NORPA's 2016 production Dreamland. Photo by Kate Holmes.
Artistic Directors get all the glamour and the media attention, but behind the scenes it’s the General Manager (GM) who helps scale the creatives' wild flights of fancy down to a more realistic and achievable scale.
Juggling budgets, deadlines, staffing changes and day to day operations, the GM’s role is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Here, three different GM’s talk about the ins and outs of their jobs and describe what goes on behind the scenes.
Not every GM takes on an arts administration position as their first choice. For Danielle Taylor, the GM at PACT centre for emerging artists, arts management came only after she’d already worked internationally for 12 years as a commercial dancer.
‘When I became injured I knew it was time to seriously consider an alternative career path and it took me a while to figure out exactly what that was. I had always planned on completing my Dip Ed and becoming an English teacher once my performing career ended. On second thought, I wasn’t ready to leave the arts and entertainment industry and having lived all around the world I had been exposed to some amazing festivals and organisations. My passion for the arts took over,’ she explains.
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‘I had done a lot of event management contracts and held various leadership roles throughout my dance career and spent 18 months in London figuring out which direction I wanted to pursue. I have always been very business savvy and thought being able to apply my commercial knowledge to the arts would be a good challenge.
‘Once I decided that running an arts organisation or a festival was exactly what I wanted to do, I enrolled in a Master of Arts Management at UTS on my return to Australia. I also started seeking out work opportunities in the arts so I could gain as much hands on experience as possible in the Australian context. Whilst completing my Masters, I worked at Ku-ring-gai Art Centre and Shaun Parker & Company as a Project Manager – where I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Olivia Ansell. Not long after that I landed the role of General Manager at PACT,’ Taylor says.
Patrick Healey, General Manager at NORPA, in Lismore, made a deliberate choice to move into arts administration – but only after already exploring a number of previous career options.
‘My early career started as an immigrant in Canada working at the Richmond City Gateway Theatre as the Audience Services Manager. At the same time, I was part of a queer theatre collective doing mostly political work along with workshops for western Canadian queer artists. I wrote for a gay and lesbian magazine, Angles, and served on the Board of Modern Baroque Opera. I was very young and motivated,’ Healey explains.
‘When HIV/AIDS first emerged in Vancouver, my focus shifted and I went to work with AIDS Vancouver and ultimately the Pacific AIDS Resource Centre. In many ways my early motive to be around theatre and artists was the same impetus that saw me spend the next ten years working as an HIV/AIDS activist and another ten working in the labour movement.
‘While HIV/AIDS took a dramatic toll on local artists and the theatre community, I stayed involved and was part of the establishment of Outwest, Canada's second equity LBGTIQ theatre company. That too had a political focus, but a very different one to the pre-AIDS environment,’ he said.
After returning to Australia, Healey worked for a time at Melbourne Theatre Company as Finance Director, having also worked as Director of Finance and Operations for the Community and Public Sector Union. He began in the GM’s role at NORPA in February 2015.
Siân Roberts, the GM of Perth theatre company The Last Great Hunt, also made a deliberate choice to work in arts administration.
‘I have worked in and out of the arts sector my whole career, and when I applied for the job at The Last Great Hunt I was working as a marketing manager for a medium not-for-profit. I was getting really involved in company strategy and business strategy as I was leading a big re-brand project for the organisation, and that started me thinking about using those skills back in the arts to manage a theatre company. I enrolled in an arts management postgrad course, but I got the job as GM when I was halfway through my first unit,’ she tells ArtsHub.
Formal training versus learning on the job
Roberts acknowledges the support of arts industry peers when it comes to learning on the job. ‘I’m not sure that formal training is essential [to working as a GM], but some basic theory definitely helps. I find my marketing background really valuable, but I’ve learned a lot on the job too. I am lucky I have a great support network of other arts managers in Perth and around Australia who I call on if I need help with something – some of my friends have been extremely generous with their time and knowledge,’ she said.
Taylor recommends having some sort of business studies course under your belt before taking on such a challenging role.
‘There are a few arts administration courses around now (more than when I completed my Bachelor Degree!) and as I have mentioned, I did complete a Master of Arts Management prior to being a General Manager. I found most of this course incredibly valuable – most notably the accounting, legal and subjects about strategy, but there is no course that will ever give you the all of the tools. There is always something to learn on the job itself,’ she says.
‘The arts is a unique field in itself and it can take a while to get your head around grant writing and acquittals, budgeting for a not-for-profit (which is significantly different than a commercial environment) and maximising limited resources. Speaking to other people in similar positions is always helpful. I do, however, recommend studying a business course of some kind as this has assisted me greatly in my role as General Manager.’
Healey also recommends formal training of some kind. ‘There is a lot of formal training and I would urge anyone aspiring to an arts career to seek out that training, be in arts management, production or practice,’ he said.
Not that tertiary education can prepare you for every eventuality.
‘Formal training is invaluable but on the job experience certainly exposes you to a whole array of practical issues ranging from blocked toilets, ill audience members, to contract negotiations or the tedium of trying to make the season calendar work,’ he says.
A day in the life of a GM
As is the case with many arts organisations, there is ‘no typical day at PACT,’ Taylor says.
‘As we are both an organisation and a venue it really depends on what is happening at the time. I am responsible for leading the organisation’s business and financial operations, managing strategic partnerships, sourcing and securing funding, identifying and pursuing new income streams, overseeing marketing and publicity, ensuring legal compliance, managing corporate governance and human resources management. I also, together with the Artistic Director/CEO, set the strategic vision for the organisation and co-produce the Artistic Program.
