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A recent article* from academic and musician Thomas Wolf makes a strident argument that arts organisations employ too many administrators. Ash Mann disagrees.



In Wolf’s analysis, bloated bureaucracy forces arts organisations into an unhealthy cycle of needing revenue just to pay for administrative staff. Much of the money has to come from government funding or private donations, which in turn requires more administrators to manage these revenue streams. The cycle perpetuates.

According to Wolf, these administrators are inefficient, overpaid and easily replaced. While he makes some interesting points about how this ‘problem’ might be addressed, his arguments are fundamentally flawed and - to an almost comical extent - fail to understand how cultural institutions operate in the 21st century.

Through my work with dozens of organisations across the world - from small puppetry theatres to touring orchestras, museums and galleries to some of the biggest global cultural brands, I see the work required to make and share culture with audiences. Without administrators, the work of artists and creatives would not reach audiences.

In his summary of ‘unnecessary’ roles, Wolf writes: ‘What about all those other departments that do not bring in dollars: finance, legal, human resources, house staff…the list is a long one.’ Finance and legal teams are not whimsical functions one can just do away with. To see house staff on this list is staggering. How else might he propose audiences be welcomed and looked after in venues? How would tickets be sold? Or performances advertised?

Flawed perspective

Arts organisations in 2022 are complex, non-profit businesses or charities managing multi-million-pound (or dollar) budgets (even without those pesky administrators). But Wolf appears to draw his learning from the pre-1950 US arts sector. 2022 is not 1950. Society has radically changed in the intervening 70 years and the small matter of the third industrial revolution goes conveniently unaddressed.

There’s a similarly flawed perspective when it comes to arts leaders. Leadership is a huge challenge in the sector with executives and boards struggling to tackle a tsunami of complex issues from diversity and inclusion to declining and ageing audiences, the climate crisis, political interference and more. 

For Wolf, these difficulties are not relevant, even CEOs cost too much: ‘Is an executive director of a top symphony orchestra really worth close to a million dollars …?  Well yes, say some.  After all, … the music director is pulling in that much and isn’t even full time. But that argument is specious.  An internationally known music director with name recognition functions like a brand that attracts audiences and donors. How many people purchase tickets and make contributions based on the name recognition of an orchestra’s CEO?’

Some useful insights

When it comes to solutions, Wolf does have some useful suggestions. I agree there has been some ‘mission creep’ in cultural organisations. They may, for example, have undertaken a new strand of activity only tangentially relevant to their core mission, which requires operational infrastructure. Those new people, systems and accompanying requirements all cost money.

Substrakt has heard of arts CEOs joining new organisations who’ve been both overwhelmed and baffled by the list of activities being undertaken - many with no clear rationale. 

Wolf is also right that there is an urgent need for cultural organisations to be more nimble, to be able to respond more rapidly and effectively to opportunities and threats - something that does not happen regularly enough in our sector. 

But nimbleness requires arts administrators. Wolf says ‘[o]ne organization has automated much of its ticket selling saving an entire staff position’. But who identified that opportunity, found a supplier and managed the implementation of the automated solution (including redesigning the related processes)? An administrator of course.

Unless Wolf is proposing actors, directors, curators or musicians should be leading on relationships with government, or working out how to engage with web3, digital ticketing, contracts, suppliers, customer service and the million other specialised functions in which skilled art administrators support arts organisations. The subject of pay is particularly insulting. Arts administrators are generally underpaid worldwide, regardless of the size or prestige of the institution they work for.


So, while Wolf presents some thoughtful solutions, there is substantial wrong-headedness. On outsourcing, Wolf suggests stripping out whole core functions: ‘One organization, after carefully assessing its needs in the area of marketing and ticketing, contracted out the entire operation to a much larger entity that had better trained staff and equipment to handle it.  The result was a smaller staff, substantial savings and much more efficient service delivery.”

I would strongly caution against considering this as a cost-saving measure. With the drive in digital spheres towards highlighting and understanding the importance of first party data, organisations shouldn’t be outsourcing the management and ownership of this vital aspect of their operations. Substrakt has first-hand experience of organisations that, after pursuing this route, realised the significant downsides of outsourcing their main customer touchpoints and channels of communication to a third party. They rapidly u-turned on the whole endeavour.

The ‘us and them’-ism that pervades Wolf’s article is depressing. Only by working together can artists and administrators serve their audiences, visitors and communities. I find insulting his position that ‘administration and management is not an end in itself. It is a means to advance the mission of the organization, a mission that is about the arts themselves. That is where priorities and resources must be directed’. 

I don’t know any arts administrator not already keenly aware of this and who hasn’t sacrificed financial remuneration to proudly support the production of art and culture. Mr Wolf may do well to familiarise himself with the reality of arts administrators, their motivations and the work they do. They are a vital component in the creation of the art he claims to be interested in.
Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt and Strategy Director at Creating Impakt. 
  www.substrakt.com | www.ashmann.medium.com
 @substrakt | @biglittlethings 

*How Many Arts Administrators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb? 

This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.

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How many academics does it take to write a single article that demonstrates much understanding of how the sector actually works in 2022? Hundreds in my experience from what I see submitted for vanity publication. And yet these authors are largely secure in their publicly funded institutions!