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?

Good for the Goose, Better for the Gander

I was looking back at the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study on the value of arts in the community. I had written about a portion of it back in March.

One of the findings of the study was that people felt the arts had more value to their community than it did for them as individuals. In the cities surveyed, between 79% and 85% of attendees strongly agreed with this idea as did about 33% of non-attendees. This idea that my neighbor needs the help more than I do was recently discussed in a brief Scientific American article which found that people often rate their moral, social and religious behavior better than their neighbors and also feel that they are less biased and fairer in their judgments than the next person.

An additional discovery the PARC study made was that 2/3 of those surveyed strongly agreed (it shoots to 9/10 if you include “agree” responses) that arts education was better for children regardless of the respondent’s age, education, lack of attendance, children at home or income status. However, only 1/2 strongly felt arts had any value to adult lifelong learning. Those who attended most felt most strongly about the value. The difference might be caused by the same personal bias. Since most respondents were adults, they might feel it is better for the kids than for themselves.

The study is very interesting in its exploration of a number of other factors such as: quality of life (more educated, stronger agreement. Though in D.C. more income also had a correlation); pride in the community (higher income in Sarasota strongly agree, older folks in Boston strongly agree, but less than half of respondents in Austin strongly agree); preserves cultural heritage (majority, regardless of attendance, income, education, etc strongly agree); contributes to local economy (lowest percentage of strongly agree. Except in Sarasota, majority did not strongly agree.)

These results show that it may not be wise to make blanket assumptions about how segments of the local population view the arts. In some cases, you can’t even make assumptions about perceptions based on survey results from another city.

It is also interesting to note that the public doesn’t perceive an economic contribution of the arts. I have read a number of articles that felt the practice of discussing the arts in terms of their economic contributions would devalue the arts by positioning them as a tool for economic growth rather than a source of education, self-improvement, inspiration, etc. In most cases, the articles were referring to the way arts organizations present this information to funders, especially government bodies that allocate monies toward funding.

While I found myself agreeing with this idea, it occurs to me today that perhaps the problem is that we have been saying it too much to too few people. I quoted Ben Cameron last week where he listed economic contributions as a value of the arts that the public needed to have presented to it. Seeing the survey data, I wonder if the arts need to spread the word to the public and stop focusing the message strictly to funders. The stats have probably been chanted at legislators for so long they won’t endure as a justification of funding for too much longer. However, the community may not have been exposed to the discussion of economic value enough. The arts community may have put a lot of time and energy into communicating with too narrow a portion of of its constituency.

Smart Thinkin’

When I was looking around the Memphis Manifesto website the other day, I came across a June 2003 Smart City interview with Ben Cameron who is currently the Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group. TCG does advocacy and surveys on theatre, promotes some educational initiatives and publishes drama texts, American Theatre magazine and ArtSEARCH. The last publication has been one of my near companions in my job search efforts.

I any case, I stopped subscribing to American Theatre some time ago because it wasn’t delivering anything new of significance to me. However, listening to Ben Cameron, I wonder if I should revisit the publication. If nothing else, I am going to listen to more of these Smart City interviews.

He discusses that in the past the focus of the arts has been on presenting quality. Trying to figure out how to do it all better than in the past. This has been reflected by one of the key evaluations of the work–the newspaper review which has discussed the merits of performances based on the quality.

He says when he was working for Target Stores as Manager of Community Relations the message he often got was that the focus needs to be on presenting the value of attendance. Certainly, the work has to be of the highest quality, but just like Target, if people don’t see any value in walking through the doors, they never get to see the quality offerings within. He comments that this has only been recently that the arts have begun having a discussion on the value of a cultural experience.

There are 4 areas of value he says:

1) Economic-money spent by the organization and those who patronize the institutions contribute to the economic well-being of a community.

2) Education- arts benefits have manifested in studies showing that high risk students are more likely to participate in math and science, disciplinary problems and absences decrease, graduation rates increase.

3) Community Cohesion- Exposure to cultural expression increases tolerance for racial differences.

4) Civic Vitality- Cites Richard Florida studies of how creative classes contribute to municipal health.

I understandably interested in what he said after the interviewer asked him to discuss a talk he made at a Ford Foundation event that referred to how vaudeville theatre owners reacted to the emergence of film. So much of what he said reinforces topics I have read about and written on.

