Critical Playbook #4: Understanding the Role of the Arts Manager (Overview of Course ACM001)

Leaving ACM001 and it’s your last day of school.

The last component of ACM001, especially interviewing Daisy Toh and listening to the other ACM’s students’ presentations on their chosen interviewee, was the cherry on the cake of truly understanding the role of the arts manager in the ecosystem of Singapore’s arts and culture scene.

It was interesting to learn about the various artists’ works and how differently their arts managers act in accordance with the artists’ respective needs and demands. When it came to Daisy, our interviewee, one take-away that falls within this topic is how robust in knowledge and adaptable her arts manager needed to be, in order to improve and coordinate her exhibitions and promotional collateral, as Daisy lacked the experience to complete such tasks on her own. Aside from making up for a lack of experience, the presentation on Isabella Chiam and her ‘The Last Gardener’ workshop reminded me of how proactive arts managers need to be in encouraging their artists to take on risks, while nurturing a supportive environment to assure them that such risks will not prevent them from practicing their creativity and creating high-quality arts experiences. The context of Covid-19 also heightened stakes in Isabella’s case, due to the necessary KPIs needed to be met, as stated in the presentation, and it reminded me of the amount of restrictions set in place, such as the safe-distancing rules, that can hinder the creative vision that the artist has in mind.

On this note, being able to embrace these global challenges is a transferrable skill that they can continue to practice post-Covid-19, especially as this pandemic has uncovered that, in spite of the new-found appreciation for the respite arts and culture can give, the infrastructures supporting cultural economies are weak and do not benefit the right people. This sentiment is supported by the City, Culture and Society Report on Covid-19, being that ‘culture is a saviour’, yet cultural workers, especially those who freelance, are overlooked and are given less rewards for their work, in comparison to technological companies who profit from hosting the artists’ cultural produce (Pratt, 2020).

Arguably, the overlapping spheres of technology and culture also leads to artists reaping benefits from digitalisation, such as a reduction of operation costs and improved accessibility to a larger scale of consumers locally and abroad. However, this is simply a short-term solution for artists as technology cannot replicate real-life interaction which limits the amount of ideas possible to execute. Furthermore, this also lowers the barriers of entry for new and up-coming artists, which might possibly dilute the arts and culture scene with a surplus, thus leaving consumers spoiled for choice and propelling all artists to compete over demand. This competition has led to a stronger focus on churning on promotional collateral over strengthening the integrity of the artistic piece, which can lead to a proliferation of low-quality narratives that rely on ‘shock tactics in order to keep the attention of their audiences’ (Hesmondalgh, 2019). The report ‘New World, Old Rules: Creative Industries in the Age of Digitalization and Globalization’ highlights the importance of intermediaries to ‘push the boundaries of thinking and thus make members of society see beyond their limited worldview and understand and accept great works of art that challenge prevailing norms’, which suggests that consumers should not be left unguided when selecting the pieces of arts and cultural works they want to consume. Likewise, arts managers adopt a similar role in guiding artists and connecting them with their rightful group of consumers, so that the artists do not have to think about how to make their piece marketable.

In the case of freelancers, there are indeed more intrinsic risks associated with their identity as artists since freelancing is precarious labour. A few key learning points that I took away from the presentations were that freelancing artists especially need to have good relationships, strong support systems and co-creativity to survive. These resources would help them manage the risks of taking odd jobs to increase connections and improve their publicity, though the fact that they are motivated to take on such work that may not align with their personal creative interests highlights the problem of artists being pressured by the economic gig mindset. In Singapore, the lack of a minimum wage exacerbates the need for such a mindset as artists may not be provided an adequate main source of income, thus hindering progress in their artistic works. This also reduces the number of artists who can participate in vernacular cultural creativity, even though this type of cultural work has a greater impact on their consumers than individualised art, since it has less economical value (Markusen, 2010). Again, this is where the arts manager comes in to navigate the business risk in supporting their artist’s creative desires. Ultimately, however, the solution to this problem can only come from the government through creating opportunities for artists to be paid fairly and to have sustainable livelihoods, especially as there is increasing proof, though mainly through instrumental arguments, that society cannot function without arts and culture.

With the arts manager playing an indispensable role in supporting the artist’s livelihood and creating platforms of access between the artist’s works and the audience, it is important to distinguish and understand the balance of power in their relationship. From the presentations and what I have learned in ACM001, it seems that artists will face great difficulty if they are to operate on their own as most people are not equally and substantially equipped in both fields of business and the arts. Simultaneously, the existence of the role of an arts manager is also dependent on the existence of the artist. Before ACM001, I often wondered about their power dynamics and who holds the higher authority when it comes to decision-making, though I usually surmised that the arts manager gets the final say in every scenario. However, I was persuaded by the theory of collaborative emergence whereby creative developments are moment-to-moment and are built on top of negotiation, and that the possession of authority is also dependent on the success of the artist’s career, with the arts manager losing more authority with the artist’s increasing success (Morrow, 2018).

ACM001 left me with a greater understanding and appreciation for the roles of the arts manager and the artist, and I do hope that Singapore changes for the better to protect and uplift these roles. While I do not see myself becoming an arts manager in the near future, I will definitely participate in more local arts and culture activities, and be more conscious of the amount of effort and sacrifice put into them.

Hesmondalgh, D. (2019). Texts: diversity, quality and social justice. In The Culture Industries, Fourth Edition. (pp. 421–456)). London: Sage Publications.

Markusen, A. (2010). Challenge, change and space in vernacular cultural practice. In T. Edensor et al (Eds.), Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy, pp. 185- 199. London and New York: Routledge.

Morrow, G. (2018). Introduction: artist management in the creative and cultural industries. In Artist Management: Agility in the Creative and Cultural Industries (pp. 1–13). Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Pratt, A. (2020). Covid-19 impacts cities, cultures and societies. In City, Culture and Society 21. Elsevier.

[Published on the 13th but updated later on for better citations and photo]

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