Saturday, April 5, 2008

Skillz to pay the billz...

Not to stay in the world of meta, and also not to single out the very excellent rlewis, but this comment here and other ones I've come across in the last couple of days need a bit of a response.

I think we've all often heard the argument that theatres need managers because artists don't have the skill sets/the right mindset/the interest to do the dirty work of management. It's usually broken down into artists=left-brain and manager=right brain. Someone's got to manage the money and deal with the business, the argument goes. Left to their own devices, artists can't manage the cash, so they should stick to the art stuff and let the business people stick to the business stuff.

Um. Not to put to fine a point on it (and at the risk of offending): bullshit. I call bullshit on that.

A while back, I met with a theatre consultant who said a very, very interesting thing: theatre artists are particularly skilled at providing a product on a hard deadline. We have our opening night and 95 times out of 100, we produce our product on deadline. You show me a designer who isn't aware of their budget, I'll show you a designer not worth their salt (going over their budget is another matter I'll get into below). Artists may be funky, they may be messy or even occasionally flighty, but they're not dumb (well, mostly not). That attitude is part of the false dichotomy and part of the disempowering of artists.

Art and money are intimately connected. The problem arises, I think, because the "artists" have different priorities than the "suits". (I really don't buy those distinctions.) Taking the designer example from above, you take a designer and ask them to build a budget for a show. They certainly can and they can probably stick to it. But give them a budget that doesn't share their priorities and that's a different matter.

Every artist is their own business. We often have to juggle not just the job of making our art, but the job of marketing ourselves, hustling for opportunities, the job of building connections and, for most of us, a "real world" job that pays the bills. We're constantly adjusting, budgeting, setting priorities, managing time and scheduling. We make investments in new technologies to help us, new techniques to make ourselves more marketable, new methods of reaching our audiences. We set our own priorities.

But once we're involved in a theatre, we're expected to relinquish all of that, and act like helpless children. We shown our sandbox, told to play there and not get the sand all over the place. All of the hustle, hard work, time-management, budgeting and marketing that got us through the door are chalked up to talent or luck or whatever and we're expected to leave that stuff at the door, so the grown-ups can work on our behalf.

I'm not saying that ALL artists have ALL the skills to be effective managers. But then again, not ALL managers are good at their job (and let me tell ya, I've got stories to curl your hair). I'm just disputing that we "need" managers because the artists can't/won't do it. We can, we're used to it, we have the skills. You just have to trust us.


Sarah McL said...

Hey 99,

This is a bit of a personal pet peeve for me, so please excuse me if I sound touchy, but where have you seen or heard managers/administrators suggesting that artists are incapable of managing time or money? Aside from a few jerky bad apples?

-Sarah McL-

99 said...

I understand the pet peeve. I'm not just reacting the comments I've seen here from rlewis and other places, but also from things I've personally heard from both management-types and artists. In particular, a couple of years back, I was closely involved in a theatre trying to make some structural changes and the refrain that I heard regularly was that we "needed" a "business" person to come in and take over the finances and in essence, be the adult in the room. Again, I don't mean to tar all administrators as feeling this way, but there is a decidely pervasive feeling of this, and it comes from both sides.

Ron said...


I think you have identified a real problem, but pitting artists against managers is not quite the right side of the prism to look at it through, though it sure does feel that way. I do think that generally speaking everyone prioritizes their own job function in the lack of a larger vision, and that the artists haven't articulated or demanded a vision compelling enough to motivate fundraisers and philanthropists to support a model that would take pressure off managers to create structures in which artists don't have to work with the usual constraints. Part of the issue, too, is that we train audiences to expect subscription seasons with the same conventions, and then they, in turn, train organizations to continue operating in the same way by buying the tickets. It is also true that artists who don't feel they get the time or recognition they need start dreaming of "getting higher" in the system to get more power, and so they too help to perpetuate the short-term freelance assumptions by always wanting to move on to the "better" job. The biggest structural problem is that artists do not tend to be full time employees, while managers are. But frankly, not enough money is being raised to support companies of full-time artists, and executives would rather avoid the power struggles that would probably result anyway. What is needed is visionary leadership on both the artistic and management (and fundraising) sides, and that is always only going to happen only sometimes in one place or another. There is not really anyone in charge of the "system" to blame. But the conversation about what we all do CAN be changed if we keep talking about it with persistence and regularity.

