How is this enough? Rethinking cultural management

This short paper is the result of the opportunity to join the conversations happening at the Reshape Forum in Lublin during the first week of April. It is also part of the wider research I am conducting in the framework of my PhD in Artistic Studies at the University of Coimbra on alternative models of organization and management in the performing arts. If you’re interested in continuing this conversation, do get in touch. The research is funded by FCT - SFRH/BD/136458/2018.

“According to Jonathan, democracy requires slower decision-making. We have the right to hesitate, compare alternatives, reflect; and then decide. This makes everything slower. Look, Jonathan told me – both of us still sitting in Washington’s lovely West Potomac Park – decision-making is incredibly fast in dictatorships. Without deviations or alternatives, everything is a sprint, said Jonathan. It is necessary to put crossroads before people, says Jonathan. That is democracy .” Gonçalo M. Tavares

Whenever I attend conferences or forums that gather many arts professionals, I ride the usual rollercoaster: one moment I’m thinking it’s-always-the-same-conversations-among-the-same-people and the next I’m having a breakthrough on a set of ideas or stumbling into an exciting project or person. Reshape Forum in Lublin was no exception. There were moments I feared to be dragged into the perpetual spiral of complaints that hovers over these meetings rendering them completely useless. There were moments when I’d rather just eat my lunch instead of networking but still managed to chew and say something vaguely intelligent at the same time. On balance, flying the 3500 Km was well worth it this time. We heard some off-topic talks on futurism and even had the chance of interweaving the history of hope with that of religion thereby challenging many unquestioned assumptions that make us continuously look for... betterment? Not all of them were inspirational to me, but I did admire the gesture of inviting us to engage with other lines of reasoning, and to drift away slightly from the topics of our reunion, before our minds got to working in their usual professional/sectoral focused mode. It seemed pretty consistent that a project that aims to fundamentally ‘reshape’ so many features of the arts and culture sector was starting off by refusing the sovereignty of pragmatic approaches and by ditching linear thinking. I quote the excellent book by Hesters (2019) that Joris Janssens kindly offered me: “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. (...) Strategizing is about more than finding the right technical solution. System change requires changing the way we look at the world and behave within it (...).”

On the second day, by the time I got to the Long Table I was supposed to make a contribution to – the one of ‘Fair Governance Models’, my head was spinning fast. I took it as a personal task to honour the experimental aspect of Reshape, and was keen on repeating the mantra: the bolder we are, the farther we get. I tried to channel the energy of my personal frustrations towards concrete proposals that this project could take up. Having been invited to do some of the initial talking, I was the first one walking down the avenue from frustration to transformation.


Working either as an external consultant or as in-house arts manager, I have always been involved with strategic thinking and planning, and helped devise and develop many organisations’ mission and work models. I have always been attracted to the ‘reverse’ of institutions, to examining the insides and questioning their core values and strategy. I have actually made an apparently successful career out of my alleged ability to help art organisations figure themselves out. But truth be told I was always slightly frustrated with the restricted scope of the change effectively implemented. After so many discussions, and envisaging so many different possibilities, the question for me was: how is this enough? Why does it seem to be enough for arts and culture organisations to come across as innovative without hardly ever actually innovating? Because let’s face it: innovating implies taking risks, and taking risks has become something that we avoid more and more, out of the politically correctness atmosphere or out of self-preservation instincts in a time of backpedalling of public funding for culture.

We are afraid of taking risks, as much as we are trapped in narratives of our own success. Our festivals are always incredible, the report always tells that the project went just great, we hire DJ’s to throw a party after a book launch every two weeks because we are cool and informal and open-minded – but are we really? These narratives of success are convenient for political support – which is arguably understandable if your funding ecology is unreliable (and almost everyone can claim to be in that position). As a director or a manager, you make decisions that ensure the financial sustainability of the organization, that is, you make sure you stay reliable for future public or private investment. But while this is justifiable, it is not necessarily the best we can do for the arts in the long term. Namely because it means our attention is always focused on those who fund us, not those whom we serve. Think of the all the meetings you hold, think about how your working time is used in terms of your different constituencies and you’ll reach the same conclusion I did. And I think that is happening in public institutions and among independent performing arts. It is the status quo.

