These days it seems like arts festivals are ten a penny. I should know, I’ve worked for twelve of them in the space of two and a half years. But they are very complex cultural performances. Each individual project within the festival does not take place independently of one another but instead they provide a running commentary on each other, question one another and refer to one another – all through the design of the festival programme. It is predominantly the artistic director who has the responsibility for the design of the programme along with the providing the requisite leadership traits necessary to maintain the faith of both festival audiences and his/her own festival staff.
But what are artistic directors about? Is it a never-ending parade of launches, schmoozing and boozing or is there more to it than that? How does an artistic director satisfy their own need for creativity, for flamboyance and for idiosyncratic thinking in the face of an oppressive board of directors, disgruntled, under-paid and under-nourished staff while simultaneously appeasing the great unwashed mass that is the modern-day arts audience?
I spent the worst part of a summer investigating this for a number of murky and shifty reasons but despite this came across some interesting ideas. According to Paula Clancy in her essay Skills and Competencies: The Cultural Manager, directors of arts facilities and programmes, including arts centres, galleries, festivals, and performing venues, represent a significant proportion of the managers in the arts sectors…they have a broad range of management tasks…bearing the ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the organisation.
And according to Mitchell and Fisher, there is a clear distinction between the roles of artistic director and manager – the director is responsible for the artistic production and generally does not have the time to devote to administration. On the other hand, the manager’s task is to create the conditions in which the aims of the artistic director can be fulfilled and the operations sustained. Not only that but the manager has to be aware of developments in artistic policy, be able to solve financial, juridicial, staffing and automation problems, have knowledge about marketing, public relations and general trends in society.
One artistic director I spoke to maintains that the artistic director’s vision is always compromised by the festival itself: ‘a gung-ho attitude is very risky. Media coverage in Ireland is very conservative people don’t react well to change. Despite this, I trust my own programming ability and profile and I trust the audience will try something new every once in a while – they will give something new a chance. There is a constant burden on the artistic director to get everything right. At the end of the day, the programme should be the best you can get with all the compromises involved, although the financial side for me is very much the third aspect. ‘
Also, after interviewing quite a few artistic directors, I realised that there certainly is a considerable mix of leadership traits within an artistic director. Perhaps the most striking aspect is that the directors interviewed do not actively see themselves as leaders which suggests that there has been a shift in recent years from the hypothesis of the artistic director as the authoritative leadership figure ‘directing’ his/her staff and expecting them to follow orders – to a more collaborative view of the leader as a charismatic and transformational figure, with an overall vision for the festival yet working closely with others to achieve this vision.
The division of culture versus commercialism certainly underpins the role of artistic director and it can be a constant battle ensuring one’s artistic vision is fully realised. While ‘playing the system’ is undoubtedly an important part of this, it seemed clear that artistic directors trust their own programming abilities and also trust that their audience will want to see something new and challenging once in a while.
Indeed, all of the interviewed subjects agreed that the role of artistic director had the conflict of culture versus commercialism, as one put it, as the core element of the position. The critic Dubin proposes that administrative and bureaucratic interests take precedence over artistic innovation which, ultimately, cannot succeed within a highly structured organisation – in this case, an arts festival.
A pessimistic view? Or, especially in this climate, a realistic view? What do you think?
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