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Top 3 tips for emerging arts managers

Richard Watts

With many in the sector working in administrative roles, we’ve asked arts leaders from Darwin to Hobart and Perth to Sydney to offer advice for those at the beginning of their careers.
Top 3 tips for emerging arts managers

Tracks Dance Company's In Your Blood at the 2018 Darwin Festival. (L-R) Cassandra Wallace, Kristi Renfrey, Clarice Campos, Jess Green (standing), Anokai Susi, Kylie Innes, Alicia Smith and Madeleine Brown. Photo credit: Duane Preston.

A career in arts management straddles two worlds, blending business nous with creative flair. Here, arts managers from around the country – from a Darwin dance company and a regional performing arts centre to a major Tasmanian festival – offer career tips to help you on your way.


Always talk money up front: When I started working in arts management, I was fortunate to have an amazing mentor, Dr Neil Cameron. One of the first things he told me was ‘always talk money first’ with your artists. This advice has remained the single most important piece of career advice given to me. It might sound simple but when you’re engaging an artist in your project, be upfront and clear about the terms of that engagement. If there is a fee, how much is that fee? If there is no fee and you’re asking them to give their time as in-kind, you need to say that upfront. Sorting out the money side of things straight away can allow your relationship with the artist and the project to grow. Uncertainty around money and terms of engagement can turn a project sour very quickly.

You are only as good as your word, so make it count: If you say you are going to do something, send something or be somewhere, then make sure that’s what you do. Only commit to what you can do, be realistic about your workload and timeframes, and let people know (in advance) if you can’t do something that you said you would. It’s 101 management stuff but get a good handle on it early in your career, and it will set you in good stead. Our sector is small, people refer to and go back to someone again and again if they are reliable, and the flaky unreliable people, well, they just flake off.

Don’t be that person who does everything: Here’s another pearl from my mentor. ‘Don’t do everything.’ Do what you do well and pay other people to do what they do well. In the arts sector, we expect people to wear many hats, but if you qualify as an accountant you don’t then go and do the graphic design for your company. Grow a strong circle of people around you that have the skills you don’t and work together to be a vibrant team. Tick!


Join a Board: The best way to service your own board is to understand what it’s like being on the other side of the table. Board members are only paying attention to your organisation two hours a month, so ensuring they receive well-structured information with clear instruction on what needs decisions made is critical. By being a board member yourself, you learn when to ask questions and when to trust in the leadership, and what the governance framework is that you’re working within.

Support women: There is still a lack of equal representation of women in the top roles, and definitely on boards. Supporting and nurturing the next generation of female leaders is critical – ensuring they can find their voice, be present in a room and be brave enough to put themselves forward for roles. A fellow female colleague recently mentioned that she only ever puts women’s names forward when recruiters ask her for suggestions. The arts is a great sector to have kids in (my kids think I have the best job!) and many places provide flexible work options, but it’s also about supporting families. Ensure the fathers in your workplace feel encouraged to take days off to care for sick kids, leave early for day care pickups and so on. And check your own biases – no person should be overlooked for professional opportunities because they are a parent.

Don’t be afraid to share your vulnerabilities: I found myself as CEO very young, and created an amour around me saying to everyone else, "I’ve got this, I know all the answers". But sometimes there are times when you don’t have the answers and you actually gain respect by admitting that. Your team will come on board with you if you admit when you’re struggling. I’m a big fan of personality profile tools – things like Myers Briggs – and doing them with your team to share insights about who you are, and how might you best manage your colleagues who think differently to you.


Learn from the best, be happy to do the least: Whilst academic qualifications can be important in providing the framework for your job, it’s working to and alongside strong, experienced managers that will best aid you to learn the role. It can help to start in a smaller organisation - the principles of management are the same, whether the company has a turnover of $500,000 or $5 million. And/or be prepared to take on a junior role within a larger organisation where you can be confident you will have the opportunity to develop your expertise, by supporting those who are good at it! If there is someone you admire for the way they do the job, ask them to mentor you. Pursue the mantra - nothing beyond me, nothing beneath me – be courageous and step up to the challenges and be prepared to wash up after a function.

