Can the Arts be Managed? (Short answer: Yes)

David Gordon, the founder of arts consulting firm Gordon Advisory, gave a lunchtime talk at NYU Wagner to a gathering of students.  Mr. Gordon was well worth a listen, as he has spent much of his career transforming and revitalizing arts organizations in the U.S. and England. He peppered his insights and advice, both personal and professional, with dry wit.

“You’re wondering: can the arts be managed?  The answer is yes.  If you’re short on time, you may now take a sandwich and leave,” he began the March 30 discussion.

For the next hour, Gordon described the unique opportunities and challenges of managing arts organizations.  Gordon believes that arts organizations must find harmony between business and passion.  For Gordon, this passion distinguishes the arts.  When well-managed, it also provides their greatest source of strength.

Drawing from his experiences, Gordon offered strategies for successful management.  These strategies are tailored to the arts, but applicable to any organization.

  1. Craft a Powerful Mission and Vision.  Artists should engage their love of process and poetry to create inspiring goals for their organizations.  On a concrete level, these shared values ensure that everyone at the organization is on the same page.
  2. Define the Nuts and Bolts.  A strategic plan follows from the organization’s mission and vision.  This plan should include specific goals and metrics, transforming dreams into blueprints.
  3. Nurture Artistic Values and Culture.  Artists are passionate, unafraid to speak truth to power.  Arts organizations should leverage this passion, and encourage a culture of productive dissent and debate.  Arts organizations cannot settle for mediocrity.  As cultural gatekeepers, they must filter for excellence in the arts, beginning with a culture of excellence within their organization.
  4. Create Governance Boundaries.  The boards of arts organizations often suffer from a “Downton Abbey” syndrome, in which the cultural aristocracy meddles in the daily affairs of the organization.  Clear governance guidelines ease this issue.
  5. Recruit and Develop Strong Leadership.  Many successful arts organizations split the roles of management and creativity between a managing director and an artistic director.  The harmonious relationship between these two leaders allows the balance of passion and business to flourish.

During the second half of his talk, Mr. Gordon offered students advice gleaned from his own career.  Many attendees scribbled down his casual and practical tips.

  1. Don’t be afraid of numbers.Take accounting and finance courses and learn what spreadsheets look like.  Number skills offer a serious advantage over essentially everyone in the arts.
  2. Learn to write clearly and succinctly.
  3. Fake it till you make it.  Take advantage of the “imposter phenomenon” – if you don’t know what you’re doing, pretend that you do, and set up systems for receiving support and advice.  Most importantly, once you learn what you’re doing, don’t stop listening!
  4. Stand up to bullies.And if you can’t, leave.
  5. Governance matters.  Great organizations require strong boards and clear governing procedures.
  6. Dream big.Artistic ambitions should be fantastic and soaring.

After the talk, students stayed to ask questions, chat, and debate strategies for arts management and measurement.

Ultimately, Gordon believes that all organizations can learn from the creativity, vision and passion of the arts.  These values transcend sectors and contribute an inspirational spark to management teams and individuals alike.

For more information about Gordon Advisory, visit the firm’s website:

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