An Open Letter to Arts Administrators

Posted by Adam Thurman, May 27, 2009 20 comments

I've gotten your emails and your phone calls, expressing your frustrations and wondering why a life as an arts professional has to be so damn hard.

I've heard you talk about how the stress imposed upon you by a collective of self centered artists, lack of executive leadership and limited resources have hurt your health and impacted your relationships.

You have pulled me aside after workshops and presentations and whispered "I love your ideas, but my boss will never let me do it."

I've seen your passion for the job get swallowed up in a swamp of rules that make no sense.

Here are some things I want you to consider:

1. It doesn't have to be like that. I know you've probably convinced yourself that all the garbage you deal with is just the cost of being in the field.

It isn't. If the group you work for is being run poorly it is because people are ACTIVELY making choices that allow that to happen. It isn't just a matter of circumstance. It's an outcome of choice.

You deserve better then that. You deserve to work at an organization that produces great art, treats people with respect and pays fairly. No matter how much people may tell you otherwise those three goals are NOT mutual exclusive.

2. You are not the savior.

You're smart. You see the problems in the organization. You care. You want to play a part in fixing them.


But not everything wants to be fixed. Some organizations have been run so poorly, for so long that they really can't fathom another way. Don't make it your responsibility to save them for the path they have chosen.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight for change. You should. But only to a point.

If you have been at a place 3 or 4 years and things haven't significantly improved, they probably aren't going to change. Move on. Find another place that will welcome your ideas and energy. They are out there.

And if you decide to move on and the place you are at begs you to stay, remember this next point:

3. Don't let them use your passion against you. Consider this:

Imagine you were a lawyer. What if I told you that there were some law firms (not all, but absolutely some) that didn't get a damn about their employees? What if I told you that some firms were designed to bring in people and get as much out of them as possible before they burned out?

Would you believe me?

Of course you would. Hell, because it's the legal profession you would expect such behavior.

Here's da rub:

Some arts organizations are the exact same way. Just because the end product is art and not a legal brief doesn't mean the place automatically values their employees. Just because the place is a non-profit doesn't automatically make it a nice place to work.

But here's the really messed up part. At some of those arts orgs, if you complain that the hours are unreasonable, or the pay is low, or your input isn't valued . . . they imply that your commitment to the "cause" is low. They convince you that if you really were passionate about your work, you would put up with the sub par conditions.

Don't fall for it. It's a trap. Remember point 1, it doesn't have to be like that . . . you deserve better.

4. Have the end in mind. If you are really frustrated, really close to burnout, give this a try.

Pull out a calendar. Give yourself a year. Decide that in that year one of two things will happen:

- You will have marshalled the credibility, support and skills you need to make at least one significant, visible positive change in the place you work for.


- You will have a new job.

One year. That's enough time to figure out where you stand. Just stick to the date.

5. But don't quit the arts. Quit your job, that's fine. Just don't do it without a plan (use that Year in Step 4 to develop it)

If you can't find a job as an arts administrator in a great organization . . . maybe you get out the field for a while. That's ok. You can come back.

But the arts need you. They need your skill, your experience, your energy. So maybe you join a Board of an organization, maybe you volunteer. Maybe you start your own organization.

Whatever you do, please don't let a bad experience at an organization (or two) sour you on the business of art.

I feel strongly about that one, because I almost let it happen to me.


I work at a good place now. I'm treated like a professional. Paid fairly. We produce great art (told you it wasn't mutually exclusive). It isn't perfect. Nothing is. But I have learned a lot and I think I have been an asset to the place.

I also do rewarding work as a speaker and a coach. It's good. I'm blessed.

But it almost never happened.

I worked at another place once, gave it my all. Got swallowed up in the swamp. Gained 10 pounds. Slept four hours a night because of stress.

I just quit. No fall back plan. No idea what would happen next. I don't recommend the strategy, but sometimes it is necessary.

I was done with the arts. I turned bitter. I hated artists. Hated Boards. Thought the whole damn thing was a waste of time. I guessed it was time to break out the ol' law degree.

But then I remembered . . . I had been involved with the arts since I was 17. Theatre still mattered to me. The arts still mattered to me. And wasn't going to let a few individuals run me out the thing I loved.

I didn't know how, but I was going to make a living in the arts. And if left the arts field one day, it would be on my terms.


So maybe the place you are working for isn't the right place. There are other places.

Maybe the people you are working with don't respect your skills. Others will.

Whether you are a former artists embracing the work of administration, a person moving from the corporate side to the non-profit side, or a person who has been groomed for arts administration . . . never forget that you are needed.

This thing you love, the arts . . . it is your world too. It's your world just as much as it belongs to any poet, any dancer, any actor.

