Roles in arts management are as diverse as they are demanding.
Arts managers often make hard-nosed business decisions while undertaking important work to deliver new work and build artistic programs.
For those on the journey - or those who aspire to be - here’s a breakdown of the skills that are crucial in management positions in the creative industry.
Of all the important arts management skills, the majority placed people skills as their priority number one.
Their jobs are definitely people-centric. Arts managers routinely work with others (often overseeing activities), communicating with colleagues and stakeholders to build firm relationships both inside and outside their organisations.
Carissa Campbell, Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre Manager, listed some of her most important external stakeholders as being across Government, local Council, the media, the community and education (schools), as well as the broad range of touring productions presented at her venue.
“It takes a big, varied team to run a theatre, and you have to be able to talk to everyone you work with,” she says.
Lauren Ellis, Curatorial Manager at Bendigo Art Gallery concurred, saying that “the most important skill is your ability to build relationships and work cooperatively with different people.”
She continues “position descriptions always talk about communication skills. And really, this is about building and maintaining good relationships more than ‘influencing people’ or overloading your colleagues with constant updates and information.
“Arts organisations are often fast-paced environments with ambitious passion-driven projects and a scarcity of resources, so you need to be attuned to other people’s pressures and priorities and find collaborative ways to get things done.”
After that number one skill of being able to work effectively with people - arts managers described a quality that is less about competencies, and more about their attitude to their work, as another essential trait in their skill set.
Peter Kift, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company General Manager, cited the ability to listen and act with integrity as number one on his list of arts manager requisites.
“I think it is incredibly important that arts managers and leaders act with the highest level of honesty and integrity - how else are people going to trust you?” he told ArtsHub.
“I am a qualified accountant and those two attributes are drummed into us from the very start of our careers. It’s helped me get to where I am today.”
Carissa Campbell offered a variation on this perspective, saying that in her experience, “people in the arts work best when they have a clear vision and purpose that they can get excited about.
“[As an arts manager] you need to communicate well and remind everyone of why we are turning up to work each day,” she explains.
In parallel, Lauren Ellis listed humility as important to the arts manager’s role - when you are often working as one of the invisible background figures to help realise someone else’s vision.
“It’s good to learn how to draw pleasure and pride in your work from things other than public accolades!” Ellis notes.
Another defining feature that came across as important for the majority of Artshub’s interviewees was the ability to bring good humour into the workplace and generally have a laugh on the job.
Gill Perkins, Executive Director of Bell Shakespeare, reveals the most important assets facilitating her longevity and success in her arts roles have been hard work and a sense of humour.
Similarly, Caitlin Pijpers, Fremantle Arts Centre’s Exhibitions Manager believes that her willingness to integrate fun and humour into her work has positioned her well to sustain a career in arts management roles.
“I’m a huge fan of picking up the phone or going to a colleague’s office and having a quick conversation,” Pijpers says.
“Creating social opportunities to celebrate the team is also really important to bring fun and collegiality to the workplace. Humour helps build resilience,” she adds.
For Peter Kift, humour has kept him sane “on those days when you feel like rocking under your desk or denying that you are 39 for the 22nd time”.
Another important skill is about organisation and your ability to stay on top of heavy workloads in time-pressured environments.
Yet, being well organised sometimes feels like a trait you’re either born with, or you’re not.
In response, the message from arts managers seems to be that if you think you’re someone who thrives in disorganised chaos, it’s time to iron out those kinks as you step into an arts management role.
Kift remarks “‘I have found that if I am on top of when General Manager-type things are due or required – such as acquittals, applications, compliance matters, meetings, production schedules, government grants, etc, (have I mentioned meetings?) – I am less likely to forget or miss them.
“Utilise your online calendar and keep it synced to your mobile, or buy yourself a really nice diary,” he advises.
For Lauren Ellis, “organisation skills are a blessing in arts environments - you need them.
“Some people bluff their way through but it’s annoying for their colleagues and really annoying for themselves,’ she continues.
“At the very least, practice keeping a notebook, a diary or calendar, and a To Do list - either an analogue or digital version,” Ellis says.
To conclude, here’s another big one.
Whether you consider your commitment to your craft a skill you can hone over time, or something you need in spades from the start, a number of experienced arts managers revealed that their commitment to their pathways in the sector has been important to their success.
Gill Perkins said that she started her arts career in her teens, working backstage in London’s West End and then worked as a part time arts administrator for London-based touring theatre company Red Shift. She then moved to Australia where she got a job at Sydney Opera House.
“I worked there as a mechanist, a dresser, in props, and in stage and company management, straddling theatre, dance, opera, orchestras and festivals,” she details, crediting her proximity to such varied roles across theatre as key to her learning.
Having soaked up the experiences of bringing shows to life on stage, Perkins soon realised she wanted to be involved in the earliest stages of production – helping work grow from concept stage through to opening night.
“That was my turning point,’ she explains. “To grow my administrative skills so I could help realise the ideas from the beginning.”
For Carissa Campbell, it was a bold move made at the beginning of her career, when she worked as a ticket-seller in Sydney Opera House’s box office, that put her on her path to where she is now.
“A Box Office management role was advertised,” she explains. “But I’d only been there eight weeks so I knew they wouldn’t hire me.
“However, I wanted to be in management, so I sent in my application just so the Personnel Department would be forced to read my CV and I could let them know I wanted to be in management one day.”
To her great surprise, Campbell landed the management job weeks later, even though her application was driven by her feeling that whatever happened, showing strong commitment to her desired future pathway might lead somewhere down the track.
“I learned so much in that job, and my whole career would be different today if I hadn’t taken that leap of faith at 22,” Campbell affirms.
Her experience echoes the thoughts of many other arts managers who reported that as well as qualities like determination and tenacity, external forces (including luck!) have also influenced their arts management pathways.
This article was originally published by our friends at Artshub Australia.
Written by Jo Pickup.