Impresario Vs. Administrator.

This is a response to Richard A. Peterson’s chapter “From Impresario to Arts Administrator: Formal Accountability in Nonprofit Cultural Organisations” in Paul J. DiMaggio’s Nonprofit Enterprise in the Arts: Studies of Mission and Constraint (1986). The chapter talks about two styles of management in arts organisations and how it changed due to environmental changes, from an impresarial style, to the arts administration style that we know and love today (insert sarcasm as you see fit). I feel that this article could almost be re-written today (albeit with a more open ending) as many of the environmental changes that forced such dramatic change in the past are in flux yet again, opening up the possibility for new styles of management to occur.

The chapter first outlines the impresarial form of management that was used in the nineteenth century up until the 1960s. This particular style of management was highly personalistic and was most usually a male from the upper-class, high in confidence who had proven himself as being a mover and shaker in his former experiences, and who didn’t necessarily have any previous knowledge in an artistic field (Peterson, 1986, p. 162). The impresario ran everything, and was particularly good at charming wealthy patrons and securing funding, he acquired artifacts and did well by himself and his organization and learned his skills in an apprenticeship arrangement and by on the job learning.

From the 1960s onwards, different environmental factors required a different approach and the age of the arts administrator was born (Peterson, 1986, p. 164). Arts administrators were (and still are) formally educated in the areas needed to accomplish their responsibilities, they are taught skills and as Peterson describes

Unlike his impresarial counterpart, whose style was based on flattering and cajoling the affluent elite while dominating performers and employees by an autocratic imposition of his will, the successful arts administrator relies on the ability to apply evenhandedly technical knowledge to obtain the best possible results for the arts organization and all interested parties. (Peterson, 1986, p. 166).

The rest of the article goes on to list the factors of change and it is in these points that I suggest our contemporary climate has shifted from these models dramatically enough, or will do in the near future as the older foundations crumble, that it may just be time for a new breed of managerial style to emerge blinking into the sunlight or even into the limelight.

The first set of points are given under the heading of Internal Organisational Factors the first factor being Size and growth, that organisations as they grow larger in size they naturally gravitate towards bureaucracy, the same effect happens from the second point; Task Complexity, as organisations become larger and more complex, they diversify their tasks and products (Peterson, 1986, p. 167). The next reason given for the managerial shift is posited as the Organisational Life Cycle; that as organisations age they slowly move away from a leading entrepreneur and towards a more stable organisational model and (you guessed it) more bureaucracy (Peterson, 1986, p. 168). The final internal factor is the frighteningly titled Cost Disease; the idea that there is a dilemma of “slowly increasing productivity and rapidly increasing costs” (Peterson, 1986, p. 168). The example given is that it still just takes four musicians to play quartet music, just as in Bach’s time, but these musicians want their pay to rise in accordance with the general economy and the rising cost of living (Bloody musicians, wanting to have the cake and eat it too) (Peterson, p. 168).

The author is careful to note that these factors are not solely responsible for the shift but worked together to change managerial style along with other factors. This chapter was written in 1986 and I suggest that size, complexity, life cycle and cost disease have not gone anywhere, but in fact are compounded and possibly out of date in the increasingly globalized internet savvy climate that exists today in 2017. Corporations are larger than ever before and organisations, even small ones, are increasingly complex as they have more to do and more platforms to cover. Increasing costs are still rising and cheaper alternatives for both products and labour are unsustainable, especially in the arts where too many rough edges glossed over creates shoddy work and loses audiences. As for organizational lifecycles, they are just that; a cycle where things either change and renew for another spin around the wheel or stagnate and die, or get left behind as the cycle moves on without them.

The next set of reasons are Extraorganisational Factors like New Patrons and Unearned Income; the effect of government and corporate funding on the arts and their need for formal accountability. Government agencies and accountants needed administrators to make this happen and in a wonderful piece of prescience Peterson writes

that Paul DiMaggio has speculated on the consequences for arts organisations of receiving government funds. He hypothesises that arts organisations that seek and receive government support will have to formulate formal statements of policies and plans, to institute formal audits of their accounts, and to increase the sizes of their administrative staffs accordingly. (DiMaggio as cited in Peterson, 1986, p. 170)

Little did he know how true that would become as I’m sure our colleague Tim can attest with his project on applying for grants for his independent theatre company. This is the DiMaggio-Powell hypothesis at work; institutional isomorphism means that like calls to like, that “all organisations that regularly interact with each other … tend to become structurally isomorphic in order to facilitate interaction with each other” (Peterson, 1986, p. 171).

New Audiences too contributed to change, with public funding came the pressure to attract new audiences (Peterson, 1986, p. 171), this too, I would see as being exaggerated since the chapters publication in 1986. Audiences can be larger than ever before and even more decentralized and globalized as physical presence is no longer entirely necessary and even history museum collections are going online. With new audiences comes new ways of separating them from their money and New Sources of Earned Income. Arts administrators diversified organisations, adding on moneymaking peripherals like gift shops, cafes and publications, a normal part of art organisations today. (Peterson, 1986, p. 172), It would be strange to see a public art gallery without a café or a concert without the merchandise booths. Labour laws and unions influenced the need for arts administrators to deal with their Personnel in a more formalized manner. Logistics, Laws Regulations and Codes are also cited as being a major influencer with “the advent of jet travel” (Peterson, 1986, p. 174), creating more logistical planning and paper shuffling. This too in our globalized world creates administration roles, international travel is normalized personally and professionally, and artists are expected to be travelling across continents as part of the package. It takes three administrators here at Whitecliffe to deal with the paperwork created by the handful of international students and the red tape that accompanies them.

These factors both internal and external influenced the way that arts organisations and then later the culture industry operated. Overtime these systems became homogenized, standardized and entrenched in organizational structure, allowing administrators to job hop around and fulfil their KPIs wherever their particular blend of administrative qualities seemed like a good fit. But will it stay this way much longer? Maybe not.

The reliance on government funding to support arts organisations can’t go on indefinitely. Arts organisations shifted their structure to align more closely with governments in order to receive grants. That fund is dwindling and will probably dwindle further as ecological disasters need more money allocated. There has been a shift towards decentralized funding in the form of crowd-funding, a direct appeal straight to the audience. The audience itself has also shifted, the connectivity of the digital era has diversified patronage into both local and global. While there is still a need to provide some kind of accountability, it’s more face to face, or more correctly screen to screen accountability via video evidence rather than an audited account.

New ways of creating success and new ideas of what constitutes success make new possibilities for organizational structure. Arts administrators will still be needed to administrate increasingly diverse constellation organisations, and where necessary, fit aspects of them into and around the existing formal structures in ever more creative ways, so that the nature of the organization is not compromised and its possibilities extinguished. Perhaps administrators need to embrace aspects of the romanticized impresario or team up with them to create a distinct personality in arts organisations again, or perhaps an entirely new arts organizer will emerge from this, our new digital climate.


Peterson, R. A. (1986). From impresario to arts administrator: Formal accountability in nonprofit cultural organisations. In P. J. DiMaggio (Ed.), Nonprofit enterprise in the arts: Studies in mission and constraint (pp. 161­–183). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.


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