Work in Culture?


I have been invited to talk about what I do for a living at a primary school’s Careers Day by a friend who volunteers there as a reader. He works in catastrophe insurance, so he is planning to bring wooden blocks to demonstrate earthquakes. I am wondering, of course, how I will manage to present what I do to a bunch of 7-year-old kids when I can barely explain it to anyone beyond my immediate circle of colleagues; but also whether there is any point in trying to convince anyone to follow in my footsteps when work in the cultural sector is only getting more precarious and discriminatory by the day.

Should I talk about the cost and length of training? A degree in any discipline is now £9,000 a year, and I’m not sure what you get to do these days without a Masters (I have two and am not especially overwhelmed with job offers). Then there’s the cost of Continuing Professional Development, to finally get to learn what they don’t teach you at school, keep up-to-date with the latest trends and do some crucial networking – all the conferences, courses and seminars that employers don’t necessarily put you forward to attend and are difficult to afford as a freelancer. And then there’s the ever-increasing sector precarity – zero-hour contracts becoming the norms in museums and venues, artist fees not quite a given, short-term and freelance contracts replacing secure jobs in organisations of all sizes. Not to mention the bullying, socio-economic and ethnic discrimination, unpaid internships

Maybe I should just stick to the brief: what I do, how I got there, what I like about it and what kind of skills I need to do my job, a few simple points to be covered in 5-10 minutes.

Maybe I should also remember that it’s not just about convincing kids that my job is the best. There’s a huge opportunity to make them realise that if working in arts & culture is a serious occupation, alongside all the other professions represented that day – people working in health, sport, law, IT and insurance – it’s because it’s important in everyone’s everyday life. Art is for life, not just for school, as this Guardian Teacher Network blogger eloquently puts it: even in the few schools that still offer arts subjects, young people are stigmatised for choosing them, even though the transferable skills and increased self-confidence alone should be reasons enough to encourage them.

As early as primary school, dance, art and drama were offered in clubs because they aren’t the “real subjects” that we need for “big school”… There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects… But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom… The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.


So, to answer the questions:

What does a Festival & Arts Coordinator do?

I organise festivals with music, art, theatre, food… and also smaller events, like writing workshops, one-off concerts and guided walks across the city.

I work with artists, venues and schools to create these events, then with designers and journalists to make sure that the event looks good and that people know about it.

Some festivals last 10 days and can take 1 or 2 years and a huge team to prepare. On the day of the event, I make sure that everything goes according to plan – there’s always something that goes wrong, from the weather to the main artist being stuck in a traffic jam, but it’s part of the job to fix all these problems, and usually no one even knows about what happens backstage!

How do you become a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

There are many ways – but you really need to love art and music, enjoy working with lots of people, be very organised and also happy to do things that are quite unusual or unexpected – it’s never the same every day!

I studied Humanities – English, French, German, Philosophy, History, Art… and Business Management, then I started working on a tourism conference. My first festival job was with the Manchester Jazz Festival, which was perfect for me because I love music – I played the piano, violin and guitar when I was younger, now I’m learning the cello.

There are a lot of different festivals – it could be about sport, food, theatre, film – it can also be a bit of everything at once. The best way to get experience and see if you like it is to volunteer for a festival: it’s fun, you’ll meet lots of people and you’ll get to see how it works from the inside.

What are the best things about being a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

  • It’s fun – I meet lots of people, I listen to a lot of live music, sometimes I also get travel to other festivals.
  • It’s very varied – one day I could be choosing the image for the brochure cover, another day visiting a venue with an artist to check that their band will fit on the stage, or training a team of volunteers.
  • It makes people happy – that’s really the best part of the job and it’s worth all the hard work.

What did you like at primary school that led to you becoming a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

Every year my primary school would put on a School Fair, a whole day of games, food, music to celebrate the end of the year. The children worked all year on a performance for the Fair – it could be theatre, dance or singing… I really loved the whole day – all the parents and children would be there, and older children who used to be at my school would come back just for that day because it was so much fun. I loved that we prepared for it all year – the children doing a show, the parents preparing food to sell at the stalls or making up games, like sack race, egg in spoon race, coconut shy … and then on the day everything and everyone would come together.


(image: Josef Franz, from an exhibition I saw recently at MAK Vienna)

John Tusa’s Arts Management Anti-Lexicon


The need to find and use language about the arts that belongs to the arts is as great as ever… The language of the arts must not be the language of management, business or the civil service. We need our own words to define our needs and activities, not an externally imposed lexicon of objectives, outcomes and deliverables in which a sense of purpose becomes a ‘direction of travel’, a difficulty always becomes a ‘challenge’, a dilemma mutates into an ‘issue’, serving your audience becomes ‘maximising stakeholder value’, and clarity and meaning dissolve into fogs of evasion or obfuscation.

