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:

WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 12 – Sunday, December 18, 2011

WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 12 – Sunday, December 18, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Title: Roundtable Discussion on Long-Term Liabilities & Healthcare
Time: 8 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
Sponsors: The Fund for Public Advocacy, in partnership with the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, NYU Wagner School of Public Service and the Wagner Economics and Finance Association (WEFA)
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Title: Performance Management Professionals Colloquium
Time: 9 a.m. -10:30 a.m.
Sponsor: Wagner’s Alumni in Performance Measurement & Management Affinity Group
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
No events listed.

Thursday December 15, 2011

Title: Doctoral Holiday Reception
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room / Newman Reception Area

Friday, December 16, 2011

Title: Wagner Student Association Holiday Party
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Student Association
Location: Housing Works, 126 Crosby off Houston and parallel to Lafayette

Saturday, December 17, 2011
No events listed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011
No events listed.

‘Fear can be paralytic, but it can also be a great motivator’

     GOOD MANAGEMENT is good management, and the current fiscal and economic crisis has the potential to impel nonprofit organizations toward making the tough decisions they should have been making all along, according to consultant Jack Ukeles, founder and president of Ukeles Associates, Inc.

      The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner welcomed representatives from philanthropies, nonprofit organizations, and the general public to a March 4, 2009, forum where Ukeles and Barbara Cohn Berman discussed “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?”

      The particular characteristics of the nonprofit field–such as a tendency to diffuse authority, the difficulty of measuring success, and dependence on outside sources for funding– mean that nonprofits require a particular approach in responding to a society-wide economic recession/depression. If a nonprofit can manage in a crisis, manage the crisis, and use the crisis to improve management, it has the potential to emerge stronger than ever. Ukeles shared tactics for applying these strategies, with a focus on management improvement: streamlining operations, setting priorities, managing performance, and examining restructuring options. Cohn Berman emphasized the importance of gathering information from all possible sources, including clients, and of keeping interested parties invested in the process.

       Ukeles and Cohn Berman’s counsel grows out of significant experience in the field. Ukeles advised the New York City government during the 1975 fiscal crisis, and has consulted for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. Cohn Berman is Vice President of the National Center for Civic Innovation and its sister organization, the Fund for the City of New York and the founding director of their Center on Government Performance. Her focus is on helping the government and nonprofit organizations manage change.

      To make their expertise available to a wider audience, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner has published “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?” and it is available on