The trouble with arts administration degrees

In conjunction with the redear response below, I felt it was time to post this blog about Arts Adminstration Degrees.  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. This should demand that an arts administration candidate be a practicing artist in their chosen medium. This will result in a manager who is also a stakeholder in the success of the orchestra. Executive turnover will be significantly reduced ( I cover this in my earlier blog “Lack of Interest”) as well as increased communication and understanding between management and musicians.

Ideally, I believe arts administration programs should only accept a candidate that has an undergraduate degree directly related to their field of study. Here’s a quick and dirty curriculum that focuses on how a program should be structured: (Since these blogs focus on orchestra management I’ll take that medium for my example, but each medium will focus on that specific form of art.)

Core curriculum

  • Marketing: This course covers how to market classical based music for the symphonic orchestra down through solo recitals. Course includes mass media coverage, local community outreach, and designing programs to reach specific demographics. 50%of the final grade is based on the student marketing a solo recital featuring themselves and bringing in at least 50 people to the recital.
  • Development I: This session focuses on identifying and applying for government and private philanthropic grants as well as corporate giving and sponsorships. Additionally, this session places emphasis on capital and endowment campaigns.
  • Development II: This session focuses on creating annual fund campaigns, individual and planned giving, single gift development, and small business giving.
  • Merchandising: Beyond the concert experience. The lucrative world of selling merchandise and helping to establish a tangible presence in the community.
  • Orchestras and the law: Understanding collective bargaining and the unions that represent the musicians. Specific focus on copyright, non-profit status, and entertainment legal issues.
  • Operations and Production: Creating an efficient, productive workplace. Learn how to create a small hard working staff that positively communities with the musicians and understands their requirements.
  • Artistic Planning: How to use every artistic resource of your orchestra to its fullest potential. Focus on creating diverse programming without excluding patrons and how to design interactive programming that maintains a high level or artistic value. Additionally, the candidate will learn how to create an arts festival or competition to help promote the organization and advance the art form.
  • Education: Focus on how to establish and maintain a youth ensemble as well as adult education programs.
  • Executive Leadership: Creating mutually beneficial relationships among the local business community. Keeping administrative costs to a bare minimum. How to hire and fire members of your staff. Learning to lead by example.
  • Board Relations: How to educate members of the board to the world of the orchestra and the musicians that create the art.
  • Economics: How to develop an efficient organization and prioritize your budget. The importance of regular audits and sound foundation stewardship.
  • Professional writing and speaking: How to effectively communicate and present your organization in a professional light to the community at large.
  • Final project: For the final semester the candidate must create a small ensemble from scratch and promote a two-concert season.

These are all suggestions, but I think they go a long way toward creating a useful arts administrator compared to the uni-manager that most programs currently produce. I’m interested in reading what suggestions you the reader have to these courses or their descriptions. I’ll post the best of them as well as your critiques in upcoming blogs.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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