6 Skills Young Arts Managers Need to Have

The great and powerful...arts manager!

The great and powerful...arts manager!

The great and powerful…arts manager!

More and more students have started to contact me, asking if I have time to talk to them about arts management. Some are even arts or dance management majors. I have found most of these students woefully unprepared for a life in this field. They’re often taught history, philosophy of the arts — not what’s actually expected of you in an arts management career. I thought that I would give my perspective, then, for what this life is really like. Some of this may seem negative, but if you’re the right person for the job and it’s truly your passion, it can be more gratifying than any other career and you’ll be unable to envision yourself doing anything else.

Your calendar is no longer your own.
More than ticket sales, the lifeblood for arts organizations is their donors. Which means they’re the most important thing in the world to you. If a donor (depending on their level of giving — you’re only one person, after all) invites you to something, even if it’s last-minute, you accept. This may at times be frustrating for your friends or difficult on you because you have to constantly manage and change your calendar. Almost never should you decline the first invitation because it’s unlikely you’ll get a second.

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Ask not what your arts organization can do for you! Ask what you can do for your arts organization.

“Ask not what your arts organization can do for you! Ask what you can do for your arts organization.”

Public speaking is a requirement. Train now.
There is almost nothing worse than a bad public speaker, but in the arts community, it’s certain death. You have to speak in front of organizations about your company all the time. You have to speak before your performances to thousands of people. You have to appeal to your donors en masse at your fundraising events. In each of these occasions you have to engage and inspire those people. We are fundraisers without the advantage of being considered vital to a community. We do not cure cancer, we don’t feed the homeless, we don’t even save animals. We increase quality of life and that is an idea that you have to sell. My rule of thumb is I allow myself one stutter or “um” for every five minutes of speaking. But I am a little militant about it.

Donor software: know it.
I have asked every student I have met with if they know any donor software. The blank stare on their face is the same as that time I asked one of them who Kurt Cobain was, with the result that I felt old. I’m certain they have been taught nothing of donor software. There are several free programs out there and while they will not be as complex as what we use professionally, it will at least begin the training. Most software is similar enough in format that if you understand the basics you can be more easily trained to use any software.

What 40-hour workweek?
As an arts manager it’s critically important that you’re seen in the community, especially at other arts organizations’ events. Most donors who give to the arts give to more than one so there is a lot of crossover in donors. They want to see you at everything they support — and that is your job. Your evenings therefore will often consist of dinners or drinks with donors, and then more events. If you want the 8-to-5 job, this is not the career for you. Because you’re often in public, you also have to be “on” almost all the time. I find when I go home at night I just want to sit in silence because I’ve been talking all day. This is the life, though, and you have to love it to make it work.

Don’t kill them with kindness, slaughter them with it.
You have to be nice to everyone, end of story. You never know who someone is and who they know and people will know you more than you know them. I recommend creams and ointments to counteract the smile lines you’ll get. People don’t just have to like you, they have to respect you. They have to believe that you are the person to lead the business of the company. To get that, you have to give off the perception that you like and respect everyone you meet. Sometimes that’s easier than at other times, but it is essential that you try at every turn not to make enemies. Lighting your way by the fire of the bridges you have burned is a recipe for disaster. Take the high road, always.

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Beware of what you say

Careful the things you say, donors will listen.

Social media: tread carefully.
As social media becomes more of a part of our identity, we must be very careful how we navigate this. For most people, social media is used as a way to connect with friends and express their feelings to the masses. This is not the case with an arts manager. Because of who you are, your patrons and donors will seek you out on social media, and as it would be rude not to accept their friend request, you do. And now that you know you’re connected, you cannot post whatever you like. Keep your political opinions to yourself unless you’re certain it wouldn’t offend your donor base. Typically, the only political things I post are about arts and government or equality. I feel certain that my donors would not be offended by this. Mostly I try and post things that people will interact with; the more they like or comment on your posts, the more you show up in their newsfeed. Then you can promote your company knowing you’re getting the most exposure possible. I must admit, though, sometimes Facebook Shane annoys me.

Keep in mind…
All arts managers are different, as are the business models and requirements for each organization. This is what I have found to be true in my case only. This job takes a specific type of person and if you’re that person, you will feed off of what you do and it will be an incredibly fulfilling life. I always say that the arts need problem solvers, because there are an endless amount of problems to solve.

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  • Francis

    Thank you for the article. I am probably the most qualified arts manager in South Africa with an honours in finance, masters in quality management (ISO9000) and currently pursuing a PhD with a focus in arts management and government policy and yet a good portion of what you mentioned I didn’t know but will definitely start implementing it next week in the arts organisation that I am responsible for, particularly donor management software, I had no idea and didn’t even think to look for it. Others in my organisation need to hear some of these points, like the effects if social media, so I will definitely be sharing it with them.

    • Shane

      Francis, thank you so much for your comments! I would highly recommend looking into donor software. There is also software that has a donor/marketing/ticket sales databases that all migrate into a single software. I would point you to patron manager as a great example

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