Anonymous said...

But I don't understand what you exactly want. Do you want the artists (ie actors, designers, directors, etc.) to also take on the responsibility of running (ie managing, developing, marketing, etc.) while handling the stressful task of putting up a show? Theaters hire staff so that artists can do their job and not worry about getting people into the seats or money to pay for their project. And also from my experience, administrators tend to have arts degrees rather than MBAs from Harvard Bus. School. I agree that artists are not "too dumb" to handle operating a theater, but would they want to?

99 said...

I'll post more about this stuff soon, to clarify and build on the point a bit, but just for now I wanted to put out there that I don't mean to say this is an "artists vs. managers" thing, not really. And, yes, I do mean that artists should be full-time employees and involved more in the "business" decisions, since, in my view, they're all really arts decisions. The two can't really be separated. And, also, yes, I agree (from personal experience) that an artist in production may not necessarily be the best person to be the manager, but another artist can. I'm trying to question what the "professional" class of arts managers gets us, especially as it becomes further and further entrenched.

Sarah McL said...

Where does it get us? I'm sorry, I don't see a lot of directors lining up to take classes in tax law. I'm really not trying to pick a fight here, but really, I think the "theatreblogosphere" has a pretty confused idea of what most arts administrators want.

Yes, yes, I know, there are tons of manipulative and stupid managers out there. I've worked for them. I've also worked in models that try a more "tribal" structure, and I'm sorry to say it's never ended well. Ego is a powerful thing, especially in theatre, and the great talent of great arts managers is an ability to get amazing things done without wanting any credit for them. Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox. Suffice to say I think I disagree with you a little on this one, but no hard feelings :)

Dan said...

I have to say, I largely agree with 99 on this one. As an actor and self-made arts administrator, I think the bifurcation of "artistic" and "administrative" tasks is, at the very least, not the most efficient way of producing theatre. Having been an intern and a low-level administrator at a number of theatre companies, it's very, very easy (almost, I would say, the rule) for arts admins who are distanced from the creative process, who have no creative skin in the game, to commodify the "product". After a time they become less interested or concerned with the spirit or character of individual productions and instead with getting whoever to whatever show is on the stage. Likewise, artists become more and more isolated and self-centered, until even the task of promoting your own show to one's friends seems like petty mercantilism. By not having to think actively about the audience's perspective, about why someone - especially someone not in the theatre - might want to come and see your show, artists are robbed of the chance to see their work as socially and commercially valuable.

Ultimately, I think this "division of labor" is often the expeditious answer to immediate problems and limited resources. But it has encouraged the idea there are two worlds - a practical and an ideal - that coexist but are not integrated except in a relatively superficial way. Ultimately, I think the work suffers: I see more and more slickly produced marketing pieces that seem like mere branding exercises, completely disconnected from what I see on the stage. And I see more and more actors and directors, so immersed in the process of creating a show, forget that all theatre is a conversation, and reduce the second half of that dialogue to "butts in the seats" who aren't their problem.

This is in no way an indictment of artists or arts admins: nearly every one of my close friends can be labeled as one or the other. But I join 99 in suggesting that the organizational system encourages a system of thought that isn't necessarily the best way to approach our work.

RLewis said...

Just for the record, I was not saying that non-artist management is “needed” even though I know others have made this case. As one of 3 artists running a company myself that would be criticizing my own judgment. I tried to focus more on what is “wanted” and not having anyone do something that they do not want to do. I got into trouble with the Isaiah Thomas analogy, but with the way the Knicks have broken my heart I couldn't resist.

In fact, I think the messy mix of artists and administrators is just another great thing about our community. However, my experience is that artists more often do not want to run things behind the scenes (between performing and their career business they have enough to do), and when forced into such positions for whatever reason bad things usually happened.

Making this theater thing work is very, very hard, so if anyone wants to do it, more power to them. I just do not think it’s helpful to discredit non-artists who take on such jobs (unless they are overpaid), and I certainly meant no offense to artist-business(wo)men. But if I was misunderstood, I'll blame Isaiah... again.

99 said...

Isiah Thomas is truly history's greatest monster, but the point is truly taken. I might be a bit thin-skinned on this point myself.

But it's good for the conversation, I think.