It's vital you remember that because along your path you will be confronted by those who alternate between seeing you as completely irrelevant to the artistic process on one hand and the great oppressor of artistic ambitions on the other.

That's garbage.

You belong. Find your place. Use your skills. Help get great art into the world. It can't happen without you.

(Cross posted at the Mission Paradox Blog)

20 responses for An Open Letter to Arts Administrators


May 28, 2009 at 12:30 am

I just want to say thank you. Sincerely. I'm not an administrator in the arts, but I'm an artist who works as an administrative assistant. And that was very helpful. Gracias.

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Mare says
May 28, 2009 at 12:55 am

I'm a playwright, and worked within a membership theatre organization for nearly four years. I officially sat on the Board for one month before I ran screaming from the lack of goal setting and big arm waving. I have 12 years of corporate experience behind me, and I know how to run a business. I was stunned to read your post and find myself agreeing with each step in the progression - or digression.

I left. Suddenly my friends are not so interested in playing on my block anymore. I haven't decided if I'm going to renew my dues. If I could do anything differently, I would have left sooner - before I had one foot out the door. That's da rub for me: it's hard to leave a non-profit and easy to leave a corporation. Much cleaner set of calculations. Maybe it shouldn't be.

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May 28, 2009 at 8:36 am


Glad it helped.


I agree. The calcuations should be about the same. It's 2009, the knowledge people need to effectively run a NFP is out there . . . on the Net, in the classroom, whatever. We don't have to be as tolerant of poorly run orgs as we used to be.

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Jim Farrell says
May 29, 2009 at 10:29 am

This is the most incredible essay on arts administration that I've read. (And I've read a few). Thank you.

I worked at organizations that literally sucked the life out of me - working incredibly long hours, weekends and holidays. And while I was being worked into the ground for a ridiculously small amount of money (in a job with a tremendous amount of responsibility), I was repeatedly told by the artistic director that, "at least we get work in the arts."

"Who is we?" I asked one day. I left (and was treated like a blashpemous traitor). It was the best thig I could have done, because . . .

It's true. There are places out there that value passion and a point of view.

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May 29, 2009 at 11:46 am

Thank you for this reminder! Not too long ago, I was questioning the career choice that I made while I was working in a low-paying, unhappy, way too demanding job with no hope that things would be better.

Thanks to a very supportive spouse and wonderful friends (both in and outside the arts) I quit my job and took time to re-group.

I'm now in a job that I enjoy with a lot of support and a possitive future. As you said, not every job is perfect, but I'm glad I took the time and made a decision that worked for me and also able to stay in the arts.

I think arts organizations need to realize that arts administrators are no longer going to tolerate low pay, poor Board behavior, little/no benefits, etc.

Good luck to all of you, I mean us, out there!

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May 29, 2009 at 12:21 pm

> I think arts organizations need to realize that arts administrators are no longer going to tolerate low pay, poor Board behavior, little/no benefits, etc

Amen to that.

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marc feldman says
May 29, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Thank you, this message is very helpful...

The same can and must be said of the relationship of Executive Directors and the Board of Directors. In rough times, such as today, boards have a tendency to micro-manage, to panic and drive the agenda of an organization.

Fear can take over and the desire to cut budgets, cancel programs, cut staff to next to nothing, etc... becomes very strong. Passionate EDs that want to protect artistic product and mission are often pushed aside as "unrealistic" too "artsy" or not businesslike.

In reality it is above all the artistic product and mission that will be the success of arts organizations. Boards that help EDs make the hard decisions but also encourage and acknowledge passion and creativity as ways to get through the crisis will be successful in the long run.

So many EDs, including myself feel as if we HAVE to save the organization from itself, we have to convince the board that, "we will survive, we can fund raise and we can provide quality arts in this economy." However, there is only so much you can do, even as ED or CEO.

In a crisis it can become apparent that board members truly don't support the mission or the program. As long as things are in the black they might just be happy to sit on a board, but once things are tough they can point fingers and the ED (no matter how decent) can bare the brunt. Micro-management, due to a loss of confidence of board members can lead to burnout of the ED and Staff. Ultimately, decisions are not made in a timely manner and whole organizations can unravel.

What do you recommend for EDs in this position?

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May 29, 2009 at 3:24 pm

> What do you recommend for EDs in this position?

Boards are hard to manage and I've only seen a handful who do it really well. For the record, one of them was NOT me, I had to learn from the handful that do it well.

I would recommend EDs do a few things:

1. Be very clear on what sort of changes you are looking to make. VERY CLEAR. Saying we need to "support the art" isn't enough. They need to know exactly what you want everyone to do and why.

2. Find your advocates. I've never seen a Board that was completely crazy. Close. But not completely. Almost every Board has a few people who want to see some changes but either aren't sure how to do it, or don't know where to start.