John Tusa, Pain in the Arts

Just as I’ve finished to read Engaged with the Arts: Writing from the Frontline, a 2007 series of essays by John Tusa reflecting on his experience as an arts leader after a decade at the helm of the Barbican Centre – a lucky find in my local Oxfam bookshop – he’s already published another book, titled Pain in the Arts, to add his two cents to the debate about the future of arts funding.

The Arts Desk has published a few extracts, from which I’ve borrowed the following anti-lexicon – a damning take on recent developments in arts management lingo.

  • Assessment: “Employed as a justification for excessive intrusion and attempts at supervision.”
  • Benchmark: “A reductive notion that eliminates creative differences and variations.”
  • Customer: “Gone are ‘audience’, ‘listener’, ‘viewer’, ‘passenger’, ‘patient’, ‘traveller’, or any of a dozen different activities and relationships that define a myriad of distinct and particular transactions. ‘Customer’ is literally a one-size-fits-all concept, diminishing particularity and difference.”
  • Discourse: “A pretentious, poshed-up kind of word to describe discussion, debate or any kind of extended intellectual exchange.”
  • Engage: “Why not ‘get involved’?”
  • Holistic: “A grand-sounding word inviting approval of an elevated underlying concept but meaning less than ‘taking many things into account together’. Speakers who use ‘holistic’ are usually trying to bolster a threadbare argument.”
  • Impact (as in “impact studies”): “Here intellectual or artistic activity must demonstrate its case for support by proving in numerical terms that it yields a real ‘impact’ for society, usually social or economic.”
  • Legacy: “Increasingly deployed as a wrap-around word to demand support for a long-term project that it usually failed to deliver.”
  • Narrative: “When I heard an interviewee saying he had been advised by his HR director to improve the way he ‘edited his personal narrative’ – that is, ‘talking about himself at interview’ – it was was clear how far this rot had gone.”
  • Synergy: “A purely hopeful, pre-emptive word, inviting support for actions that claim to deliver hyped claims of success. Whether ‘synergies’ are delivered is rarely examined after the event.”
  • Transformational: “It very rarely proves to be.”

And this is – already – how John Tusa concluded, 7 years ago, his “New ABC of the Arts” in Engaged with the Arts, an update on his 1999 “A to Z of Running an Arts Centre”:

Maybe it’s just me but the shift in the alphabet towards a much fuller, more rigorous, more comprehensive, more demanding set of administrative and managerial criteria is real enough. Some are nonsense. Some are needlessly onerous. Some can actively distort the core purposes of the arts. But they won’t go away. The skill of arts management is to turn the awkward, obfuscating and bureaucratic alphabet into a language that truly serves the arts and their audiences.


Klassik im Club

Tools of the Trade

I am preparing a workshop on audience development for jazz promoters in the North of England, and to procrastinate in a productive way, I have decided to research case studies for a completely different genre. Classical music has its own challenges, and even if the initiatives below don’t apply fully to a different context, there is a transferable lesson to be drawn from their success: they are offering audiences not a new content, but a new way to experience it.

There are plenty of questions about the future of classical audiences in this lecture given by music critic Alex Ross to the Royal Philharmonic Society – considering the etiquette, rules on applause, participation… – which the examples below address in their own way. Too expensive, too stuffy, too complicated, too boring: no wonder audiences are not flocking to the concert hall, unless these perceived barriers are efficiently removed.

The price factor: tsoundcheck

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) offers $14 tickets (about £9) to audience members aged 15-35. The scheme, called tsoundcheck, has its own microsite, a dedicated ticket desk on concert nights and even a subscription series. Only selected performances are available for tsoundcheck members – so no Lang Lang at $14 – but they also get offers on concerts outside the scheme. Online registration is mandatory, which is perfect to track audience behaviour. The very nice touch in this scheme is that tsoundcheck members can purchase 2 tickets, and there is no age restriction for their guest. Last time I went with a friend, I bought me a drink at the venue and we were pretty much even. Members also get their own parties, with a chance to mingle with musicians and sponsors like any other symphony patron, and they are encouraged to volunteer to support the education and outreach efforts of the TSO.

From the TSO Media Room:

With over 24,000 TSOUNDCHECK tickets being sold annually (and over 10% the TSO’s total ticket sales being from TSOUNDCHECK members), the TSO audience is one of the youngest and most diverse in classical music.

Cheap tickets for younger audiences are quite the norm in orchestra marketing, but what makes this scheme special is the membership system, the dedicated website and the subscription offers, that all add up to offer an easy transition from non-audience to regular subscriber. The age range is also considerably extended compared to other discount offers, which are usually up to 25 or, at a push, 30.

tsoundcheck offers can be announced 1 week before the performance, so one would suspect that it’s also a good way to paper the house (i.e. get bums on seats) for slow-sellers, but this last-minute mode can also appeal to an audience that sees going to the symphony as just one of their activities and like to seize such bargains.

The TSO season is full of interesting takes on changing the audience experience, such as the Afterworks series (earlier, shorter and with free mini-burgers) and the Exposed: What Makes it Great?® (puzzingly ‘registered’) series, where “each program features a first half of discussion and demonstration from the featured work, followed by a full performance of the piece.”

