Artists are good at more than just ‘art’-ing; they bring valuable alternative viewpoints to organizations that are looking for innovation and change. Yet in many management situations, their voices are rarely heard, and when they are, they are often ignored.  Indeed, artists can and should be an integral part of the decision-making process. As anyone who has worked in the industry knows, however, this can be more complex (and more contested!) than one might imagine.

Why?  And what can we (or you) do about it?

While it could be argued that the act of administration is itself an “art,” the management of artists and their art-making is usually posited as a more mundane but necessary part of production.  For large performing arts organizations, the role of manager or administrator is often divided among a professional staff with varying degrees of artistic and business experience.  For more intimate operations, however, administrative tasks often fall to the artists themselves, especially early on in their careers.

Thus for much of the twentieth century, artists worked to distinguish themselves and their work from administrative tasks.  The separation of art from arts administration was a direct response to the professionalization of the performing arts in the United States during the middle of the century. In turn, the desired result of this movement—to exalt and distill the value of artists and their art—made it possible for creators of all types to contract hired hands to do their administrative tasks, from accounting to booking.

Simultaneously, a second, more sinister outcome of this ‘division of labor’ came to light: the disenfranchisement (both real and perceived) of the artist. As managers became more knowledgeable, more efficient, and more powerful, a generation of artists grew up not having to manage themselves or their work.  Regardless of whether or not arts administrators have outgrown their intended role and function (full disclosure: I don’t think they have), the backlash to this movement is very real.  Many artists contend that managers are doing their art a disservice by focusing on a dollar-driven bottom line; some contend that they themselves could do a better job; and nearly all find themselves feuding with management for some reason or another.

I don’t pretend to know why the schism between artists and arts administration exists to the extent that it does, but it seems to me that much of the friction between these two factions is based not on substantive disagreement but instead on historical principle.  In other words, the infighting between administrators (management) and artists (employees) is built into the traditional operating structure of arts organizations.

Richard Evans (president of EMCArts, Inc.) points this out in the fall issue of the GIA Reader, discussing the need for institutions to utilize their “creative capital” when making decisions about their future:

In the past era, arts organizations were in many ways set up to contain and limit creative thinking, shutting out artists, in particular, from the realm of management and organizational problem solving, and thus sequestering some of the sector’s most valuable creative capital. We divorced the creation and production of art from the systems of delivery we built, and robbed ourselves of some of our most important human resources, almost by design. The genuine integration of artists into our organizations—not to represent a programmatic perspective, but as full members of the team, divergent thinkers and creative strategists—was one challenge to which the orthodox business model did not rise.(1)

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  One of the essays in a recently published book titled 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century (to which I also contributed– more on that in a later post) deals with this very issue.  In “Redefining ‘Artist’ Administration,” Sue Landis (Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall) and Jessica Rivkin Larson (Stern School of Business, New York University) argue that the best artists and administrators share certain capacities, including questioning, critical listening, focused vision, and intelligent risk-taking.(2) Keeping these characteristics in mind, select arts organizations have experimented with integrated leadership models that blur the line between artist and administration, with some achieving more success than others (for a remarkable example, check out the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra).

I’m not suggesting that the distinction between artist and administration should disappear altogether.  After all, there are certain tasks that are better left to artists, and others that are more appropriate for administrators.  We can’t all be great at (and have time to effectively execute) everything—it’s that simple.  But integrating the viewpoints of the artist into administrative processes may ultimately lead to a better experience for all of us—including the almighty audience. We would do well to reach across the proverbial aisle and make the effort to build a workplace environment that is truly collaborative, transparent, and driven toward a shared mission of artistic and organizational excellence.

1. Quoted from Janet Brown’s blog for Grantmakers in the Arts, which in part inspired this post (Janet Brown, “The Power of Artists,” accessed 20 November 2010 <http://www.giarts.org/blog/janet/power-artists&gt;.
2. Sue Landis and Jessica Rivkin Larson, “Redefining ‘Artist’ Administration,” in 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, edited by Edward Clapp (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2010): 53–64.

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