A smart ED identifies those people and then sets down with them individually. At that point you share your plan (see Step 1) for change and ask them for help.

The key is to set down with them one at a time. Sometimes the most hard to manage Board can be handled if you learn to deal with them ONE AT A TIME.

3. Empower your advocates. Give them everything they need to go into the next Board meeting and do your talking for you. Make sure they understand the situation, prepare them for objections from other Board members . . . that sort of thing.

Most of the time that improves things.

And if it doesn't . . . start working on an exit strategy. :)

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Jade says
May 29, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Thank you. I currently and have for a while, been enduring a bad time in a very critical, negative and poorly managed and directed arts organisation. Due to this environment I have lost confidence in my abilities, knowledge and skills and I started to believe that I, and my colleagues should not expect or deserve any better. I had even begun loosing interest in working in the arts.

As much as I have tried to change the situation, using many different methods I have come to the conclusion that things will never change, atleast not in the next 5 years and I am exhausted from trying.

I have been unable to discuss this with anyone for fear of being called a drama queen, selfish or being told I should be greatful to just even have a job at this particular organisation. So I thank you for your honesty and understanding that you have all portayed all your comments helped.

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May 30, 2009 at 11:39 am


As soon as you make the decision to move on and create a plan toward doing so, your energy will increase.

You have done your time, you gave your best, now you have got to get out.

You deserve better. Remember that.

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Scott says
June 02, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Got fed up 5 years ago and exited. The last 4 years of my 14 were misery. There is plenty of artistry, craftsmanship and productivity elsewhere in business and life. Have no fear, leave the mediocre behind.

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danell says
June 03, 2009 at 5:53 pm

You are so right - there are other people and places.

But I wish could have read this years ago, before experiencing #3 and skipping #4.

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Cole says
June 04, 2009 at 10:16 am

I am currently overwhelmed by the number of poorly run organizations (from an administrative/ work place perspective). Those gems that respect their employees are very hard to find.

I have two specific points of frustration:

It seems that, with the current economy, many leaders will not retire - allowing their founder syndrome laden orgs to remain in a constant state of disaster for administrators coming up. I have discovered how impossible it is to make change is such situations.

Second, I am amazed by the number of people who leave orgs unhappily, but never voice their issues. It makes it harder to encourage change when the leaders are under the mistaken impression that no one has ever left unhappily.

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June 04, 2009 at 11:37 am

Great comments from all. Keep them coming. People want to know what's going on out here.

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Andrea says
June 04, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I could relate to every word. Good to know I'm not alone in feeling and thinking this way. I currently have a good jobs in arts administration that does treat me with respect and I am able to appreciate it better because I know what it's like to not have that. Boy, do I know!

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Stephen says
June 04, 2009 at 9:11 pm

This hits home. I'm in publishing about the arts - a magazine and web content editor - for a brand I grew up with and still love. But those who do the business management of that brand make me especially mindful of rules 2 and 3. Thanks, I needed this.

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Kittastrophy Prone says
June 09, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Gee, Adam, did you work at the same youth symphony I did? Apparently lack of vision, bad attitude, fiscal irresponsibility (borderline criminality), blatant disrespect and open derision are all accepted behaviors of the artistic and board leadership at youth symphonies. Making me feel like I was the crazy one for treating others with respect and basic human decency worked for two years. In February of this year, in the worst economic crisis of my lifetime, I finally said enough (I won't even tell you what the final straw was - it was so despicable). The difference for me is that I'm not going back, I've spent 14 years as a fund raising professional and while this last organization was by far and away the worst, it was no isolated incident. I am fed up with artists-turned-administrators/board members who behave as if their incompetency at the business side of the organization entitles them to enormous managerial temper tantrums they are inclined to throw on a weekly basis. As if its our fault they lacked enough talent to make a living at their REAL occupation: actor/talent/whatever, that they had to take this gig. I'm going back to school and sitting out this current job market, to emerge into an entirely different field in the future. I know there are great organizations out there, I've worked at some until new management/board leadership crippled them with runaway egos and atrocious business practices. I'm heading back to the for-profit world; at least when I have to eat shit for a paycheck, it will be a bigger paycheck and sans the hypocrisy of "we do it for the arts."

(Good lawd - rereading this, I may need therapy to overcome my last employment situation! Good luck to those of you who keep fighting the good fight. I'm out.)

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Cole says
June 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I have been at a theatre for 10 months and, after today's third resignation since I've been here, I am the veteran staff person. The entire staff turns over every year and a half.

I came into this place with such high hopes. I want to know how we help each other avoid orgs like mine. Online list of places to avoid?

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June 10, 2009 at 12:16 pm


Could you imagine how much hell would break loose if we starting publicly listing places to avoid?

I kinda like the idea. :)

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Alexander Crawford says
October 28, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Are most art administrators female?

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