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Essential skills of a great arts administrator (from the archives)

Facilitation and strategy, nurturing artists' ideas, and examining challenges at a macro and micro level simultaneously: arts administrators are the unsung heroes of the Australian arts sector.
Essential skills of a great arts administrator (from the archives) Are arts administrators better jugglers than circus performers? Image Shutterstock.
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Richard Watts

Monday 14 September, 2020

First published in 2015, this article was one of a series examining the key traits required for specific roles in the arts industry. While some of the interviewees have since moved onto new roles, or even left the country, the advice they offer has stood the test of time. 

Keeping multiple balls in the air is one of many traits which the successful arts administrator needs to master. We asked a range of arts administrators from around the country, some at the peak of their game and others still emerging, about the elements of their skill sets which they feel are most useful to them:

Amy Barrett-Lennard, Director, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts

'To be a great arts administrator you've got to really love the art form or forms you are working with. Your passion for this can't be manufactured and you need to possess an almost missionary like zeal for what it is your organisation or company does. You need to truly understand what drives artists and arts workers and others that are essential to your cause. You must pay great attention to detail (for this does count) while always being able to see the big picture. You've got to be a good strategist, delegator and team builder and know how to manage egos – those of others as well as your own! You also have to be true to yourself, stick to your vision, strive for the highest standards but be prepared to take risks, foster cohesion but not be afraid of occasional friction, develop great partnerships and constantly be willing to take on new ideas or ways of doing things.'

Claire Spencer, Chief Executive, Arts Centre Melbourne

‘First and foremost is the ability to step into the shoes of our many stakeholders – audiences, venue hirers, performers, government, donors and the community. Understanding exactly what people want from us is critical to our success. Coupled with that is the ability to see the bigger picture so we can stay one step ahead of future trends.

‘You also have to be a leader across a very large, diverse workforce, who can unite everyone behind a common purpose.   Strong financial and business management skills are essential too – it’s a given that our business model has to be financially sustainable as, without this, the show quite literally can’t go on!

‘A genuine passion for the arts is vital. If you don’t get a thrill every time the curtain goes up, you’re in the wrong job.

‘Finally, you need an incredibly supportive family and friends who understand this is not a nine to five job. That’s not a skill, but it’s a must have.’

Read: 92 skills you need to run an arts business

LEIGH TABRETT, FORMER HEAD OF ARTS QUEENSLAND

‘Thinking about arts administrators working in government, I nominate a list of skills which have a focus on attitudes and behaviours, rather than technical competence – we should assume that!

‘First and foremost: to be successful in government, a deep understanding of government and how to exercise influence in that system – everything proceeds from that skill, and it is what builds confidence in clients, superiors, Ministers, and other key agencies like Treasury.

‘Second, a genuine interest in arts and culture, and respect for the role of the artist. Expertise in a discipline is great, and necessary in some roles – such as arts development. More generally, you need to understand enough to interpret and interrogate expert advice, and to be able to argue, with conviction, for the arts.

‘Third: emotional intelligence, particularly a capacity to listen properly, and to imagine a client/stakeholder's point of view, both to incorporate it into policy thinking, and to ensure good human interactions.

‘Four: Creative problem solving. The strictures of government are very limiting, and a good administrator needs to be able to imagine and implement solutions which fall outside standard practice – without ending up in jail, of course.

‘Fifth: Resilience – arts administrators can expect to be mistrusted by their government colleagues (who think the money can be better spent) and to experience hostility from a share of their clients. They need to be able to withstand that without becoming cynical or disengaged.’

Libby Christie, Executive Director, The Australian Ballet

‘An arts administrator needs to be flexible: able to work at both a macro level and also at a much more detailed level. You need to have a broad enough perspective to see how the organisation as a whole can keep evolving, while also understanding the objectives and requirements of all the different departments and stakeholders who keep the company running. It’s great if you can multitask and be adaptable, as in the world of the arts and not-for-profit organisations, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty!’

