“We need to unlearn the ways in which we learned in the past.”
In this interview, Alan Salzenstein (De Paul University, Chicago) and Martin Zierold (Karlshochschule International University, Karlsruhe) talk about the relevance of teaching transformation skills to arts management students.
Dear Alan, Martin, in your presentation at the 10th annual conference of the German Association for Arts Management in Weimar, Germany you argued that education programmes for arts management need to focus more on teaching transformation skills. Why do you think this is needed?
Martin Zierold: It is a truism that we live in a time of fundamental transformation on many levels: cultural, technological, political, social, ecological you name it. This has major implications for arts institutions and thus, for arts managers. Many study programmes are already very good in reflecting these issues, at least on a factual and operative level. To give a rather trivial example: our students know that marketing today needs to embrace the digital, they know how social media works etc. What they oftentimes do not know and what we do not really teach, is how they can bring this knowledge into life in organizations that are often very old, hierarchical and conservative at least in the German context.
Alan, you mentioned in your talk that you see similar challenges from the North American perspective. What is the central challenge in your view? Why is it so hard to acknowledge that change might be needed to actually changing something in an organization?
Alan Salzenstein: It seems to be human nature to fight against change, perhaps because change requires moving from a comfort zone to something new or different. We fear failure; and change can lead us to failure. Yet we can simultaneously acknowledge that change is necessary. It is typically easier to maintain the status quo and avoid risk than to face the possibility of failure through change. This conundrum is the central challenge. Arts organizations must be extremely dynamic, nimble, and responsive to the external forces that Martin touched upon cultural, technological, political, social, etc. And yet, when we train arts managers, we tend to focus on perfunctory knowledge (accounting principles, marketing plans, human resources, facility operations, etc.), with less importance on developing skills necessary to be nimble and flexible. As educators, we need to unlearn the ways in which we learned in the past; in order to focus on the knowledge base AND the skills that allow for boldness and decision-making. This is not simply managing change, but providing the tools to evaluate, innovate, and direct organizational development.
Martin: I also find that traditional change management is very often not helpful. It still sees change as a project with a clear starting and end point and focusses mainly on structural issues, but ignoring the complexities of contemporary organizations and also the psychological aspects of change. We can prepare students for these challenges better, and we actually can and should teach them more on how transformation processes in organizations work in a holistic way with impulses from organizational sociology, psychology and communication studies etc.
If this succeeds, what could be the role of young professionals in arts organisations to actually foster process of unlearning, new learning and thus, change?
Martin: I hear from our alumni, even from students in internships that they experience a lot of things where they feel they could bring in new ideas, give impulses to improve the organizations they are in. Yet they often end up being frustrated, because they experience a real reluctance to change. And especially in a context of internships, they structurally are not in a position to really do something about it: everybody knows that they will be leaving again soon.
Alan: Time is a key element when discussing the impact of young professionals in arts organizations. Time is required to gain perspectives, recognize consequences, learn organizational culture, understand stakeholder interests all needed in order to successfully implement new ideas. While young professionals may feel frustrated that their ideas are falling upon deaf ears (reluctance to change), they must realize that time is necessary to completely comprehend the interests and consequences of their ideas, within the culture of the organization. This is related to the value we place on internships. Internships are a worthwhile component of most arts management academic studies, providing students a glimpse of day-to-day operations, where they can learn professionalism and work ethic, build their own professional networks, learn project-based skills and begin to integrate their education with practice. But by their very nature, internships do not provide the time to gain the immersive experience required to truly understand an organizations culture. This type of experiential learning calls upon greater and deeper collaborations between arts organizations and academic institutions, where longer term, immersive experiences can be provided.
Many arts organizations already collaborate with academic programmes on a project level, but this deep integration that you describe seems to be rather rare. How do you think could this approach be scaled, so that it is not just an individual project of one or two universities with one or two institutions? What would have to change in universities and arts organizations that programmes like these get to be more common?
Alan: Providing students with opportunities to learn while immersed and deeply engaged in an organization can only strengthen the skills associated with decision-making, information processing, and problem solving. The special needs and distinctive culture possessed by each organization must be understood in order to perceptively operate within its unique constructs. Leadership within organizations must recognize the value of their work as laboratories for the next generation of arts leaders. It is not enough to mentor or to work within an organization (as valuable as that is) it is the combination of academic studies coupled with deep engagement within an arts organization that can result in stronger, more sophisticated arts managers as they enter the field. There is a natural synergy between academic programmes and arts organisations that should be explored and developed. Programmes benefit through student experience and complementing the academic training; and arts organisations benefit by being the catalyst for a more prepared arts management workforce.