Also, I was often confronted with huge contradictions between a politically-charged, ‘progressive’ public artistic discourse and internal work practices that offered no resistance to capitalist abuse. I became acutely aware of and challenged by the persistence of conservative aspects of cultural work: highly hierarchical, departmentalized, closed, fearful of innovation, self-exploitative. These traits are oftentimes not easily detectable:

(1) first off, because of the ‘passion mantra’, that we perpetuate ourselves as committed practitioners, by repeatedly putting in extra hours, by failing to preserve healthy boundaries between private life and work life and many times failing our family and friends, and ourselves, because of the deadline, the premiere, because of that special project. This is intrinsically connected with fair governance, I think, because as long as we keep doing it – and by we I mean senior practitioners with power, cultural managers, directors – we are condoning a system largely based on self-exploitation. So my first question would be: what can we do to take this seriously? What can we do in each of our organisations that can begin to change the work pattern of the arts?

But the passion mantra is not the only problem we need to address.

It is a difficult case to make [that art organisations work too often in a hierarchical, departmentalized, closed way and are generally fearful of innovation] also

(2) because artists and cultural workers are intellectually aware of what’s acceptable or not to say in public, so, for instance, everyone in the arts will describe their work environment and ethos as highly collaborative. But many people who work in those same organisations will tell you – off-record – that it is not quite so. One of the things that currently interest me is to investigate to what extent – if any - has the explosion of collaborative practices in the field of artistic creation influenced the way art institutions work and the organizational models they adopt. If it can be said that the expansion of participatory practices in the arts can be partially explained as an exercise to resist neoliberal attempts to reduce art to consumption, as well as a yearning for social transformation based on an ethical stand, it is, therefore, legitimate to ask to what extent - if any - were the overall work practices actually affected by that trend. So you have to look closer: that an organisation runs a comprehensive outreach programme does not necessarily mean that its global governance is majorly influenced by a participatory ethos.

Criticizing departmentalization is also tricky: eventually you will hear about specialisation and professionalism. You’d want a press officer to deal with the press of course, we’re not amateurs. And we hold team meetings every Wednesday! So arguing – as I do – that we need to keep the professional, specialized workforce running evidently - but at the same time we need to figure out how to work together in a way that does not resemble corporate structures is very difficult. I dare you to make this exercise – it works in Portugal at least: close your eye and visualize the theatres and art venues that you know. Compare the offices of the directors with those of the production team, and the education and outreach team, etc. Compare their size, the decoration, the number of windows, the level they’re situated in the building. Can you see what I am talking about?

But let us focus on how do we transform our frustrations into possibilities? There are many more critical points from which to begin with, but these are two concrete changes I would like to propose for in depth discussion: (1) changes in the management models used in running performing arts organisations and (2) a reconsideration of the role of arts managers. Needless to say these two dimensions of change go hand in hand.

(1) Making changes in the management models means changing our role models, given that we tend to adopt the management practices and the organizational models that are prevalent or presented as successful. In my view, that involves refusing the rule of best practices as role models. To allow for risk-taking, we need to allow for difference. Speaking from a small country that very often follows European trends, we need to encourage directors and teams to come up with the management model that they deem best fits their artistic, social and political circumstances. And we need to encourage policy-makers to do the same, instead of lazily adapting French and British cultural policy latest hit. We have to encourage local innovators and help leaders get rid of the fear that they are not ‘international’ enough. What makes a theatre house in Portugal ‘international’ is its ability to engage locally with the world, not how well travelled its director is or how many foreign shows it has in the programme.

