Behind every artist who blossoms, is a manager who tills the ground.
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Published on 31 August 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
The best way to understand the role of arts managers in the arts ecosystem is to imagine a world without them. In that world, artists would not only have to create works but also roll up their sleeves to raise funds, liaise with regulators, market their shows, sell tickets… and that’s just the operations side of one production!
For smaller set-ups, this happens: time and energy that could be channelled to art-making is diluted to handle myriad tasks and liaison work. While it can work, the truth is that not all artists are both left- and right-brained.
As an arts ecosystem matures and blossoms, the need for arts managers becomes more apparent. It is a field of expertise that many still have misconceptions about — even artists. It is as much strategic as it is operational, people-oriented as it is task-oriented, arts leadership as it is artist support.
And as we recognise accomplished art-makers in the ecosystem with the Cultural Medallion and the Young Artist Award, we spare a moment to acknowledge the hidden heroes who enable them — the handful of well-respected arts managers who have made the field somewhat of an art.
FACILITATING ART MAKING
MICHELE LIM Arts Manager, Producer, Management Consultant
“If someone tells me a dream or an idea, I instinctively plot how to get there,” discloses Michele Lim, a lawyer-turned-arts manager and former general manager of TheatreWorks. She boasts over 20 years’ experience, managing and consulting on a variety of projects — most recently, she produced Returning, a commissioned piece for the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015.
“My role is to facilitate art-making; to be the bridge between artists and stakeholders who can be funding bodies, regulators, donors or audience,” explains Lim. “I bring things together so that artists can create the work, and negotiate so that the integrity of their work is not compromised.”
Lim feels that one of the challenges is still the perceived value of arts managers. “Some companies won’t pay you, and some artists think you’re nothing without them so they should be paid more. I’ve always felt it’s an equal partnership. Now I don’t work with artists who don’t share that same value.
“At the end of the day, I’m not interested in fishing for them, I’d rather teach them how to fish — to empower them,” Lim says. “I work with artists to help them realise their own dreams.”
MULTI-DIMENSIONAL WORK STYLE
TERENCE HO Executive Director, Singapore Chinese Orchestra
“I work very closely with our music director, Tsung Yeh. I’m the first person to provide advice to him, especially if we’re doing anything experimental. He’ll ask me, ‘What do you think about this repertoire, this format? Is it the right time to embark on this production?’ ” shares Terence Ho, who has helmed the Singapore Chinese Orchestra for the past 17 years, overseeing a staff of 137.
“As an arts manager, you can’t be just one- or two-dimensional. You must read widely, talk to people from other industries, attend courses and conferences,” says Ho, who gleaned precious strategic management insights when he attended a course at Harvard Business School. “You have to know what’s going on outside of arts and culture because art is a part of society. How else are you going to create something that’s relevant to the people?”
While he acknowledges it may be a challenge for young arts managers, the avid marathon runner encourages them to push their personal boundaries. “If you want to run an arts organisation, it helps if you understand basic principles of marketing, business development and finance. The more you understand, the better a manager you’ll be. It’s not just technical, operational; it’s strategic.”
NG SIEW ENG Former Arts Manager of Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Dance Theatre & Singapore Lyric Opera
Ng Siew Eng spent 14 years with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), 13 years with the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) as its general manager, and almost a decade as general manager of the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO), before leaving this year to pursue a second Masters degree.
“Different organisations have different demands. Funding is always a challenge, but trying to raise the appreciation of each art form is one of the most exciting things I’ve done,” declares Ng, who initiated SDT’s Ballet Under the Stars and SLO’s Opera in the Park to bring the arts to the community.
But closest to her heart is caring for the artists’ welfare and championing their cause. “My philosophy is to create the best environment for artists to do their work. If they have a problem, they know they can come into my room and talk to me. Things they share with me in private, I won’t repeat; so they learn to trust me.”
When she was with the SLO, Ng commissioned Singaporean composers to write choral pieces and gave opportunities to young conductors to lead the orchestra. “If arts managers like us don’t look after the ecosystem, young talents won’t have opportunities to grow.”
BEING RECEPTIVE, STAYING RELEVANT
TAY TONG Managing Director, TheatreWorks
“We need to be slightly ahead of the game, and also to be porous and receptive to change and the ever-evolving situation. It’s no point in a country like Singapore — with limited resources and so many players — to be constantly replicating each other,” says Tay Tong, who has led TheatreWorks for the last 22 years. “We need to try and identify the gap and fill it through the work we do, so that the overall scene moves forward.”