He echoed a fair portion of the pre-Ford Foundation history of the arts noted in the Leverage Lost… article I cited. (When I originally cited that paper I never realized it would end up having a recurring significance on a weekly basis!) He talked about how the number of professional stock theatres plumetted and how arts production shifted to the non-profit system we have today.

Cameron refers to a book titled The Radical Center: The Future of American Politicsby Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. It is difficult to transcribe the gist of his commentary on the book, but in brief, the authors noted that historically when there is war, technological change and a shift in rural-urban demographics (Civil War, Depression-WW II, etc) the tendency for the American people is to alter the social compact.

Cameron agrees with the authors that we are in the middle of a period when we will reinvent the social contract. Thinking that you can “just keep your head down” and weather the stormy economy may not be a viable strategy for continued success. He feels the challenge faced today is determining what social forces to pay attention to so we are prepared for how the situation realigns rather than waiting and trying to play catch up.

Among the examples he uses of theatres making preparations for the shifting expectations is the shifting of performance times on some nights to 6:00 or 7:00 instead of the traditional 8:00 curtain. They are doing this to in response to people’s work and travel schedules and have met with success. This allows people to go to a performance right from work and still be home to kiss the kids good night by 8 or 9pm.

He also notes that some theatres are opening their rehearsals to the public. People are curious to see the process and learn how things come together. (A subject I broached back in February.) Some theatres are apparently taking the Today Show route and rehearsing on street level in a room with a plate glass window. Others are rehearsing outdoors or inviting people in.

The move has required a revamping of rules and expectations. Cameron gives the example of Anne Bogart’s company (I assume SITI. He doesn’t mention the name.) She tried it for a production and the actors apparently screamed at her at the end of the first rehearsal. She asked them to stick with it three weeks. They had to establish some ground rules for this new way of doing things. Among the questions they had were whether they should be playing to the audience or to the director.

He doesn’t mention the answer, but it occurs to me that as simple as the question might be, it does indeed represent a complex situation. Rehearsals are about the director and actors communicating with one another on many levels. Performances are about the actors and audience communicating. Audiences would have to understand they wouldn’t be getting that communication. Actors would have to remember that a choice they made that got a pleasing audience reaction might not be a valid part of the director’s vision for the production.

The upshot of the decision though is a positive one. The actors told Anne Bogart they never wanted to rehearse any other way in the future. They saw exciting possibilities associated with having the people for whom they were making the work in the same room as them.

Other strategies have been to redesign the physical plant adding cafes, etc to make the theatre a social destination and not just a place you go to see a play. “Theatres thinking not about just how do we make a performance, but asking bigger questions like how do we orchestra social interaction in which the performance is a piece, but only a piece of what we are called to do.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of arts organizations to “open our embrace to the fullest spectrum of the inhabitants of our cities and towns.” He speaks not only about non-traditional casting and producing shows that have resonance with different segments of the population, but also in encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in the management end of the arts where they can make active contributions.

As I stated earlier, an interesting interview that I am glad I listened to out of curiousity. Some fodder for thought.

Creative Tampa

I have been looking around to see what I can find out about the efforts communities are making toward becoming one of Richard Florida’s Creative Communities. Of course, I came across the Memphis Manifesto. The links section provides a wide range of links to interviews and organizations across the nation which are trying to organize to revitalize their communities. The community website I liked best was Tampa’s–CreativeTampaBay.com

While all the other websites have information on long range planning and goals for their cities, Tampa’s front page has a number of ways people from the community can get involved in the efforts. They have salons people can attend to discuss the initiatives they are lobbying for and learn more about the creative community concept.

They also provide people with the forum to suggest their own initiatives to attract creative workers. The forum serves like meetup.com in that it is a central source of information about efforts that are being made in areas like improving transportation, technology, character building and civics, health, greenways and trails as well as arts endeavors.

It is difficult to assess how active each of these initiative groups is. It is good to see that Creative Tampa Bay is trying to harness the efforts of as many constituencies as possible and get them invested in the goal of attracting creative workers. There seems to be an effort to find strategies appropriate to the Tampa Bay area rather than appropriating what was successful for other cities as has been a concern of mine.

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