged and vague elements (What's 'effective'? What's the difference between qualities, skills, and abilities? What's the useful boundary of the industry: Artistic discipline? Tax status? Popular or aesthetic intent? Civic function?).

Drew's argument suggests that an overriding key to success as an arts manager is an artist's and craftsman's knowledge of the specific discipline being managed (orchestral performance, ballet, etc.)...not just love and passion for it, but extensive training in its production. I suggest that such depth of first-hand knowledge can be a nice quality in an effective manager, but it's not the fount of all good. In fact, it is myopia in all of its forms that has led us down our current path to confusion (seeing only as an artist, only as a manager, only as a marketing director).

Effective and kinetic managers and leaders of arts organizations are masters of synergy. They bring together artists, audiences, facilities, resources, as well as other creative, administrative, and support staff, all for a moment of connection. Beyond that, they foster an environment of complex constituents that supports recurrance and growth of that connection over time. These are artists of social engagement, of organizational structure, of fiscal management, of complex and dynamic thinking, of problem solving, of clear action and purpose, of storytelling, and of flexible perspective.

We can't train for much of the above, but we can foster, enhance, guide, and reinforce those qualities when we find them. Let's not limit our pool of prospects to a special few (especially a special few trained often in complete isolation from the social, civic, and educational elements of their art). Let's open our eyes wide to see who's up for the task.

More to come...

posted on Thursday, November 20, 2003 | permalink