I would like to see changes in the management models that have direct implications on the governance and leadership system, i.e., that admit the possibility of collective forms of managing cultural resources, recognizing right from the start the role of communities in the co-establishment of management rules. How this can be done at organizational level or at city level is one of the aspects I would like to discuss further.

A way to start thinking about these changes is opening up the organisations we run. Can we think of ways of organizing a team with different skills in a less hierarchical way? Why should the organizational chart of a cultural venue be so disturbingly similar to that of a profit-oriented enterprise? Can we think of ways of allowing citizens an opportunity to influence the strategic thinking and future plans of their local theatre? Can we think that those opportunities are as valuable as the opportunities to take part in a participatory show involving members of the community? Can we go from project-based approach to participation to a systemic-approach?

This would be a noticeable advance in the access to culture paradigm, namely, as put forward by Barbieri:

If we would go down this route, we would be looking at forms of government and management that – without giving away their share of the responsibility – would offer their support to hybrid management models that escape the excesses of traditional intermediation. This might seem too risky to try at governmental level, but I argue we could at least begin to apply it to public theatres, dance houses, cultural centres.

Apparently, the good news is that these changes are already taking place. “In practice, in the field today, there are various artists, art workers and organisations involved in developing new working models that strengthen artists, redesigning organizational processes in order to create and shape fairer working relationships. They are forging new connections between activities, resources, people and organizations.” (Hesters, 2019:14).

Needless to say, in a country as Portugal for instance, with a fairly recent democracy and a social welfare system that never quite reached the stability of other countries, the possibility of relieving the state of its responsibilities is pretty scary. But if we are willing to embrace these changes we need to keep in mind that it is not about diminishing the role of the State in culture, but, quite the opposite: it is about amplifying it, by means of effectively materializing the cross sectoral nature of culture. We need of course further research on the implications of all of this in public policy-making, but the prospect of a work ecology in the arts that goes beyond the managerial model is stimulating enough for us at least to consider these possibilities.

(2) We should rethink the role of an arts manager: cultural management today is tending dangerously towards the utilitarian realm, focusing almost exclusively on operational management.

Very often, changing things around means changing yourself first. It is excellent that the profession of cultural manager has developed amazingly into a state of almost maturity and legitimacy, but it can be argued that cultural management “(...) has developed into a field where reaction rather than pro-action is the norm with little reflection upon how its practices fit within a larger context.” (Deveraux, 2009:156) It is therefore important that we are able to make a distinction between the focus on the how-to-do (how to write a grant, how to manage an European project, how to implement a successful audience development campaign, etc.) and a type of cultural management that is at the same time focused on a wider range of conceptual issues. We are in urgent need of a “ (...) critical examination of cultural management practices in order to understand the epistemological, ethical and conditioned assumptions that underpin them, (...) the accepted ways of doing – and what makes them so acceptable – and the deeper structures that such ways of doing reveal.” (Deveraux, 2009: 157)

There is both a growing uneasiness on the part of some cultural managers that are reflective practitioners (where I include myself), and a note of acrimony creeping into the perspectives of artists upon these professionals that we must pay attention to. Hester (2019:42) sums it up quite efficiently: “There is something fundamentally wrong when professional sectors, in which work is conducted in diverse kinds of vocations and in diverse kinds of institutions, function in such a way that precisely their most central players cannot succeed in living from their professional practice. When at the end of each month, successful and recognized artists still find themselves below the poverty level, it is an important signal that the entire internal system of working, collaborating, remuneration and social protection is due for a revision.”

Could it be that we are reluctant to interrogate our professional practices and their underlying assumptions and codes because we are anxious to see our recent profession legitimatised and valued? Could it be that we fear that an attitude of systematic questioning of our codes of practice and working models threatens the development of our careers?

