Teaching the right brain to manage the left brain

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The Independent Online

Although the predicted cuts in public sector funding are yet to translate into substantial job losses, the UK government is already searching for ways that the private sector can plug the employment gap. A postgraduate qualification in cultural management is about more than learning how to run a theatre or “manage creatives”.

While those are relevant skills, the subject is also concerned with the wider picture: understanding the peculiar challenges of managing arts and media organisations, and understanding an industry – and cultural landscape – that is constantly changing.

“Cultural management courses recognise the complexity of an arts organisation’s objectives and that they’re not just about the bottom line,” says Dr Chris Bilton, director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. “They’re about social and artistic objectives as well.”

Students can study at a host of institutions up and down the country. As well as Warwick, cultural management courses are offered at Southampton, Northumbria, City University (London), Leeds Metropolitan and Manchester University among others. Specific course titles include MA in international cultural policy and management (Warwick), and MA in creative enterprise (Leeds).

There are a range of study options, from intensive 12-month programmes, to part-time courses over two or more years. Students shouldn’t expect a traditional approach, says Bilton: “We approach management from an arts and humanities perspective rather than a business school perspective; we want our graduates to challenge and rethink orthodox views when they leave.”

Forget stereotypes of creatives vs suits and analogies of managing artists being akin to herding cats. “You don’t really want to herd cats, it’s not a great idea,” Bilton continues, “you need to adopt a management style that includes a strategic approach to creativity.”

In practice, this means giving students the relevant skills for creative and commercial success in their arts and cultural careers. Graduates have a sound knowledge of policy and the cultural industries, as well as practical skills in finance and management, and are able to switch rapidly between different modes of thinking – talking about Freud one minute and creating marketing plans the next, as Bilton puts it.

Prospective students come from a range of backgrounds. They might be at various stages of their careers, says Julia Calver, Head of the Culture and Creative Industries Unit at Leeds Metropolitan University: “Our students include video artists, animators, even a circus performer. These are practising artists who want to continue with their work, but also get a deeper understanding of where their work fits within the cultural landscape.”

Although some students do have professional experience, both Bilton and Calver have seen an increase in the number of students coming straight from undergraduate degrees. Some are taking the courses part-time in parallel with internships or looking for employment, according to Calver; and there is a definite benefit to having an M-level qualification when looking for work, adds Bilton, with employers valuing the knowledge, and the investment of time and money it represents.

Once graduated, those already in employment enjoy “enhanced expertise and better enterprise skills” according to Calver, whether they’re working independently or fitting back into a larger organisation. They also boast improved networking abilities and contacts. Those entering their first jobs have similar skills and might find work in advertising, publishing or for local authorities as well as media organisations.

For some, further study to PhD level is an option; but those skills do transfer into other fields. Bilton cites a graduate who moved into the NHS as one example, who “argued that learning about innovation and change was vital when going to work for the NHS.”

Innovation is key when thinking about cultural management, with new ideas often coming from independent creative groups rather than corporate behemoths.“An example would be Radiohead,” says Bilton. “They’ve arguably been more innovative in their approach to marketing and revenue streams than EMI. We look at those types of cases as part of our teaching.”

Not everyone can be Radiohead, but the example shows that cultural management skills can be used in many different ways. Calver and Bilton are optimistic about employment prospects – the sector requires a specialised approach, says Bilton, and those qualified in cultural management will have a lot to offer. “We’re trying to develop graduates who have an empathy with cultural and creative processes as well as being trained in management. If you can square those two things you'll be more useful to an organisation and have a more rewarding career.”

For further information see www2.warwick.ac.uk, www.lmu.ac.uk, or the European Network of Cultural Administration Training Centres.

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