More Thoughts On Organizational Structures

When I was applying to graduate programs in arts administration, the head of the program I eventually joined said something to the effect of I shouldn’t enter the program if I was a frustrated actor. I wasn’t.

Just in case, you know, you hadn’t already gotten the sense that I really like the arts administration field after blogging on the topic for eight years.

I have always been a little unsure where I should fall on the subject of how devoted to arts administration one should be. I agree with those who say that we lack well trained arts administrators and think that more people should devote themselves to its pursuit.

On the other hand, I have recently been writing about the arts and culture sector adopting new business and organizational models. I think of necessity some of that will include fewer distinctions between administration and performers.

Yes, people can fulfill both functions. I have occasionally talked about how I have been involved in providing the initial artistic vision and leadership on some projects. But once you reach the point of trying to deliver a certain level of excellence, something is going to suffer unless responsibilities are delegated.

At that point, even if you continue to perform many of the functions of your dual roles, some portion of the responsibility has to be delegated to at least one single person who is solely dedicated to one role or the other. Dispersing responsibility and decision making across many people will only work to a certain point before it becomes unwieldy.

I am not saying organizations which have these sorts of structures can’t be successful. At a certain point it becomes clear that specialization is required. That said, recently it has appeared that large arts organizations may not be the best structure for the future. Perhaps as we move forward, some of the most successful structures will be of a smaller size and be quite effective with all members contributing to both the creative and administrative life of the group.

One thing I haven’t really talked about is the situation of the frustrated artist my grad school adviser referenced. I have worked with people who were competent at the administrative side of things, but were clearly more interested in their art. They were essentially doing the administrative thing to support their artistic pursuits.

It certainly isn’t a new story. Inevitably the artistic desire won out and they moved on in the hopes of sating it. As much as I would like to live in an ideal world where everyone has an opportunity to support their dreams, I have to tell you, the organization was not as well served by these people as those who were fully invested in the job they were hired to do.

The difference in the quality of work between those with a split focus and those who preceded and followed them was marked. Arts organizations have enough challenges and deserve better than “what I really want to do is direct,” though that is often what they choose to settle for.

It occurs to me that one of the benefits of the current structure for arts organizations is that when you apply for a position, the expectations are pretty standard from job to job. Even if the duties differ, you generally know what roles you will be expected to fulfill based on the job description. If arts organizations develop new structures that include artists who also handle administrative duties, then the expectations would be particular to that group.

In light of this, it would almost be better to form the organization with the intent to dissolve after a certain period rather than with an indeterminate end. When the group forms, a certain dynamic will develop that everyone acknowledges and at least tacitly approves. If everyone knows that one person is more inclined to the administrative duties and another is more inclined to avoid them, when the first person leaves it might be difficult to find someone who shares the same exact view on how their duties should be split and doesn’t become resentful that the other person isn’t pulling their weight.

Better that the organization dissolves and reforms to tackle the next project in a manner that plays to the strengths of the existing members rather than to continually attempt to shoehorn new people into the group with the expectation that the founding dynamics remain preserved.

In contrast to the aforementioned current structure, in arts organizations with a more flexible approach to their structure and position descriptions, the frustrated artist may not feel that they need to leave to pursue their artistic expression. Less concrete expectations in a job description may allow greater latitude for how employees/members contribute to the company. With the understanding that there will be an opportunity to express themselves, there may not be a sense of a divided focus. But again, it is all going to hinge on the dynamics of the company.

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.


3 thoughts on “More Thoughts On Organizational Structures”

  1. There is definitely a bit of a tightrope to walk when trying to be flexible with an administrator who has artistic goals. At what point does the flexibility end–when the artistic results no longer meet expectations because of the administrative work, or when the administrative tasks begin to suffer because of time spent on the art? And if that situation occurs, how does the organization as a whole deal with it?

    I’m not necessarily looking for answers to those questions; instead, I am just suggesting that those are issues that must be dealt with from the start so that the leadership isn’t struggling to find answers while results on either end of the spectrum continue to suffer. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that it takes a special kind of leader to deal with the employee who wants to contribute to the organization in both areas.

    Thanks for addressing this topic…

  2. Yes. And, no. There are examples of successful artist-run orgs (Elevator Repair Service is one example) as we well as ensembles that don’t rely on the kind of specialization called for here. After all, the creation of unique artistic products in an arts organization is not analogous to the mass production of pins in Adam Smith’s factory. On the other hand, creating organizational structures that can more flexibly form and un-form would be a boon to the arts and to collaborative projects more generally.

  3. Thanks for your comments Mike and Linda. I think it will be interesting to see if things move toward a more integrated structure as a norm rather than the exception. Maybe everything happening now will be the exception.

    In the best situations, it will force everyone to improve their skills and approaches to the side of the creative process they are weaker in or have ignored.

    Actually, I suppose in the best situations, people will acknowledge where they are deficient from the start and won’t have to be forced.


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