Wow, “Run Arts Like A Business” Has Been A Thing For Awhile

As I was looking back in the archives for content to post on while on vacation, I was surprised to see that I was writing back the dangers of the sentiment that “arts organizations should be run like a business” a decade ago.

I cited a piece in The New Republic discussing that manufacturing in the US began to decline when leadership started to be drawn from people focused on finance rather than operations.

“Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background….But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

At the time, I expressed my concerns that leadership of arts organizations might become increasingly divorced from the metaphorical manufacturing process if those making decisions had never deeply engaged in creative pursuits.

I linked to a post I made in 2004 about observations that the back office at an orchestra was seemingly disassociated from the performances.

Thoughts on whether this situation has gotten better or worse in the last 10-15 years?

Is it a good sign that in the last couple months, you can’t turn around without seeing an article praising what California Symphony Executive Director, Aubrey Bergauer, a tuba player, has accomplished? Or is she just an outlier?

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. (

I am currently the 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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1 thought on “Wow, “Run Arts Like A Business” Has Been A Thing For Awhile”

  1. Joe: The situation is getting worse and worse, and I’ve been in this business for 30+ years. The latest nonsense is arts organizations hiring EDs who have worked with other kinds of nonprofits, nothing to do with the arts at all, simply because they were already living that city. (There are tons of examples. Opera Grand Rapids and Toledo Symphony happen to come to mind immediately.) When asked why this person was hired, the board president inevitably says: “He/She has great fund raising contacts in this town.” As if raising money for crippled children or rescue dogs is the same as raising money for an orchestra or opera company. Yikes!

    I don’t know how old you are, Joe, so maybe you’re not familiar with Sol Hurok?
    He was not a native speaker of English and often got his words twisted, for example: “If nobody wants to go to a concert, you can’t stop them.” But, apropos of your excellent post here, Hurok said: “If the music business was really a business, it couldn’t stay in business.”


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