The shame of the arts administrator

Adam Thurman on artists versus administrators:

“It seems like the current trend in the theatre world is to make that term ‘arts administrator’ a dirty phrase.

To some artists we are the keepers of the wealth, gaining salaries and health benefits at their expense.

We are the people that build the bloated institutions that produce the subpar art for the masses.”

Full post here: Final confession.

14 thoughts on “The shame of the arts administrator

  1. Of course he’s going to argue in his own defense.

    Adam, it doesn’t matter if you arts admins are “smart, passionate people” who love the arts; you are still THE PLAGUE, especially when your job descriptions encroach on those of artistic directors.

  2. I’m of two minds about this (surprise).

    on one hand:

    i am willing to support mike daisey’s thesis that WAY too much of our infrastructure is going into funding many of these positions at major institutions, and that they tend to lead to creating more of these non-artist positions. this siphon is a big problem with how the whole industry functions, and i would characterize it less as a plague and more as a parasite.

    on the other hand:

    every day i spend in the theatre convinces me further that there is a direct correlation between business smarts and savvy, and the ability to create really great professional quality work.

    you need one to do the other. usually the person with those skills is not the artistic leader of the organization. so we do need smart passionate arts managers (they prefer that designation). probably the only way out of the Daisey conundrum is to have arts managers that recognize it and work to reform organizations to remedy the situation.

    oh, and i am a big fan of the really great ones that are GMs of indie companies and small theatres that could probably use their skills to make 6 figures in a different industry, but have elected to live hand to mouth to keep shit functioning in this sector.

  3. Both AD and GM should have a deep understanding of, and empathy with, the other’s importance and aims.

    Also, these should always be TWO people. DOWN with “artistic producers” or whatever.

  4. Why does there have to be TWO people?

    Can you name me one successful non-arts organization that has dueling executives?

  5. I actually own that fine series, it’s not a great showcase for the two administrator model.

    Especially at the end of season three when the festival is left with not one, but two idiots at the helm.

  6. No Tony.

    Mark McKinney establishes sole control of the organization and then reveals Don McKellar to the board as his pet AD. He’s a puppetmaster. They are not dueling executives.

  7. An AD & GM should never be duelling executives! They should be a team.

    With the AD charting the course, and GM running the engine.

  8. In my experience, “arts administrator” can be a dirty word because it can be the doom of frustrated artists, and hence, the organizations they run.

  9. Yikes. As an actor who is actively making theatre, and an artist who is actively showing my work, and an arts manager who is actively trying to build a sustainable framework for an incredible local dance company, this ‘down with the arts administrator’ thing is quite painful to hear.

    In the real world that I work in every day, arts administrators are often artists – often highly acclaimed in the community (for what that’s worth) – trying to make some sort of reliable income helping other organizations for next to no cash. And trying to build their own skills, skills which will be helpful to them in their own careers as artists. The other lot are often highly trained with skills I wish I had.

    For me, I need to know that I can pay the rent and cover my outrageous insulin bills, and I’d rather be spending my days building an organization than doing something else. I’m not at the point where my work can be my only income.

    Arts managers make next to nothing, Really. But a good arts manager can increase the budget and viability and even creative potential of an organization significantly. They can relieve the Artistic Director(s)/Artists of the stress of dealing with the daily goings-on, and they can grow the organization with skills that not all artists have. I’m so very sick of the idea that arts orgs that actively pay attention to a strong business plan are selling out. It’s just not true.

    I’ve worked with a few GMs in the past 5 years, some of whom were absolutely brilliant and some of whom were disasters (just like in any profession). But the great ones work hard to create more funding to put towards the actual creation process; they don’t suck up all of that funding. There is a ton of work to be done in a full-fledged organization and someone has to do it. And when it’s done well, opportunities for that organization and its artists increase exponentially, they don’t fizzle out because the operational budget gets eaten up by admin salaries. And when it’s not done well – just like anything – the work suffers, or the org finds that they just can’t survive. Each case is unique.

    In my experience, if an admin budget takes up too high of an org’s overall budget, they get declined for grants/donations/spponsorships. I’ve seen this happen and foundations/arts councils don’t shy away from letting you know that it’s a problem. They look for these kinds of inbalances.

    Man, theatre companies are in such an icky place right now, in general. There’s little funding, tiny audiences, etc. I just can’t adhere to an us vs. them midset, especially since so often the us and them are the same person. Or they’re the people who actually, genuinely give a huge fuck about the work that we do.

  10. Hey Shira,

    i agree with many of your sentiments and everything that you point out at the indie/mid sized level holds true.

    i know i am totally beating this whole Mike Daisey thing to death, but i feel it’s worth just copy/pasting a relevant section because it is much more articulate than I am about where it can go awry:

    “Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.

    The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that “institution” is a nice word for “nonprofit corporation,” and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.

    Using this lens, it all makes sense. The worst way to let the corporation of the theater grow is to spend too much on actors—why do that, when they’re a dime a dozen? Certainly it isn’t cost-effective to keep them in the community. Use them and discard them. Better to invest in another “educational” youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.”

  11. Sheeeeesh Mike,

    Now you’ve done it. I lay in bed this morning with about a three page response to all this. Especially your last post. You may be responsible for me actually starting up our company blog today.
    I lay the blame at your feet like a 2% grant increase.


  12. Hi Philip,

    i would really like to know your thoughts, seeing as you’ve actually been working in theatre all through this shift , as opposed to me who just copy/pastes other people’s analysis of it. in any case, Obsidian should totally have a blog, so maybe i’ll just have to read your response there.

    and full disclosure – i am definitely an arts administrator in conjunction with my many other hats: my rent job for the past 1.5 years had been administrating a rehearsal/performance space, and although we have an awesome artist/GM in Margaret Evans helping us run Praxis as of this spring, much of the administration still falls in my inbox.

  13. Good evening Mike,

    Ok so I’ve started the sucker up.

    I know that it is a bit infra dig to post to your own deal but what’s a guy to do.

    I still intend to keep commenting here though so don’t think that I have vanished.


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