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Why You Need an Arts Administrator (and can’t have one)

Why You Need an Arts Administrator (and can’t have one)

An arts administrator can help performing artists, companies and organizations find funds and save money. But a shortage of cash is why we’re often so reluctant — or flatly unable — to invest in this valuable help. Grey Yeoh, Head of Arts & Creative Industries at the British Council Malaysia, calls it a “Catch-22”. In this interview, Grey answers ARTERI’s questions about this necessary but elusive role.

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Is there a difference between arts management and arts administration?

I don’t think that there’s a difference between arts managers and arts administrators. Both professions can be and are responsible for the same tasks. They work in the same field, and the titles can be used interchangeably. In this part of the world, people in the profession are also sometimes known as arts workers – a term used more by more grassroots communities and organisations. I think of arts managers and administrators almost as producers, but I think the producer is more deeply involved in the art making process.

What does an arts administrator do? 

A lot! They work with artists, producers or directors to support them on every art-making process. They do all the paperwork, budget management, networking, grant applications, letter writing, government applications, hiring, visa and permit applications, and venue and premise management. Sometimes, they also help out with front-of-house, building audiences, dealing with press and media, talking to guests, lobbying stakeholders, facilitating feedback – things that other people don’t want to do… or don’t know how to do.

“They do all the paperwork, budget management, networking, grant applications, letter writing, government applications, hiring, visa and permit applications, and venue and premise management.”

Who needs arts administrators? 

Artists. Companies. Organisations. Sometimes government agencies! I think some experienced Malaysian artists have become very capable in arts administration because it was something they had to learn to do – there were no trained art administrators to help them when they first started out.

But today, arts administration as a profession is slowly being recognised, especially with the world having become increasingly bureaucratic. The need for dedicated arts administrators has becomes more apparent. Also, as companies and intermediary organisations work more efficiently to navigate the jungles of bureaucracy, arts administrators play a vital role in engaging with government and corporate stakeholders on behalf of the artists and the arts community.

“ (beyond the necessary skills,) the difference between a good arts administrator and a great arts administrator, is the passion for the arts, the willing to make some self-sacrifice for the arts, to see the industry grow.”

How do these companies/individuals find arts administrators?

Through word of mouth. There isn’t an official association or group or collective for now – and in Malaysia, the role of arts administration overlaps with the role of the producer, the artist, the office manager, the production manager, the publicity manager – that sometimes, it can be difficult to find just one person just doing arts administration.

What kind of skills and training does an arts administrator need?

Personally, I think a good art administrator must be a good all-rounder. Besides having the basic office administration skills like budget management, writing reports, filing and other computer related skills, having really good communication and diplomacy skills is paramount. This is because an arts administrator will work with people from all walks of life in order to get things done. Having common sense and the ability to think on his/her feet is also very important, as things will change in a fraction of a second, and he/she must be able to react to that change. Being patient and resourceful are also important – especially in Malaysia where things aren’t always as straightforward as it looks. And I suppose, the final thing that sets the difference between a good arts administrator and a great arts administrator, is the passion for the arts, the willing to make some self-sacrifice for the arts, to see the industry grow. It may seem very obvious, but there are art administrators out there who do treat it as a 9-5 job. Nothing wrong with that, but equally, they won’t go very far.

a good arts administrator is needed to access or look for available funds and opportunities.”

Is this kind of training available in Malaysia?

When I last checked a few years ago, there weren’t any proper qualifications in arts management or administration being offered by tertiary institutions in Malaysia. There were  only a couple of post-grad courses in arts management in animation and game design, or qualifications in specific art forms (like theatre studies, choreography, dance, film studies etc). Nor are there any proper short courses or training available to interested professionals or students offered as the demand for such paid courses is very low. Conversely, people can’t afford the high fees. The nearest countries for interested Malaysians to go study for arts or culture management are in Singapore and Thailand – at institutions like La Salle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Chulalongkorn University and others.

But, is there demand for arts administrators in Malaysia? 

I think there is a demand for such skills – as evident by the creation of organisations like MyPAA, (the new) Kakiseni and ProPAU.  There is also the increased emphases by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture on the importance of arts and culture to the economy.

“There is (an) increased emphases by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture on the importance of arts and culture to the economy.”

However, this does not commensurate with the willingness to pay for such skills, hence an arts administrator is still not seen as a proper profession. Well-funded museums, galleries, cultural institutions, arts companies and arts venues are more likely have an arts manager or administrator who often doubles up as the programmer, curator or producer. Or just as often, programme directors, curators or producers take on the responsibilities of an arts administrator.

Do you see this changing? 

No, unfortunately I don’t see this changing. It’s Catch-22. While the demand for art administrative skills are ever present, limited funding and opportunities channels available resources to fund art creation, rather than to engage/pay an arts administrator. And a good arts administrator is needed to access or look for available funds and opportunities. So artists, producers and people in the arts reach a compromise – by absorbing the administrative tasks into their own work, spreading themselves even thinner than they already are.

While the demand for art administrative skills are ever present, limited funding and opportunities channels available resources to fund art creation, rather than to engage/pay an arts administrator.”


About Grey Yeoh

grey yeohGrey Yeoh is one of the busiest arts and culture administrators in Kuala Lumpur.

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