Be kind, not nice: Probably my biggest challenge as a manager is being ‘nice’ – wanting to believe that people will measure up, even when it’s becoming clear that they are ‘swimming beyond the flags’. It’s hard to deal with team members who are certain they are capable and performing to expectations when they’re not – but it’s your job. As a manager you need to: make sure that all members of the team have the ability and experience to undertake their responsibilities and duties; to properly detail, in writing, performance standards and expectations; and to implement regular (formal or informal) performance reviews.  That might sound like stating the bleeding obvious, but I’ve noticed in arts organisations a tendency to a level of trust that can cause a lot of grief when results are not being delivered. When it’s apparent that a team member is not performing, you need to be kind – to them, to yourself, to the organisation – and deal with it directly and swiftly.

Build trust and confidence in the team: I think one of my best assets as a manager is my willingness to take responsibility and to share success – if things are not going well, I will own the problem (publicly, to the Board, whatever) and deal with the issue (and those responsible) behind closed doors; if things are going well, I will be sure to acknowledge and give ownership of the achievement to those responsible.  I love working with a team not just because I crave company but because I absolutely believe that shared effort reaps best reward. In the same way that I work, through open and honest communication, to ensure that the Board has trust and confidence in me, I work to build the confidence of the team and each member – to make sure they have the information and tools to do their job, to provide support and encouragement to help them do well, to acknowledge and reward their success, to ensure that work and life are in as much balance as possible and, above all, to have fun!

Ten Days on the Island runs from 8-24 March 2019. Visit for program details.


Tip one: Work on projects and with people who inspire you – after all, that’s why you’re working in the arts.

Tip two: Lists – there always seems to be way more to do than time or common sense allows for. That’s why I find it important to update your list regularly and don’t forget to prioritise.

Tip three: Don’t worry if you don’t always get it right, it’s always best to let people know if things go awry as soon as it happens. Often problems are easier to solve when they are shared. And within the same vein, ask for advice – pretty much anything you have to do has been done before. So if you are not sure, ask for advice. You can always put a shout out on Facebook. If you ask, I find that generally people want to help.


It's OK not to know everything: Reflect on your strengths in experience and knowledge, and surround yourself with good people you trust who specialise in the skills you're lacking. I seek advice from consultants, peers and mentors regularly. I've let go of the embarrassment of asking stupid questions, because no question is stupid. Play to your strengths. You can't be everything, but you can bring people along the ride with you and make a killer team! 

Seize opportunities: Understand the ins and outs of your projects and/or organisation. Continually assess the landscape and how things are done, and look for opportunities. Be prepared to take on a challenge or to lead change. The biggest risks usually pay the biggest return.

Develop strategic planning skills: Look beyond what is directly in front of you and learn to anticipate the next move or two. Build your networks and knowledge to be able to assess the industry more broadly. Think critically, challenge how things are and never stop learning. Celebrate wins and learn from your failures.


Facilitate communication: People communicate in different ways.  Some like conversations.  Some like email.  Some like formal meetings with minutes.  Some like social media.  The majority of issues I’ve observed occur in arts projects could have been avoided or quickly resolved with quality communication.  As an arts manager you will be invaluable if you not only ensure strong communications between you and all the people you are working with, but if you monitor and facilitate the communications between your colleagues/collaborators.

Develop a diverse skillset: While the list of skills you need to be a great arts manager is long, experience working in the roles of your collaborative partners will take you to the next level.  Whether it be taking the opportunity to produce, design, bookkeep or act.  If you have done the role of the people you are working with it will give you strong insights into your own work from another perspective.