A challenge this veteran “arts worker” (as he prefers to be called) faces is grasping the social impact of theatre and the arts. “I fear we’re making, making, making, and at the end of the day we’re throwing this into a black hole and we don’t know where it goes,” he explains. “Am I creating enough impact, through the work I do, on the people living in Singapore?”
Tay adds, “Each arts manager has a bottom line to deal with, so few have the guts to take risks. But I think we need to constantly ask ourselves: how can I remain relevant in the field, to fill a gap and have an impact and resonance? That’s always my starting point.”
CHNG KAI JIN General Manager, Singapore Symphonia Co Ltd
“I see myself as a facilitator. I’m not there to be served but to add value to the process by interfacing with stakeholders,” says Chng Kai Jin, who has helmed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for the past 11 years. “Put simply, be there when you’re needed, provide value when there’s a gap, and get out of the way when you’re not needed.”
With 20 years’ experience as a broadcaster and an accomplished pianist himself, Chng understands that working with creatives can be highly charged. “I have a very good relationship with our music director, Lan Shui, and you’d think it gets easier after 11 years, but no… it never gets any easier!” he says with a laugh. “It keeps me on my toes and challenges me to be better. At the end of the day, he’s working for the betterment of the orchestra, and so am I.”
Chng believes that self-motivation and self-affirmation are key. “You must have personal satisfaction doing this work, that’s not based on compensation or recognition. Usually, after a tough project, I buy myself a present,” he says with a chuckle. “Passion is not just for artists but for arts managers too.”
YUNI HADI Director, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film
“The events and project management side make up the official hours and job description; the unofficial job is keeping tabs on artists,” says Objectif’s Yuni Hadi, who also wears the hat of executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). “Artists go through ups and downs. Just because someone stops making a film for a year or two doesn’t mean he is no longer a film-maker.
“How can I encourage the person to do the next thing? Can I connect him with someone? Or write him a recommendation?” she elaborates. “Nobody pays you to do these things, and they take up the most time, but I actually feel my real job is creating opportunities for artists, so that the industry grows.
“These days, people are thinking bigger, bigger, bigger. Is there still space for niche projects? How can I help to ensure these small unique voices can grow?” she says, adding that an arts manager’s reputation can pull weight. “When you approach sponsors with proposals, especially for projects involving several artists, they have to trust whoever is managing the project. If they believe in you enough, they will give.”
AUDREY WONG Programme Leader, Arts Management, LASALLE College of the Arts
“At LASALLE, we don’t just emphasise the acquisition of skills, we emphasise deepening the understanding of the arts and artists among our arts management students,” shares Audrey Wong, who spent a decade as artistic co-director of The Substation, an independent non-profit arts centre, before heading LASALLE’s Arts Management honours and masters programmes.
“At the degree level, they learn the principles and practice of managing the arts (for example, arts marketing, financial management, artist management), arts policy and law, the history and aesthetics of art forms, research and communications skills,” she elaborates. “At Masters level, the emphasis is on a deeper critical inquiry into issues in arts management and cultural policy, and students are encouraged to pursue research into those areas that interest them.”
Adds Wong, a former Nominated Member of Parliament (2009-2011), “As an arts manager, you have to be tenacious, diplomatic and creative to make things happen. And people skills are all-important, because in the end, it’s always people who make things happen.”
It’s a new profession
“It isn’t. As long as there’ve been arts shows, somebody has been playing the role of the ‘arts manager’!” says LASALLE’s Audrey Wong. “The difference is that arts management is now an academic discipline and recognised as a profession.”
It’s an operational role
“Strategic thinking and planning is an arts manager’s job. If you don’t dream it, it won’t happen!” says Terence Ho, who led SCO to break two Guinness World Records by forming a 4,500-strong Chinese orchestra for Our People, Our Music 2014.
It’s a task-oriented job
“We’re dealing in the human industry,” says TheatreWorks’ Tay Tong. “We have to constantly find the best way to manage relationships with artists and stakeholders. Be equitable – it’s how good partnerships work.”
It’s a well-paying job
“At the end of the day, you need to know that you’re not doing it for yourself but for the art makers in the ecosystem,” says Ng Siew Eng. “Come in because you love the arts and feel you can add value to it, but don’t expect to be rich!”
It has a clearly-defined job scope
“A lot of jobs I did, I created them because there was a need for that work scope to achieve what we had in mind; I then learnt along the way,” reveals Michele Lim. “To this day, my husband doesn’t know what I do!”