Freelance arts managers? It just might work…


Earlier this summer I posted about my frustration with arts organizations who seem to be ignoring the help of trained arts managers.  One of the individuals I wrote about (who also happens to be my husband) posed an interesting question:

When putting together an artistic team for a stand-alone event, we seek out contract artists, actors, directors, designers, techies, or whatever we need on the artistic side.  Why aren’t there freelance arts managers we can add to the team?


Certainly there are “freelance” arts managers, except we call them consultants, and they are usually people who have a lot of experience in overarching managerial needs, like strategic planning or fundraising.  I also know event planners, who are called in primarily for fundraising events.  But an itinerant arts manager, working show to show like a director or actor?  Not so much.

Part of the reason for this is certainly because administrative matters often can’t be limited  to a single event.  It’s hard to ramp up sponsorship sales from nothing a few months prior to the event and expect any kind of success.  And most good arts managers believe that planning, market research and relationship building go on 24/7/365, so it may go against our grain a bit to just be called in for a single event rather than putting in place the infrastructure that will lead to long term success.

It seems to me that contract arts managers would be useful for smaller organizations or one-off artistic projects, since larger organizations have enough work to be able to hire full time, year-round administrative staff.  But for small budget organizations, it is often board members who act as de facto managers, which takes their focus away from what a board should really be doing – governing the organization.

But if the planning is sound, the research is done ahead of time, and as much care is taken with administration as with planning the artistic aspects, why not just hire someone and say here- you take care of the room scheduling, the travel details, the printing deadlines and the opening night reception?

What are your thoughts? Arts managers, what are the upsides and downsides of working on contract like actors, directors, curators and techies?


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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9 Responses to Freelance arts managers? It just might work…

  1. Ellen, many in our field DO go from “gig to gig” – in my local area, “contingent work” is part of a “portfolio career” (these are euphemisms for work that may pay, but not necessarily well, and work that certainly has no promise of future remuneration and doesn’t support long-term planning or commitments on the part of those participating). One formalized option is a “shared platform” where services of arts workers can be purchased on a “piece-work” basis but where the worker is salaried by the shared platform and costs recouped via service fees charged. This outsources the arts management expertise for the creative group, and doesn’t allow for any succession planning on their part, save going back to the shared platform for continued support – which continues over decades for some client/service relationships. Again in my area, one such shared resource has just moved to an incubator model that aims to cultivate arts management skills in selected creative workers rather than continue to provide these services itself. Previous clients of the former model have had to find other book-keeping, proposal-writing e.g. help – gig to gig. Upside – continued stimulation and professional development; downside – burnout due to maintaining multiple simultaneous gigs to sustain a revenue stream, lack of ability to make solid commitments for the future.

    • Yes, the downsides are there, and having had a portfolio career for most of my life, I can certainly attest to the burnout factor when I had no one “anchor” job. The idea of shared services or an organization providing workers is interesting…I too have seen similar models. The idea of training organizations in arts management skills has both upside and downside – most importantly, making sure volunteers and board members continue to be trained as new people come on board. That takes a tremendous commitment on the part of the organization. Then too, the organization needs to understand what can and cannot be done by a contracted worker. The organization cannot simply hire someone to write grants for them with no understanding of the planning and infrastructure that needs to be in place prior to seeking grants.

  2. Bobby says:

    This is very much the model in which I work. As a “freelance” arts administrator I take on projects, artists, and organizations I strongly believe in an feel my skill set can most benefit. Sometimes this takes a more traditional management form, other times it can be an ongoing relationship of periodic consulting. Helping people to identify their clear goals for a proposed idea and then helping them to realize those goals – do they need to find more funding? Are they most focused on attracting new audiences? Do they need to better serve their existing audiences? Are there other like minded partners that ought to connect with one another?

    The challenge, however, is often articulating what I do to others. Some artists or organizations are skeptical of a “consultant”, while others may be hesitant to invite and “outside view” into the conversation. I greatly value the flexibility this model allows me, and the variety of inspiring and engaging work I get to do, but like any freelancer, it also requires a great deal of time relationship building and researching just to get more work. Despite many successes I can’t say I’ve quite yet addressed all these challenges as I would like, but I do see promise in the idea and intend to keep working with this model – so hopefully more people like your husband will think to add a freelance arts manager to their team in the future!

  3. Brenda Johnston says:

    Hmmm…some good food for thought. I for one would be open to serving in such capacities and I think the idea has weight, especially for small organizations/short-term projects (even if they’re annual). I think such positions can help an overloaded staff and help the board continue in its appropriate role. Such people can focus in and get the details taken care of that help staff then focus on other areas of need. A tricky thing would be to figure out when to incorporate such positions and how to do so, so that staff don’t feel slighted (if there are staff) and that the working relationships/knowledge transfers happen smoothly (or as smoothly as possible). But if these positions happen annually, then there’s an opportunity for knowledge to be maintained if the same persons fulfill these roles each year. I think there would need to be a joint effort to create manuals to help people who fill these positions get up to speed quickly and for any future changes in short-term personnel.

    • Some good comments, Brenda. I was thinking mostly of small organizations with little to no staff, for whom the work would otherwise be done by committees or board members. Continuity is a real issue, though. Most of us have been in positions where a previous volunteer left no manual or work plan and everything needed to be reinvented each year. I was also thinking of cases where there would be a fairly similar work plan for each organization, such as mounting an exhibit or concert. An experienced arts manager would know what needs to be done, perhaps even more than a volunteer committee might.

  4. Sherri Helwig says:

    Happens all the time in indie theatre, at least here in Toronto… though they’re often hired under the title of “producer” (or asst. or assoc. producer). They do marketing, fundraising, venue coordination, logistics planning, etc. etc. – basically whatever arts management-y things the artists don’t want to do, or have time to do, or have the expertise to do themselves. As you say and imply, though, Ellen, there are upsides and downsides to having an “outsider” fulfil these responsibilities.

    • I actually wonder why both you and Anne commented that it happens all the time…more common in Canada? Or perhaps I’m just living in the small town bubble?

      • Sherri Helwig says:

        Don’t know. I’m a bit too close to the source to know whether the phenomenon is unique(ish) to Canada or more universal(ish) than that. Worthy of more investigation, I would say – and comments from arts folks in the U.S. and outside of North America. Looking forward to learning more!

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