In recent years, the Cultural Affairs Bureau has launched the “Arts and Culture Management Training Programme” and subsidised arts groups in grooming arts administrators, leading to gradual changes in the ecology of the sector. With more arts groups being willing to hire, people are becoming more interested in joining the field. The two CEOs of Macao-based theatre groups, Debbie Tai and Joanna Chan, reminded us that not everyone with a passion for the arts has a good chance for success in the industry.
Debbie Tai: Greater Expectations from the Industry
With the launch of an additional operating venue, Zero Distance Cooperative is hiring new recruits, particularly arts administrators, to join the team. Debbie Tai, the Chairperson, said that their job advertisement has attracted an overwhelming response. “I thought I would receive a few CVs, but it turns out that there were some 20 job applications.” She felt that the recent sponsorship scheme of the Cultural Affairs Bureau has offered more promising career prospects for young people interested to become arts administrators, and has also enabled arts groups to hire full-time managers.
A few years ago, arts administration is seen as a lacklustre career, without much social recognition. Tai recalled that, in the old days, theatre groups would rely on volunteers rather than full-time workers when they have performances. “In the past, as long as you are willing and hardworking, you will be hired. Now that there is more to each candidate’s profile, we as employers have greater choice but it also means that the competition is stronger for the candidates.”
More choices meant that there are also greater expectations for the applicants. In a job interview, Tai would focus on the relevant experience and education background of a candidate. She encouraged those who have an interest to join the industry to look for opportunities to demonstrate themselves during their school years, and to seek more advice from those with more experience, so as to learn more about the profession.
Joanna Chan: The Demand for Keen Workers
Another theatre group, Dream Theatre Association, is filling their shortage in arts administration by their part-time staff. However, these staff are not recruited directly by the theatre. Instead, they are those handpicked by Chan from schools where she taught drama. In her half-year drama teaching stints at these schools, she identified keen students willing to join the team. “In this period, I came into contact with some students who have potential and who also understand our philosophy.” Since they have been taught by her before, there is no need to train them from scratch. “After all, we are looking for those who are willing to take up responsibilities.”
In terms of salary, Chan remarked that they are an employer with conscience: their wages are higher than that offered by McDonalds. According to Chan, arts administration expenses are often overlooked when theatre groups plan their budgets, and this means that the personnel are sometimes underpaid. Theatre groups are more willing to spend their resources on the performance production and on the artistic team. “Many people have a misconception that arts administration is pretty straightforward but, in fact, there are lots of work involved to produce a show, from beginning to end.”
It is typical that an arts administration job does not come with a very high salary, Tai pointed out that, on average, an arts administrator would be paid around at a monthly salary of MOP$8,000-15,000, depending on the financial position of the arts organisation. “Honestly, this level of wages is mainly to cover basic maintenance. For example, if you are looking for a remuneration to buy a property or a car, then this is not the right kind of job for you.” In terms of job functions, there is a limited scope for promotion for an arts administrator. Take her own role at Zero Distance Cooperative as example. Since the arts administration team consists only of four persons, all of whom she directly supervises, there is little room for middle-tier management, unlike the team structures found within government or gaming enterprises.
At the same time, typical theatre groups cannot offer attractive benefits such as medical benefits. Their working hours are sometime irregular and have to be adjusted in accordance with performance schedule. “We don’t work on a six-day routine, nor can we guarantee things like paid holiday leave and maternity leave. Most of the time we have to finish up what we are doing before we can take a proper break,” Chan said. Given the inadequate government allocations and pressure from the box office sales, it is hard for them to offer anything extra other than the monthly salary. Since the majority of their operating funds comes from the government, the timetable of the subsidy application will impact on the working pace of the group, and so it is often that they have to catch up with project progress. “In scheduling our performances, we also have to avoid clashing with large-scale events such as the Parade Through Macao, Latin City and other music festivals since there tends to be a shortage of technical staff around that time.”
What’s more, according to Chan, staff turnover is highly common in arts administration.
“Many people decide to leave because they simply cannot cope with the stress that comes with it,” Chan added. For example, quite a lot would change to a freelance job. In this way, they can take on more roles such as MC, acting or lecturing, in addition to arts administration.
For those who are willing to accept its setbacks such as low wages and less favourable benefits, it is not always easy to succeed in the field, as experience is of paramount importance. Tai emphasises the need for teamwork in arts administration. “Suppose you were an artistic type who are very keen to pursue your own goals, to the extent that you cannot easily accept advice from others, this is not a very appealing job for you.” In planning a programme, arts administrators often have to coordinate various parties, hence good communication skills are vital. Tai reiterated that one way to make people feel respected is to make personal calls instead of relying on text messages to convey important matters. Instead of urging the producers to submit their scripts, for example, it will be more effective to remind them of the creative philosophy behind the work.
“Anything that lies outside the creative work belongs to the arts administration,” she said. “You have to be determined to resolve all kinds of issues. In order to do that, you need a bold, fearless heart.”