The beer factor: The Night Shift 

Drinks are always welcome, even encouraged, at our events and we’ve ditched those irksome classical rules – so feel free to drink, cough, clap or even boo when you like.

This is coming from an orchestra that plays only with period instruments – but also that ran a series of photos entitled ‘Not all audiences are the same’, featuring musicians and audience members, as in the example below. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has made it his mission to change the rules and break the conventions, as shows their take on audience development.

The Night Shift also gets its own microsite, describing the series as a “unique classical night brought to you by the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment”: “Running since 2006, it puts great classical music in a different context; Late-night, laid-back and contemporary. An hour-long classical concert, presented from the stage is the centrepiece, but is bookended by other live performances and DJs.”

Concerts can also take place in unconventional venues, for classical music at least, such as the Pub Tour, which initial season last year saw OAE playing “in 5 packed pubs across London, bringing Purcell, Pints and Pork scratchings to your local”. A crowdfunding campaign is about to be launched to support the next Pub Tour, fittingly for an ensemble that plays so close to its audience.

A case study available on cultural marketing knowledge hub Culture Hive  explains the origin of the Night Shift, springing from a 2005 series called Listening in Paris that “examined the radical change in concert going that occurred in 18th and 19th century Paris – a period which saw audiences transformed from being rowdy and irreverent into the quiet well behaved ones we know today”

The idea to experiment with the experience of listening to music came next, and OAE launched the first Night Shift in 2006. Here are a few key points taken from the case study:

  • Constant evaluation, important in securing funding for the event and also in monitoring audience satisfaction.
  • Crucially this is a sustained programme. We only got the produce ‘right’ at the third event. In order for a programme like this to be successful, we believe that a sustained approach to programming is necessary, rather than mounting a one-off event.
  • This kind of programme is an investment. Return on marketing is lower than for a traditional concert as this audience is harder to reach.
  • Be aware of events and periods that may impact on the target audiences ability to attend i.e. we try not to schedule events outside of university term time
  • Make it fun.

The next Night Shift event, at historical Wilton’s Music Hall, is priced at £12 advance, £15 on the door, £4 students – another factor that makes it easily accessible.

OAE has also launched a new series called The Works,  “the classical music equivalent of a museum audio-guide, taking you through the piece step-by-step. Afterwards there’s a Q+A with the Orchestra and then a full performance of the music.” The event is sometimes followed by a speed dating session with the orchestra members, allowing 1-to-1 interaction between patrons and players.

The club factor: Yellow Lounge

Yellow Lounge brings classical music bang up-to-date, leaving a trail of twin-sets, pearls and grey suits in its wake.

Established seven years ago in the Berlin club scene, Yellow Lounge took the classical rule book and tore it up before ingeniously stitching it back together.

Kicking and screaming, flashing and dancing, Yellow Lounge fuses the greatest international performers with cutting-edge DJ and VJ sets in a variety of urban spaces.

Experience the evolution of music.

If it all sounds rather threatening, it could be because Yellow Lounge is not just a late-night classical series, but also a Universal MusicDeutsche Grammophon initiative (hence the colour), and it has a certain corporate whiff about it. Launched in 2001 in a Berlin club, the event is now happening in London and Paris, as well as Amsterdam, Salzburg, Zürich, Vienna, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Dublin – and more. Programmed in iconic clubs such as Fabric (London), Berghain (Berlin) or Batofar (Paris), the event is priced at £6 / €10 for advance tickets, again significantly lowering the price barrier generally associated with classical music. Berlin organiser David Canisius explain in this interview that such low prices are made possible by the association with DG, from which roaster the artists are regularly taken: Hélène Grimaud, Emerson String Quartett, Daniel Hope, Magdalena Kožená, Hilary Hahn, Andreas Scholl, Albrecht Mayer…

Whereas tsoundcheck and Night Shift aim at building a new type of relationship between audience members and an orchestra, Yellow Lounge seem to be shifting the focus on the crowd – the club experience is a collective one – and the star performers. Interestingly, the ‘About’ section on Yellow Lounge Facebook page identifies the barrier for new, younger audiences as “the main audience at classical concerts, predominantly grey haired people in grey suits”, and the biggest challenges for newcomers as “how to dress right, how to behave properly, how to know when to applaud”. Their solution: programme classical music in conditions familiar to the clubbing audience, from bouncers to VJs.

New Yellow Lounge websites are popping up for the varied national scenes they serve, and the event is of course very active on social media, with a dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter accounts per country.

Here is British violinist Daniel Hope at techno club Berghain, which, accordint to Wikipedia, “has a strong reputation for decadence and hedonism” – and plenty more photos that prove that classical music is not that stuffy after all.

Daniel Hope & Friends @ Yellow Lounge,  23JAN11 Berghain © Stefan Hoederath