Enter stage right, armed with an MBA

Senior roles in the arts are increasingly demanding a background in finance and management and business schools are responding accordingly

Survival skills: Berlioz's 'Les Troyens'. Arts organisations have become increasingly business-savvy © FT

As a dancer, Elyssa Dole performed at the Metropolitan Opera as well as with Thomas/Ortiz Dance, a New York-based contemporary dance group. Today however, with her cohort comprising not dancers but business executives, she is one of a growing number of arts professionals seeking to boost their skills in areas such as finance, strategy and accounting by taking an MBA.

For Ms Dole, who is studying at New York University’s Stern School of Business, the decision to take an MBA does not reflect a change of career. “I’ve been in the arts my whole life – it’s my passion,” she says. “I’ve spent a career in dance and I’m looking for ways to increase my ability to have an impact on the field I love so much.”

But these days, having an impact in this sector – as cash- strapped governments around the world cut their arts funding – means becoming increasingly businesslike and seeking out new sources of finance to support everything from dance performances to art exhibitions and piano recitals.

In some ways this is nothing new. Arts organisations have often lived hand-to-mouth and have long had to become more business-savvy to guarantee their survival.

“It’s a really smart sector,” says Becky Schutt, fellow in arts and culture at University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, whose MBA offers a concentration in culture, arts and media management. “A lot of organisations have been thinking in this way for a long time.”

However, fresh budget cuts have increased the pressure on arts organisations – which has also made the task of securing a job in the sector far more competitive.

“Students who want a career in the arts are finding that the number of jobs has shrunk and the bar has been raised,” says Mary Carlson, director of Arts Executive Search, a London-based recruitment company. “So you’ve a better chance of working, say, in development at the Royal Opera House if you have an MBA.”

Arts managers also need to develop new approaches to seeking business sponsorship as private sector funding shifts direction. In the UK, for example, while business financial support for the arts has been falling for the past four years, in-kind donations and corporate memberships are rising, according to Arts & Business, a UK advisory group.

Moreover, the most senior roles in arts management are changing. “Today, you have to have a background in finance and an understanding of HR at a sophisticated level, resource allocation, audience trends and distribution via broadcast – not to mention unions and management of labour issues,” says Ms Carlson. “The days when a musician could turn impresario are over.”

New challenges are presenting additional reasons for managers in the creative industries to try to boost their business skills. These include the erosion of intellectual property rights as it becomes increasingly difficult to prevent users from accessing everything from books to music and film online.

Meanwhile, the way audiences expect to access arts content is also changing, something addressed in a course offered by Iese Business School in Spain.

“Young people are leaving culture because they don’t understand it,” says Beatriz Muñoz-Seca, a professor at the school and director of its arts & culture initiative project. “We’re doing lots of things with technology but we need something much deeper – we need to immerse people in a different experience.”

Of course, in some ways the arts sector is facing trends all industries need to address, which are covered in many mainstream MBA programmes. “It’s globalisation, commercialisation, intellectual property and digitisation,” says Ms Schutt, who is also a strategy consultant to arts and media sector organisations.

Certainly, the MBA programme appears to attract a wide variety of arts professionals. At Canada’s Schulich School of Business, which has an MBA in arts and media administration, alumni include Tricia Baldwin, managing director of Canada’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Luc Déry, a film producer, and Jason Van Eyk, executive director of ArtsSmarts, which works with schools to apply art forms to education.

Of course it is not always easy for students to finance a two-year MBA programme. At Schulich, says Joyce Zemans, director of the Arts and Media Administration MBA, some manage by taking the degree part- time over an extended period.

“We have some scholarships dedicated to arts and media to support students during internships – but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an expensive degree.”

Nevertheless, it is a degree that arts professionals say they find valuable. Ms Dole says what she has learnt has changed the way she looks at her profession. “Things I’ve seen in the arts I’m now able to translate into business language and see them through the lens of business …. Without doing this, I would have missed out on so many different kinds of partnerships.”

In addition, the MBA programme gives artists and arts professionals the chance to spend time with individuals from a range of different business sectors – helping to build networks for potential private sector sponsors and exposing them to new ideas.

Nevertheless, some argue that the arts and business have more in common than is often supposed.

“The market economy is the context for all our lives,” says Amy Whitaker, who teaches a mini-MBA called Principles of Business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. “Whatever you’re doing, understanding how business works is a way of being able to navigate and have some control over the design of your life or the organisation you’re working in.”

Ms Dole agrees. “Whether you’re an artist taking risks in a studio or you’re developing new software, being able to stretch your mind is a skill that crosses from arts to business.”

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