‘That said, on a day-to-day level it is about ensuring that the organisation is running smoothly – from the top down. It is responding to emails, checking in with staff, refining procedures, processing payroll and invoices, taking meetings and taking venue bookings.
‘If we have a project coming up it is co-producing the season, managing ticketing, contracting artists. There are bigger deadlines throughout the year such as project grants, major funding acquittals, creating and re-forecasting organisational budgets and government reporting that has to be completed. Most recently we received a grant to renovate the offices, foyer and bar so I now know a whole lot more about light fittings,’ she continues.
‘The role covers a lot and is extremely varied – especially in a small to medium organisation – so you have to change hats a lot. It certainly keeps things interesting. It should be noted that as a small company, staff work across all programs, and above and beyond their job descriptions. Hence all of the above was achieved by working closely with the AD/CEO, Communications Manager and Venue Manager.’
Healey too stresses the importance of teamwork in his organisation.
‘I have a great team and they handle all the day-to-day stuff and I try to keep myself on top of where things are at, but would usually only deal with their work if a problem emerges,’ he says.
‘Much of my time is spent on governance and finance. That includes seeking funding, grant writing and acquittals, budgeting, strategic planning, etc. Right now I'm working on developing a new ticketing and CRM system to enhance our audience development, marketing and communication capacity. It really is a very broad spectrum and often it is wise to seek external specialist skills.’
The GM’s role at a major performing arts organisation might be more clearly delineated, but in the small-to-medium sector, lines are often blurred.
Roberts says: ‘At The Last Great Hunt we have seven working artists and three part-time staff to support them, me included. So we all tend to pitch in, and we’re always on deadline (or more likely over deadline). My day will usually start with me looking at my “to-do” list and prioritising the most urgent jobs – which might be getting marketing materials out, answering questions from venues, or getting a grant application in. Then I’ll have a catch up with my team and we’ll look at our overall priorities and deadlines and come up with a plan for the day or for the week.
‘If we’re in production I might have meetings with the venue or the artists, and if we’re in development I might go and spend a couple of hours in the rehearsal space to see what sort of magic is happening in the rehearsal room. Those are my favourite days! In the evenings I often have meetings with the Board, or our subcommittees or with the artists, and then at home I might do a bit of work in front of the TV too,’ she says.
Highlights and lowlights
While the day to day travails of arts administration can be challenging – particularly at NORPA, which this year suffered significant damage during the Lismore floods – external influences can also have significant influence on one’s career, Healey explains.
‘The early days of HIV/AIDS had a significant impact. While I wasn't an artist I worked and travelled in those circles, and the loss of friends and colleagues was profound. The original theatre collective I belonged to collapsed when most of the members became sick and many died,’ he says.
‘A highlight for me has been returning home and working at NORPA. To be back to my regional roots and see how much has evolved over the last 40 years – especially through the work of a company like NORPA – is a daily delight. Accidentally, theatre and the arts bookend my career and life. What exists today is beyond what I could have imagined back in the late 1970s.’
Roberts, who answered ArtsHub’s questions while at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where The Last Great Hunt were presenting three different shows, is quick to acknowledge the risk of exhaustion in the small-to-medium sector.
‘Burn-out is a risk for my role, especially in a small organisation,’ she says, ‘but if you manage self-care (exercise, eating well, knowing when to take a break from late nights) then that makes it easier. I also run a fully flexible workplace, which gives us the freedom to manage our work-life balance and maintain our families!’
Taylor says: ‘Working very closely with PACT’s Artistic Director, Katrina Douglas, has certainly been a highlight. Despite our limited resources I am incredibly proud that PACT continues to find ways to put the artists we work with first. We strive to find ways to provide an income for our artists and offer guidance and mentorship throughout every project.
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‘Another highlight is significantly contributing to PACT’s positive organisational growth and renewed financial sustainability through identifying potential areas for strategic growth, refining organisational systems and processes and taking an active approach to financial sustainability without compromising artistic integrity. Earlier this year we rebranded and re-fitted the foyer and office areas, which is exciting as it represents a renewed PACT.
‘An obvious lowlight is losing Federal multi-year funding last year. It is hard not to take these decisions personally, despite it being a sector wide issue,’ she says.
‘You never stop learning,’ says Taylor. ‘Do an internship to see whether this is the career for you. I completed an internship in London and it certainly gives you the scope of the role. Most importantly, you must make sure that you have a good work/life balance. This is something that we are all guilty of in the arts but it is so important. No one is good to anyone if they are burnt out.’
Healey adds: ‘Build resilience and resourcefulness in yourself – nurture that, as you will face everything from policy and funding changes to technical glitches, staffing challenges and a whole lot more that will challenge your wits.’
Finally, Roberts notes: 'Don’t be scared to admit you have lots to learn. Be open to ideas. But also trust your instincts – and trust yourself when you think you’re right.’
Previous articles in this series:
Career spotlight: Dramaturg
Career spotlight: Choreographer
Career spotlight: Curator
Career spotlight: Arts publicist
Career spotlight: Collection manager
Career spotlight: Registrar
Career spotlight: Art therapist
Career spotlight: Burlesque performer
Career spotlight: Conservator
Career spotlight: Contemporary jeweller
Career spotlight: Costume designer
Career spotlight: Floral artist
Career spotlight: Playwright
Career Spotlight: Puppeteer
Career spotlight: Set Designer
Career spotlight: Stage manager