To this background I posit that cultural management needs to assert itself not only as a set of technical action-oriented skills, but also as an intellectual practice and, assuredly, as a field of inquiry. The urge to professionally establish an emerging field may have justified an excessive
results-driven perspective – akin to prove its worth in the artistic sphere but the time has come to correct that imbalance. There is a case to be made that arts managers need to engage with critical thinking, anthropology or political science at least as much as they engage with
marketing or audience development.

Both Henze (2019) and Deveraux (2009) postulate that this penchant for business and administrative expertise may have been encouraged by the arts management study courses, which seems an allegation worth proving via further research.

Artistic production processes are in fact not neutral – so they can hardly be reduced to technicalities - and they need to be inscribed in ethics and solidarity. It is not possible to say that management does not make social or political choices. “Cultural management today is also a moral issue.”, as Argentinian Guillermo Heras rightfully points out.

To sum things up, I would say we, cultural managers, face two immediate challenges: one is to transcend cultural management’s ontological phase (obsessed with defining what cultural management is) and another one is stop mimicking the administrative model, and getting rid of its managerial orientation, preventing us from being perceived as art’s modern little technocrats.

Conclusion, that is, a new beginning for cultural management

In my view, devising a new role as cultural managers means, among other challenges, the ability to replace the competition paradigm with a collaboration paradigm, by sharing processes and knowledge and stimulating horizontal learning; the ability to manage time, of course, but resisting acceleration and fragmentation; to manage money, of course, but in a way that resists the competitive spiralling which makes artistic processes come too close of other productive processes working in a capitalist matrix; the ability to be vigilant of generating hegemonic success narratives around the projects you champion; to question the established working models and fight for democratic management practices and fair work conditions for all stakeholders involved in the artistic processes; to devise a professional yet intense relationship with artists, avoiding the technocratic pitfalls and easy stereotypes; to deepen the level and the quality of citizen participation in cultural activities and in the governance of public art institutions; to actively engage in international dialogue towards more solidary and cosmopolitan societies; and to inscribe their action in ethics and solidarity and make sure the governance models of your organisation are in line with the moral values you uphold.

We keep saying the world is changing at a dizzying pace but we tend to hold on firmly to our ways of relating to it. It’s time to admit that linear mind-sets – and the hierarchical systems and structures they give rise to – are not fit-for-purpose in a non-linear world. With these brief thoughts I hope I have challenged you to reconsider notions of risk, success, collaboration or hierarchy, and come up with ideas that make a conceptual and practical turn on cultural management that reconciles our present actions with our imagined futures.

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BARBIERI, N. (2014) Cultura, Políticas Públicas y Bienes Comunes: hacia unas políticas de lo cultural, Kultur Revista Interdisciplinària sobre la cultura de la ciutat, 1, 1, 101-119.
DEVEREAUX, C., 2009. Practice versus a discourse of practice in cultural management in The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 39(1), pp. 65-72.
HERAS, G. (2012) Pensar la gestión de artes escénicas. Escritos de un gestor. Caseros: RGCLibros.
HESTER, D. 2019 D.I.T(Do It Together) – The position of the artist in today’s art world, Flanders Arts Institute, Brussels.
HENZE, R. (2019) New understanding of the roles of arts managers. Das Magazin von Kultur Management Network, 137, 18-23.
BARBIERI, N. (2014) Cultura, Políticas Públicas y Bienes Comunes: hacia unas políticas de lo cultural, Kultur Revista Interdisciplinària sobre la cultura de la ciutat, 1, 1, 101-119.
DEVEREAUX, C., 2009. Practice versus a discourse of practice in cultural management in The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 39(1), pp. 65-72.
HERAS, G. (2012) Pensar la gestión de artes escénicas. Escritos de un gestor. Caseros: RGCLibros.
HESTER, D. 2019 D.I.T(Do It Together) – The position of the artist in today’s art world, Flanders Arts Institute, Brussels.
HENZE, R. (2019) New understanding of the roles of arts managers. Das Magazin von Kultur Management Network, 137, 18-23.
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