Put your hand up: Actors, sculptors, producers, designers all have their work in the public eye.  Arts managers, by definition, funnel their energy into promoting them.  Humility is a trait of most successful arts managers.  Remember that you too can apply for grants for professional development opportunities, you too can consider advancing your career.  Great arts managers can become great arts leaders (although the working styles required to succeed in these two roles are in some instances opposites – perhaps a future article for Richard!).


Be a great “people person”: The staff in your organisation are valuable assets. Listen to them, treat them fairly and ensure that they know that the work they are doing every day is valued and contributes to what the organisation is trying to achieve. That goes for every artist or arts worker that is contracted by your organisation. When you let people know they are valued, it’s amazing what can be achieved!

Have a high level of understanding of the finances that underpin your organisation: Know how to construct a budget, understand the nuances behind the numbers in your financial reports and be able to explain them to a variety of people. The numbers help you make decisions about what you can and cannot do, especially in the context of balancing the financial health of an organisation with the artistic ambitions of an Artistic Director. Learn to say “NO” in a loving and caring way!

Maintain a sense of humour, be flexible and incredibly patient: Things don’t always pan out like we’d like them to, so having these three attributes will overcome most difficulties you may encounter! If that fails, then rocking in the corner when you’ve had a rough day is, of course, optional.


Be more than an Arts (Centre) Manager: Okay, especially in a regional context you may be overseeing budgets, marketing, strategic plans, WHS policies, Council policies and operating plans, a whole range of managerial issues including the very mundane, but you are often overseeing the major outlet for performing arts expression in your region. Don’t stop at managing a building, dealing with hirers, giving audiences what they want. Your job is also to empower and support existing and aspiring artists in your community and to stretch your audiences to experience the new and the adventurous as well as and beyond what they already know and love. It is not easy to do this but, to me, it is the essence of your responsibility.

Aim to be a Renaissance polymath and make polymath connections: The performing arts sectors you can connect with are full of diverse and amazing people of immense ability and intelligence making cultural change, inclusion and development happen. They will, on the whole, embrace younger newcomers wholeheartedly and share their knowledge and experience generously. Make the most of national and state industry associations and key brokers connecting practice, producing and presenting. Don’t doubt that as a newcomer you will be welcome, you will be. Don’t make limited connections you feel safe with. Make polymath connections.

Take the time to understand your context before you try to make too many changes: As a new Arts Centre Manager you may be walking into a well-developed position with a great predecessor who has handed you a beautiful gift. You may be entering a situation with serious issues and needs for major change. In either case and in situations in between avoid the pressure to make your mark immediately. Take the rare opportunity to walk in the shoes of those who have preceded you for at least a while, talk to your staff and listen before changing the ground beneath their feet. This may be the one time in your position you are able to structure what you take on and not be swamped by the demands of each aspect of your job. Aim to set up a situation where you can do what the organisation can manage at its best rather than too many tasks or projects that are all achieved less than optimally.


See everything: To be an effective arts manager or producer you need to know the work and this means seeing as much as possible across as many genres as possible. See as much as you can, speak to as many artists, creatives and crew as you can. The greater your understanding of the process of creation of the work the better equipped you’ll be to manage this process and everyone involved.

Do everything: Try and get as much experience as possible in as many varied roles as you can. Work in the box office, work front of house, take stage or production crew work, work with marketing, publicity, finance – the more experience you can get actively working in all areas of the industry the better.

Question everything: Just because something has been done the same way for many years doesn’t mean that there are not more efficient ways of working. If you’ve seen a lot of work and have had some experience across lots of different roles, then hopefully you’ll be armed with enough knowledge to be able ask the right questions of those around you to find efficiencies and better ways of doing things. The best managers hire great people, constantly question the status quo, back their teams and get out of the way!

The 2019 Adelaide Festival runs from 1-17 March. Visit for details.

More in this series:

Top 3 tips for emerging directors
Top 3 tips for emerging producers

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts