Administration by Degrees

I was going to write on another subject today and had some reference material all lined up. Something has been grating on me for awhile now and I decided I would address it today. For a number of months now Drew McManus has been critical of how well arts administration programs are preparing people for careers in that field. It started back in November with his original posting, followed by a rebuttal by Andrew Taylor, to which Drew replied. He has made additional comments on this theme since then. Today he quotes Klaus Heymann as saying

“There are too many arts administrators that know about the arts but are terrible managers and there are too many that are good managers that don’t know enough about the arts. Arts Administration programs need to provide much more practical experience for their students in order to better prepare them for the realities of the classical music business.”

As a graduate with a degree in arts management, this sort of thing raises my hackles a bit. I can understand that some people are just bad managers despite their degrees and that classroom education really can’t prepare you for the practical realities of running an organization. However, I am of the mind that arts groups will be better off with someone at the helm who is aware of the business environment in which their organization is operating. Historically, I feel there have been too many institutions being lead by well meaning individuals who didn’t really didn’t understand good governance and business practices. Certainly there have been many individuals who have been fantastic managers without formal training, but they have been few and far between and getting rarer as the times make more specific demands of people and allow less margin for error.

However, after some investigation of arts administration programs, I have to say Drew might be right.

Florida State University where I earned my MFA is a good example of this. I got my MFA from the Theatre School. The requirements were 42 credits in classroom and practicum work and then a year long internship at a theatre for 18 credits (60 total).

The FSU Visual Arts School has an MA Arts Administration degree program as well. It is a 39 credit program but doesn’t even have a required practicum listed. Part of my degree program required me to take some surveying courses offered by this department and in speaking with the students there, I didn’t feel there was enough focus on practical applications.

The FSU School of Music has recently started offering an MA in Music Administration program. It is a 39 credit course load and does require a 9 credit internship.

Here we have 3 arts administration programs at the same university holding students to vastly different standards for a Master’s degree.

Andrew Taylor’s Bolz Center also has a two year arts administration degree. It doesn’t specify number of credits and the cirriculum is being changed, but it appears near 40. They offer an optional internship.

The University of Alabama has a 60 credit, 2 calendar year (no summer breaks) MFA program where you spend 9 months on campus and then 15 months straight getting practical experience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Wayne State University has a similar 60 credit MFA program where the students essentially run the theatre company for three years alongside taking classes.

University of Oregon has a 39 credit hour program which does require a 3 credit internship. Drexel’s is 45 credit hours and also requires a 3 credit internship.

Southern Utah University (home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival) was the only place which offered a MFA in Arts Administration of 60 hours (as opposed to in a specific area like Theatre Administration)

I agree with Andrew Taylor that it is a matter of the quality of instruction rather than how much instruction you get. Certainly getting an MFA is no guarantee of ability. I think the current batch of MFA grads from FSU are getting better classroom training than I did. (Though none will ever get the practical experience in crisis management I got.) I wonder if people who intend to apply their degree to running an organization (as opposed to self-illumination or teaching) should be going after the additional 21 credits for a MFA.

I am curious to know why theatre programs seem to think their students need the extra year and the other disciplines don’t. Certainly, there is the chance that theatre people have conspired to wring a year or so of talented work for the meager expense of an assistantship salary. But I have always thought theatre managers had it together more than managers of other disciplines.

Sure, it may be egotism talking or my attempt to rationalize the value of my exhausting work for paltry wages, but I think there is something to it. There is a lot of classroom work and practical experience necessary to gain the skills to be effective as an arts manager in the current climate. Doing 20 hours a week as part of a practicum or assistantship fit in around your class schedule is certainly going to give you insight, but it isn’t likely to require enough problem solving and critical thinking to really prepare you for a job in that area.

An side note on a related program I came across. The Crane School of Music at SUNY-Potsdam has an Institute for Music Business. (It is an excellent music school. Probably because the winters are so cold, there is nothing to do but practice. I’ve been there.) The institute isn’t so much a degree program (though they plan to start one) as an attempt to: “enhance communication and facilitate a mutually beneficial partnership between The Crane School of Music and the music products industry, bridging the gap between music education and music business.” One of their initiatives is to prepare their graduates for careers.

It isn’t clear if this means giving all their graduates the skills to properly promote themselves and cope in the real world or just educating those who are interested in the business end (or perhaps both.) From what I have read recently, it might be extremely valuable for students to learn the former so they will be aware of the realities and expectations that face them upon graduation.

Anyone have any thoughts or observations about any of this?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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