EVERYONE knows that arts organisations get by on the smell of an oily rag, and many subsist on less than even those fortifying fumes. One senior arts professional said recently she could easily work 15 to 18 hours every day: mornings that start with breakfast board meetings, evenings that end with networking at after-show drinks. No one could question the commitment of people who make their livelihood in the arts. You just wouldn’t do it for the pay alone. Yet the responsibilities are great. The chief executive of Big Corp has to deal with shareholders, staff and customers. Arts managers have a fraction of a corporation’s turnover yet have many stakeholders: often three levels of government, multiple donors and sponsors. The level of stakeholder servicing can seem grossly disproportionate to the sums involved. . . . On top of that, arts companies by nature conduct a risky business: a high-stakes game of imaginative daring and box-office bottom-clenching. Every exhibition, every show, carries attendant risk of failure. We often hear from the artistic side of the equation: the glamorous “creatives”, or what US author Robert F. Kelley calls “gold-collar workers”: those stars who are valued for their intrinsic talent. Less discussed are the special attributes required of arts managers: those who not only steer a business but whose job involves helping bring creative ideas to life.
Pippa Bainbridge is company manager and creative producer at independent playhouse La Mama, in Melbourne’s Carlton. She and artistic director Liz Jones are the only full-time staff (there are five full-time equivalent staff in all) at a company with a $1.2 million turnover that operates almost 365 days a year across two venues. Bainbridge, 29, studied arts management at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Five years ago she did an internship at La Mama and six months later was made company manager. While aspiring managers may work for a larger organisation and specialise in a particular area — marketing or finance, for example — Bainbridge went to tiny La Mama so she could experience all dimensions of running a company. She is one of 24 arts professionals selected for an emerging leaders development program organised by the Australia Council. Starting in Sydney today, the program assumes the participants already have a solid set of management skills; it aims to spark in them the sensibility and authority of leaders. Bainbridge, who previously has taken part in Australia Council leadership programs, says they are helping her steer the company strategically. “La Mama is a living organisation with a living history and a strong culture,” she says. “It’s the ability to maintain the values of the organisation, which has been the same since 1967, but also make it a future-thinking organisation.”
The emerging leaders development program is in its third year; it is run by consultant Graeme Gherashe, a former head of human resources at insurance multinational Aviva, based in London, and former executive director of executive programs at the Australian Graduate School of Management. “I am just blown away by what a lot of the general managers achieve with the resources they have got,” says Gherashe, who also runs the Australia Council’s arts executive leadership program. “I’ve worked with 80,000-person organisations and people say they’re stretched. You walk into a 100-person arts organisation and see what they achieve.” Arts managers must negotiate not only with multiple stakeholders, staff and audiences but with the artists who are the core of the business. Their role is part impresario, part accountant, balancing artists’ talents and creative urges with the financial responsibilities of running a company. The relationship can break: Adrian Collette, former head of Opera Australia, did not renew Simone Young’s contract as music director because her ideas were more than the company could afford at the time. In his book Tantrums and Talent: How to Get the Best from Creative People (Admap Publications, 1999), Winston Fletcher describes the exquisite duplicity of the arts manager. “The manager must simultaneously communicate an enthusiastic appreciation of the creator’s unique talents while implicitly communicating that nobody is indispensable,” Fletcher writes. “The manager must combine flattery with firmness, praise with parsimoniousness.”
Many arts organisations divide responsibility between managerial and artistic roles. Gherashe says artistic directors often represent a powerful “brand”, built on their unique achievements and recognition in the community — people such as Richard Tognetti, Lyndon Terracini and Graeme Murphy. “Working with them can be a joy, but it’s also about keeping them within the right channel,” Gherashe says of the manager’s role. He adds: “Not all artists, but some artists have a personality that can almost be volatile. I’m thinking of a number of artistic directors I work with who are absolutely brilliant, but how do you get (artists) to see the financial or business elements of what they do? Just throwing numbers at someone doesn’t work: it’s the (manager’s) ability to have some influence, to have a conversation.”
Two experienced arts managers who have worked for large organisations — one in the subsidised sector, the other in the commercial — have told this writer recently about the importance of keeping their staff motivated. People are the most important resource in an arts company; the risk is that they will leave and deplete the talent pool. Gherashe says the problem for managers is not one of motivating artistic staff but of avoiding their exhaustion. “One of the issues people face is burnout because people work really hard,” he says. “It’s not always showtime, with the build-up and the launch. “It’s important to get the right people on board, people who are committed to working in the arts. They are not usually financially driven; it’s not why people choose to work in the arts . . . There is so much to be done with so few resources, but the motivation is there.”
The emerging leaders program was started to address a gap in career pathways for arts professionals between the small-medium companies — where many start their careers — and large organisations. Three of the biggest recently have posted Position Vacant signs on the chief executive’s door. The Australia Council and the Australian Ballet are still to make executive appointments; Craig Hassall, formerly managing director of English National Ballet, is to return to Sydney and head Opera Australia. Several tertiary institutions run undergraduate and postgraduate courses in arts management. The Australian Institute of Music in Sydney, for example, offers a masters program in a joint venture with the Sydney Opera House, with 33 students enrolled at present. Arts Centre Melbourne recently revamped its professional development program, including the $15,000 Betty Amsden scholarship for arts managers. Gherashe, conducting the Australia Council program with management consultant Kaye Remington, says arts professionals can formally study management techniques, but more important is on-the-job experience and long exposure to the arts. For this reason, he says, the most successful arts leaders are not necessarily those recruited from the corporate world. “Great arts leaders are capable of taking almost any experience as a learning experience,” Gherashe says. “I don’t take someone who is a non-arts person and immediately put them into running an arts body. You don’t do an MBA and become general manager of the company. It helps because it gives you the language; it gives you the context and skills. But the best training will be on-the-job training, mentoring, and working with very capable people.”