Foot in the door: 6 steps to make the leap from artist to manager

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A career as an artist can be extremely rewarding. After all, few things can compare to translating your vision into something that inspires people to feel, think, or act differently than they did before. At a certain point in your career, though, you may start to entertain the idea of moving into management. Before you make that decision, there are some important things you should think about, and some steps you can take to prepare yourself for this new phase.

Atlanta Ballet

“In rehearsal halls, what we do is take an idea and make it three-dimensional,” said Susan V. Booth, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Success means working within certain parameters: “We have a finite amount of time in which to work. We have to communicate to the public why it matters. And we have to deliver in a way that sets us apart from other organizations.”

Fulfilling each of those considerations requires different people, with different skill sets, but it also requires a manager: someone, such as an artistic director, who can see the big picture and motivate people to get it accomplished. Booth, along with Arturo Jacobus, President and CEO of Atlanta Ballet, gave us some tips to help you decide if you’re ready to make the jump—and what to do when you’re sure.

Step one: Check your ego at the door.

If your personal ambition superpasses your desire for the institution to succeed, said Booth, then you’ll certainly fail: “Being an arts director is very different from being an artist. You have to make sure you’re willing to let the institution you’re serving get the kudos, rather than yourself.”

Step two: Impress the board.

When it comes to management, it’s a board of trustees that generally makes the hiring decisions, said Jacobus, and they tend to value traditional indicators of employee fitness: “They’re more impressed by your degree, and where you’ve worked, than they are about your artistic talent.”

For that reason, make sure you have the degree, or other credentials, to run a business. Because many board members come from the business world, added Jacobus, an MBA or a bachelor’s in business administration is often a stronger selling point than a degree in arts administration.

Step three: Go big.

When it comes to building a resume, said Jacobus, it’s better to join a large, well-respected organization in a smaller role than take a larger role in a small organization. “There is a luster to being associated with excellence, like the kind you can find at a large and prestigious organization. I think it also gives you a leg up if you’ve been exposed to best practices early in your career.”

Alliance Theater

Step four: Learn as much as you can.

Booth encouraged artists to learn about every aspect of the business. “Develop a wide horizontal knowledge in addition to the deep vertical knowledge you have as an artist,” she said. “You have to know what you don’t know, so you can hire the right people to help you succeed.”

The areas that may be new to an artist, and worth delving into, include fundraising, marketing, and ticket sales. Booth suggested doing everything you can to learn more about these areas, whether that’s coursework, developing a mentor-mentee relationship with someone knowledgeable, or another learning opportunity.

If you’re starting from zero in a particular area, Jacobus recommended volunteering or taking an apprentice position while also trying to get an academic foundation, citing his daughter as a good example: At 50 years old, she decided to turn her passion for ballet into an arts management career. Because she had no experience in the arts, she took an internship at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and got a certificate in fundraising.

“Now she’s prepared for a job in development at a larger arts organization, and that’s a good entry point,” he said.

Step five: Learn the languages.

Just as you had to become fluent in the language of your particular art to become a practitioner, you’ll need to understand the languages of those who help run the organization, such as designers, writers, technicians, and marketers, to become an effective manager. “You have to learn how they communicate, and how to communicate best with them, in order to create, conceive, and deliver a production that feels like a unified whole,” said Booth. “That concept is so important in management.”

Step six: Learn the market.

Managers need to know how to make the work financially sustainable. That means knowing who your audience is, how you articulate your value to that audience, and which vehicles work best—programmatic, educational, etc.—to “establish an essential foothold in the market,” said Booth.

David Terraso is a communications consultant and a contributing writer for Work for Good. You can reach him at terrasocommunications@gmail.com.

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