A Lowdown on Arts Administration

10 2016 | Issue 17
Text/Lei Ka Io

Not many people are aware of the work that goes by the name of arts administration. Even for those who work in the field, sometimes the role of an arts administrator can be confusing. In Macao, the diversity of arts groups has led to a rise in the number of arts events and activities that in turn led to much demand for arts administrators. Nonetheless, proper arts administration courses in local universities are still lacking. In this issue, we talk to various graduates and professional arts administrators in Macao as well as a scholar who has designed relevant curriculum to a local institute, so as to find out more about the ecology of arts administration.


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Si Kei Chan and Her Experience in Britain


Chan completed her studies in Arts Management in Britain. After she took part in an MC contest as a high school student, she was invited by Hiu Kok Theatre to work as a crew member. Subsequently, she joined theatre administration courses, a decision that led her to change her practice from being an actress to a theatre administrator. She thought of studying arts at university, but her plan met with disapproval from the family.


“My family thought that young people who have a university education should work in a proper job such as in the government or in a gaming enterprise.” Finding it difficult to go against her family’s wishes, she decided to study public administration at the University of Macau. As soon as she graduated, Chan returned to Hiu Kok to work as an arts administrator. Nevertheless, she still harboured the dream of studying arts at university, and so after a few years of saving up, Chan went to the UK for further studies in 2013. “Back then, I thought that since I have already made up my mind to study abroad, I might just as well go to a distant country. I chose to go to the UK where the theatre has a long tradition and the arts scene there is well-established.”


One of Chan’s classes involved a placement and a report to evaluate the experience. At first, she was baffled as to how to secure a good placement opportunity, given the fierce competition in London. A capital where top students from all over the world come to study, she supposed there would be dim chance of getting a placement. “There is a lot of competition even for jobs that are unpaid.”


Despite having submitted her CV to nearly 30 major arts groups and festivals organisers in London, she heard nothing from these institutions, and was tremendously disappointed. “No matter what, I need to believe in myself. After all, I have worked in the arts field in Macao, and in this sense I am an experienced candidate.” In London, many arts institutions give priority to candidates with a strong background. Supposing there are candidates with similar backgrounds or experience, those coming from Europe are more competitively placed in getting the jobs since they share the same culture. Besides, those coming from top-tier, cosmopolitan cities are also more favoured since the employers are more familiar with theatre groups in these cities. Chan pointed out that most employers would be unfamiliar with Macao. “They simply don’t understand how Macao is like.”


The policy in Britain has also posed some restriction on the opportunities to get a placement. Many theatre groups in London have made use of internship schemes as a way to recruit staff without paying them. Chan remarked that, given the economic downturn in their own countries, many students from Eastern Europe have arrived to Britain to study, and have stayed there after graduation. “At that time, there was no such thing as Brexit, and so it was quite easy for the European students to find work in Britain.” Moreover, in London, there are policies to sponsor local recruits, such as funding for arts groups to hire local young people.


Seeing how hard it is to get an internship, Chan’s tutor suggested her to change her approach by focusing on smaller arts groups with niche in their practices. Surprisingly, this proved a pragmatic approach, and so Chan got internship offers from a children’s puppetry theatre and a community theatre. As a result of recommendations from the two groups, she applied and secured an internship at the London International Festival of Theatre. “To secure a job in London, it all goes down to who your referees are. You must provide at least two referees, and it makes a big difference whether your referees are local. It will be most ideal if they can take a glance at your CV and recognise those names right away.”


Having taken part in so many internships offers Chan more experience than is required for the university programme, but she is still keen to observe more on how local theatre groups plan and execute their programmes. She noticed that the theatre groups in London are very on trend, and have access to government as well as private funding. Instead of looking at their artistic ambitions, these institutions put a lot of emphasis on whether the theatre groups offer synergy to their own objectives, and whether these groups can generate returns. Hence, some theatre groups have to cater to the markets and adjust their directions in order to capture the sales. In such a commercially-driven environment, theatre groups always under considerable finanical pressure. “Some groups have one-third of funding cut, while some have as much as two-thirds cut. When they are faced with staff cuts, they tend to rely on the interns to get the work done.”


Chan learnt a lot about the actual operations of theatre groups from her internships. When she worked on audience outreach at the London-based puppetry theatre, she realised that a membership scheme is instrumental in maintaining audience loyalty, in which the audience agrees to sponsor the theatre group and in return they can redeem a certain amount of tickets. In planning their shows, the group is also very sensitive to the needs of the audience. For example, they will dim the lights gradually instead of turning the lights off right away at the start of the show, so that the young audience will not be scared.


While Chan was living in Britain at that time, she maintained close relationships with arts groups in Macao. In fact, she helped two of the Macao-based theatre groups with their participation in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. These opportunities proved valuable in offering her work experience in marketing and promoting performances in an international arts festival.


The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a well-known festival where arts administrators and creative professionals get together and collaborate. For those theatre groups keen to go beyond Macao, they would require marketing collaterals to explain their ambition and performances, lists to demonstrate their accommodation and travel details and requirements for performance venues. “The collaterals need to help the Festival team understand whether they can hire you or not, and whether the performances are suitable for the Festival.” Chan had never worked on these tour brochures before. As she sought out and talked to other arts groups about collaborative opportunities, she was able to look at their relevant collaterals for references.


Carol Lei: Emphasis on Training at HKAPA


On the other hand, Carol Lei chose to study for a Master’s degree in drama at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. For her, the similar culture shared by Macao and Hong Kong meant that she could take part in the theatre activities in both places. At the same time, she liked the emphasis on training at the HKAPA. “There are other schools in Hong Kong offering similar programmes, but I am not so keen on the theory-based courses.” Her MA degree proved extremely useful in offering her with insights on aspects such as venue safety training. When the time came for her to plan a show, she was aware of the importance to organise the access points of a performance venue to serve crowd management.


After obtaining her master’s degree, Lei first sought out opportunities to work in Hong Kong, but as a foreign national in Hong Kong, this proved difficult, as personal connections are crucial in getting the job. “It is not that the boss will hire you just because he or she knows you. But then he or she would know more about your work ethics, artistic taste and ambitions, which would help a lot in ensuring compatibility.” She said, “For example, if you love rock while your boss is into the classic, then it is unlikely you get hired.”


In Macao, there are as yet no universities offering arts administration degree programmes. This meant that those who are keen to undertake such studies have to opt for study overseas. For individuals like Chan and Lei, their experiences from abroad have certainly offered much value-added insights and contributed towards the arts scene in Macao.