Exploring Arts Management 

Fresh from a studying at the National Summer School for Arts Fundraising and Leadership, Steph (Guest Blogger) and Jill reflect on management practice in the arts.

28 October 2014

Despite arts management emerging as a discipline during the 1970s, it was not until the turn of the millennium that cries for the solidification of theories and practice began to be heard. As a result the arts sector saw the rapid growth of academic and professional development programmes focusing on arts management - examples include the Clore Leadership Programme and courses at Birkbeck, Goldsmiths and the University of Leeds (which we both recently attended).

There now exists a distinct field of arts management, but the extent to which this draws from existing management theories (developed in a non-arts context) is limited. Rooted in this disconnect is the implication that this is a one-way street – that the arts should learn from existing management theories rather using their own expertise to influence existing theories and develop their own theory and practice.

The case for Exceptionalism

The disconnect between (non-arts) management theories and arts management theories is also often explained through exceptionalism. By this it is meant that the mission, remit and practice of arts organisations differs greatly from non-arts organisations, meaning traditional management theories cannot be applied to the arts.

There is certainly a case for exceptionalism. Firstly there is the argument that the arts don’t make “business sense”, representing an example of market failure with the cost of performances higher than can be generated in ticket revenue. Exceptionalism can also be found in the mission and visions of arts organisations, often prioritising great art and culture for everyone over discussions of business growth and development from which management literature is drawn. Arts organisations are often micro-organisations (50% of arts organisations have less than 5 employees), meaning the application of existing management theories may be difficult.

To look into this further, we asked Rebecca Williams, Director of Audiences and Development for Tate, to discuss how management theories are developed and applied at Tate.

“At Tate we are regularly looking outside of the arts sector for examples of best practice in many of the areas we work in. For example, when training customer facing staff we would look to leaders in the field of customer service, such as companies like John Lewis, rather than looking to examples from within the arts sector.”

Tate represents an example of an arts organisation developing their own management theories, based on learning gathered from the non-arts sector. This implies that by stating exceptionalism arts organisations could be missing out on significant learning opportunities from the non-arts sector.

Despite this risk, many arts organisations do not draw their management practice from outside of the arts sector. To understand why this occurs, we can examine the underpinnings of exceptionalism – in particular size and market failure.


We believe the reason why most arts organisations wouldn’t look to national commercial businesses for examples of best practice in similar areas of work, or management theory, is that there is a vast difference in size for most of these organisations. It isn’t surprising to us that Tate, one of the largest arts brands in the country, is looking to other national brands to inform its working practices. If 50% of arts organisations are ‘micro-organisations’, then it is worth considering how smaller organisations may develop management theories.

Size Matters, a Common Practice research paper written by Sarah Thelwall in 2011 focuses on how important small organisations are in shaping the sector, but comments on how the characteristics of small organisations differ to large ones:

“Intuition tells us that there is a difference between the ways in which large and small organisations commission new work, negotiate relationships with artists, develop critical dialogue and formats for discussion and display.”

“[Small organisations’] roles and methods of operation are focussed on collaboration and flexibility…[They] are investing in risk-taking and the development of work”

Small organisations may be adaptable, have extremely flexible staffing structures, be heavily involved in collaborations and be happier to reinvent themselves. This is a fairly broad-brush description, but is interesting in highlighting where exceptionalism may be applied (smaller organisations), and perhaps where more traditional management theories may fit (larger organisations).

Market Failure

If the arts don’t make “business sense”, then how can management theories rooted in profit-making and business growth be applied to the arts? To question this we can look at the arts sector less as a generalised practice, and more as a series of individual activities and practices.

For example, could we compare membership to loyalty schemes, marketing to advertising and visitor experience to customer service? In all sectors, profit making or otherwise, efficiency savings equal more money, whether that be more money in the pockets of shareholders, or more money to enable more art production, or even still, a higher quality of art production. Even if the arts don’t make business sense, arts organisations are still motivated by efficiency savings, meaning management theories rooted in profit-making and efficiency may be applied to the arts.

Exploring Arts Management

We agree that the arts should defend their case for exceptionalism; that we shouldn’t apologise when existing management theories do not “fit” with the arts. That said it is equally blunt to claim exceptionalism, as it is to blindly apply (non arts) management tools to the arts sector. To explore arts management it is important to understand what is meant by exceptionalism (what we’ve tried to do in this blog), and see where exceptionalism may apply and where it may not. Tate serves as an example of where exceptionalism may not apply – with arts organisations drawing from non-arts theories and practice. It would be interesting to see case studies of the management practice of small organisations, and if there were any common themes amongst these examples. We’d love to see the development of a “Toolkit for Exceptionalism”, which may focus on smaller arts organisations.

We’d like to thank the University of Leeds, in particular Ben Walmsley for introducing this content to us.

Steph and Jill are both recent alumni of the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Programme

Steph is Director at Adapt for Arts @AdaptForArts @StephGraham87

Jill is A New Direction’s Development Officer @jillrichens