As the executive directors of Macao Design Centre and the Macao Dance Association respectively, Zoe Sou and Chloe Lao are seasoned arts managers. Despite the different nature and positioning of the arts groups, their roles share some common ground: they are there to translate the creative thinking of the companies into actual operation.
Zoe Sou: Connecting the Stakeholders
“In fact, I am only a director by name,” Zoe Sou of Macao Design Centre said jokingly. “In real life, we all work very hard on different aspects of the business, not to mention that we are not very well-paid!”
One supportive function the design centre offers to designers is secretarial support, a function that is provided by Sou’s team. She said that while the designers are brilliant in creating, they may not be so strong in articulating their creations. “If you ask them to write an article to introduce their creations, they may have to think really hard. We can offer them a ready solution on that by giving them the copywriting support they needed.”
For designers keen to showcase their work in exhibitions via the centre, Sou would help them to coordinate these activities. In some unforeseen cases, Sou would even handle it personally. On one occasion, a designer intended to exhibit a large-scale horse sculpture in the lobby of a gaming enterprise. However, as the installation piece is covered with mud, and features growing plants, the mud got spread everywhere by the visitors. This was met with fury from the gaming enterprise, and they demanded that Sou rectify the situation immediately. As a result, she arrived onsite with the workers and cleaned up the venue. “It surely was messy.” She smiled, saying: “The designer couldn’t conceive that this kind of follow-up work would ever happen. In other words, our role is to help facilitate their projects.”
Besides, Sou has regular meetings with her four other partners at the Design Centre to discuss the development strategies and to put concepts into practice. “For example, one of my bosses might want to stage an activity to sell or distribute mooncakes, and another boss might actually know of a mooncake supplier. My job is to be the middleman to connect the stakeholders.”
For Sou, the shortage of expertise staff is one obstacle that they have to overcome. “Not only are we unable to hire anyone, we also have very little money to hire them.” She pointed out that initially, the Design Centre should be run by six to seven full-time staff, but they have to reduce to a team of four given their financial difficulties. With a downsized team, the workload for everyone becomes heavier. “We are operating on a self-sustained, commercial manner.” Sou said: “My boss wants me to take on some more lucrative projects, so that we will have a good budget to hire more staff.” Such financial pressure at the Design Centre meant that there is a substantial staff turnover, which in turn inhibits new joiners. She explained that applicants found it more appealing to get an easier job for the same salary, whereas the work expectations are much higher at the Design Centre.
Chloe Lao: Arts Managers Need to be Resilient
Shortage of staff is only one of the various resource issues faced by arts managers. In order to grow, an arts group has to raise funds or resources. Chloe Lao, CEO of Ieng Chi Dance Association, felt that arts managers should be more careful with their resource planning, bearing in mind that resources do not refer only to funding: it can also mean venue and in-kind sponsorships.
“Arts administrators need to be very clear about their roles, and realise that they are not just a team member,” Lao said. According to Lao, arts administrators are faced with different hurdles in their work every day, and so they have to be creative in coming up with their solutions. “You cannot just execute or do as you are told. At work, I have acquired this habit of coming up with several options for any activity.”
Recently, the dance association requires an expensive set of equipment for their performance. To hire this set of equipment for the show, they will have to use up to one-fifth of the estimated budget. As a result, Lao attempted to get sponsorship from a big company. “Since this company is used to sponsoring bigger events, our event is quite small-scaled by their standard. They were very surprised that I would approach them.” After subsequent persuasion, the dance association was able to hire the equipment for a much more affordable price. “I tend to seek out companies that we do not know or have never approached before,” she said. “This can make our business less stressful, and in turn the sponsorships can encourage more support for the arts.”
Every arts group has its own artistic philosophy. The challenge for an arts manager lies in the manner in which he or she realises the abstract artistic thinking in real terms, and to promote it to the community. Four years ago, Ieng Chi Dance Association joined up with Macao Heritage Ambassadors Association to launch a project named Heritage Stroll with Poetries. In this project, they combine dance performance with poetry reading to offer a guided tour for the community. In this way, they can promote Macao’s various cultural heritage sites to the community. In this project, the approach of multi-disciplinary arts highlights cultural significance behind these heritage sites. Taking into account the designed route, Lao spoke to each individual heritage site, asking them to offer a short-term loan for the project. One of the hardest venues to secure proved to be churches. “As you know, a church is a place of peace. As soon as the clergymen realise that we intend to stage a dance performance there, he or she is ready to reject our proposal.” She had to reiterate the project’s worthy cause in promoting cultural heritage, and of course to reassure them that they will keep their noise level down. “The key is to see their point of view, and to appreciate the nature of association between our plan and their needs.” It is not difficult to understand that communication skills are a must for a successful arts manager.
Having joined the dance company since 2012, Lao was sought after by government departments, the performance sections of gaming enterprises and overseas arts groups. Nevertheless, she decided to stay with the dance group.
“The gaming enterprises are willing to pay a good salary and remuneration, but it is not the kind of job that I wanted.” She pointed out that one’s artistic ambition cannot be realised overnight. It will simply take a number of years before she can see the results of hard work. An arts manager must be able to handle the disappointments as they come. “The outcome of our work is not always so tangible, and this can create a feeling of uncertainty for some.” She has decided to continue with her job at the dance association, so that she can contribute to the dance sector, which she is passionate about. Moreover, she is keen to experiment and seek new collaborative ways to showcase the art form in different media or artistic formats.
Sou emphasised that the challenge in arts administration does not lie in the difficulty of the job nor work pressure, but in maintaining one’s inner balance. “To excel in this field, you have to recognise that your efforts are not commensurate with monetary reward, and to accept that sometimes good work may be overlooked. It is not always easy for your friends or even your parents to understand your work, but the most important thing is that you are passionate about what you do, and that you persevere in it.”