Pippa Bainbridge, CEO and General Manager, Express Media

‘Arts administrators are nurturers of artists, facilitators of creative projects, stewards of cultural organisations and operate at the intersection between the arts and entrepreneurship. While the fundamentals of arts administration can be taught and an understanding of management, finance and marketing are crucial in these positions, great arts managers are more than just administrators: they are critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, visionary strategists and inspiring leaders.

‘Great arts administrators have a lot in common with the artists they support: they are bold experimenters and courageous risk-takers, outstanding communicators and inventive collaborators. They develop creative spaces and places, engage communities and foster connections. They are ardent advocates, have a sophisticated understanding of the arts (often developed through their own creative practice or experience) and unwavering commitment to the unique vision, values and cultures of the artists, creative projects and organisations they come to work with.’

Read: Top 3 tips for emerging arts managers

Tony Grybowski, Chief Executive Officer, Australia Council for the Arts

‘I look back over the past 25 years of my career in the arts and reflect with great pleasure on the growth, change and rise of the arts. Australia has a brilliant arts sector and much to be proud of.

‘We recognise that our contemporary culture is built on unique cultural traditions spanning 70,000 years. We have stopped comparing ourselves to our overseas counterparts, we are thinking globally, and with greater ambition – we stand tall on the world’s stages, across all the art forms, captivating audiences everywhere.  

‘We have even greater potential, and an exciting future that will be steered by Australia’s great arts administrators.

‘A great arts administrator can seek out OPPORTUNITY through a blur of information, distractions and a myriad of stakeholders, and work with a refined sense of JUDGEMENT that supports the arts, but doesn’t get in its way.

‘Excellent arts administrators are both a BROKER and able to work calmly to identify and solve complex problems.

‘Most importantly, great arts administrators have a personality which will INSPIRE others. Inspire the artists we work with, and the ever evolving audiences for whom the arts are such an important part of life.’

KANE FORBES, MANAGER, PERFORMING ARTS TOURING, REGIONAL ARTS VICTORIA

‘I trained as an electrician in an earlier version of my life. My career in the construction industry is now a distant memory, but there are eerie similarities between my electrical trade and my career in arts management. When the electrician and arts administrator are doing a good job, no one really knows, because all the beautiful and difficult work is hidden in the structures. If we are interrupted at a crucial moment, or having a tough time, the disconnection is visible. When the job is finished our work casts light on other people’s work. Not many will celebrate how brilliantly the current is running, but when the power fails, pretty much everything stops, so often we get a balance of negative feedback.

'Administrators play a crucial role in the arts ecosystem, but not simply because we run cables and conduits. I think our essential role (beyond shouldering the boring stuff) is facilitation and strategy. We can step back from the immediacy of the project to take a macro-view. We can see how one project can enhance or impact another. We can assess the essential skills and strategies required to future-proof the projects and processes we are custodians of. We can facilitate connections between person or project X and person or project Y because we can know their mutual needs.

‘So what are the essential skills I draw upon to be effective as facilitator and strategist?

‘My formal training is sparse, though I have been privileged to have experienced some brilliant teaching and development – a highlight being my time with the Australia Council’s Emerging Leaders Development Program (do it if you can!). My practise is mostly informed by many years spent as an artist and theatre designer (which gave me practical knowledge and empathy) and my time spent as an activist and organiser (which gave me tenacity, thick-skin, great analytical skills and the capacity to do lots with little).

'For me, good administration is essentially about leadership. I believe arts organisations, and the folk who run them, have a responsibility not only to deliver on funding and contractual obligations, but also to champion the best new ideas and practices. This can be easier said than done. We are not able to switch on and off important processes overnight. We usually have one foot firmly planted in decades-old processes, with a tentative toe pointing towards something new. If we move too fast away from the old we can fall flat on our faces!

'On this front I take my inspiration from Gramsci. Everything we call “common sense” today is a mixture of “good sense” and “non-sense”. Great administrators know how to separate the good sense from the common sense of the day, to push the barriers of what’s possible and genuinely bring people along for the ride.’

Other articles in this series:

The essential skills of a great director
The essential skills of a great producer
The essential skills of a great choreographer
The essential skills of a great designer

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts