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A Day in the Life of a Performing Arts Administrator

Many people see the performing arts as a refuge from the financially motivated corporate world. Performing arts administrators, however, know that the success of a show, a troupe, or a theater is often determined long before the audience shushes and the lights go down. The world of business and the world of art come together in the office of the performing arts administrator. A PAA controls the finances of a company or a theater, with the goal of producing exciting and profitable performances. A performance arts administrator often acts as an artistic director, guiding the focus of a season’s shows and hiring directors, and as an internal accountant/promoter/publicist/manager, controlling all the financial decisions that affect a theater, from allocating a budget for props to hiring a janitorial crew to clean up after each show. A PAA has to make difficult decisions that may be unpopular with directors, performers, and audiences. “You’re always the man in the black hat” wrote one PAA. “Most of the time you’re out there trying to get money, publicity, press coverage, and reviews,” he said, adding that networking, pitching to supporters of the arts, lining up talent, and negotiating non-essential contracts all contribute to the value of the end product. A number of PAAs come to the profession as former directors, producers, actors, and technical theater personnel, familiar with the day-to-day workings of a performance but unfamiliar with its finances. This education in “creative financing,” as one wrote us, seems to satisfy the need for innovation that many in this profession feel. A PAA can work long hours, particularly for a small theater. Many firmly believe in their houses’ potential profitability; a number invest their own money in struggling or failing concerns. Some PAAs are hired for their contacts and not for their decision-making abilities or their knowledge of the arts. This is one position where a good “rainmaker” can make an enormous difference to a theater or a troupe. Why do people do this? “It’s not for the money,” wrote one, and others agreed. Performing arts administrators, except at the most prestigious houses and companies, receive unsatisfying wages. They do it because it needs to be done. They love the arts, they want to contribute, and they can. One respondent said, “you work a long day and then, sometimes at night, you open the door to a world that makes people feel alive. That’s what everybody should be doing.” This level of satisfaction is what keeps many in the profession, even as they struggle with financial concerns.

Paying Your Dues

Contacts are important, and, although there are no specific educational requirements, many PAAs take advantage of the contacts they made in college or graduate school. Some attend college and manage theaters there, making sure their studies include finance, economics, drama, and accounting. A great number enter the acting, directing, or technical ends of theater production and gravitate to back-office positions as they find the competition fierce and their interests wandering. Most job-related education takes place on the fly, so PAAs should be quick studies with tact, professionalism, and interpersonal skills. Aspiring PAAs often have to relocate to cities where theater has a large market, generally urban environments, such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Many find it helpful to take a course in theater finance sponsored by a local university.

Present and Future

Historically, financial decisions at theaters, theatrical companies, and production houses were made on an ad hoc basis, with the company focusing on the needs of the day rather than on its long-term viability. PAAs became an integral part of the artistic process in the 20th century with the acknowledgment that a great portion of theater is business, and with the recognition of the need for financial management of shoe-string production companies. Opportunities for PAAs are driven not only by demand for artistic product and available jobs, but also by government and institutional support for the arts. This changes from year-to-year, and government belt-tightening traditionally makes art a prime target for the budget ax. Then again, this career has always been one in which people pursue longshot events with uncertain payoffs, so the uncertain future for this career may be no deterrent at all to the aspiring PAA.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Early in the profession, many PAAs work as producer’s assistants, or as PAA aides, taking notes, fielding phone calls, and handling the administrative work that keeps a theater open. They become familiar with box-office accounting and the basics of promotion; organize fund-raisers, mailings and events; and generally handle the work that the PAA cannot get to. Relationships in the theater can be intense, and many respondents noted that there is no distinction between a personal “social” life and a professional “social” life. Many spend hours making industry contacts. Hours are long; salaries are low.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year PAAs have learned how to “schmooze”-how to approach financially flush patrons of the arts and encourage them to commit funds to their projects. Grant writing skills are also part of the PAA’s skill-set. PAAs begin to make a salary that doesn’t require them to take another job. Still, knowing the theater company’s internal finances can lead to some sleepless nights. Hours are long, satisfaction is high.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year veterans describe their experiences as ranging from “blissful” to “execrable” depending on the fate of the ship to which they’ve tied themselves. Many have moved to a larger company with a longer history and more established financial contacts, or to a position where the artistic director and the PAA see more eye-to-eye. Hours remain stable. A PAA’s personal and professional lives become even more indistinguishable.