There are many tales of internal politics in the arts. Most of us at arts interview have experienced, or have at least heard, of a person, project or organisation that has been derailed by internal, ongoing, unresolved political conflict. So, we have asked someone with a long-term commitment to the arts to share a little of their personal experience, the personal and professional impact of internal politics. To allow our interviewee to be really honest we are keeping their identity a secret.

Anonymous interviewed by Eliza Muldoon

What examples of overtly political workplace behaviour have you witnessed in the arts organisations?

One is management being funny or awkward about talented, hard-working colleagues. In some people they identify it and totally support it, in others they denigrate it, make that person’s life difficult and do not support or nurture that person’s career, they may even go so far as to virtually block their career. This may just be their subjective (‘objective’) opinion of that person’s talent in that workplace, but it may also be a reflection of the boss’ own personal and professional anxieties and fears.

In your experience what kinds of politics are Australian arts organisations particularly susceptible to?

If you consider money a political issue (it is hard not to), then I think Australian arts organisations in particular are susceptible to the idea of ‘not-for-profit’ salary mentalities, whether they are not-for-profit or not. Having come from a not-for-profit background I certainly seem to maintain the mentality that I should work hard, long hours for ‘free’. I now realise that senior management are probably not being paid that ‘arts salary’ – though I can never be sure, I do not really know. I actually do not know what a decent ‘art salary’ is in the not-for-profit sector, but I am aware that an arts administration salary is nonetheless greater than what many artists receive.

I am now challenging myself to ask for more money when previously I never would have, and figure that they can just say no if they cannot afford it. I hate finding out that other people – sometimes more junior than me, were being paid more simply because they demanded it. I find that very demoralising, but at the same time I get annoyed with them for being so demanding.

What is an example of an extreme issue that you have seen in an arts organisation?

In small arts organisations an all-too-common example is yelling and bullying. In some of the examples I have seen, it is because the organisation exists to fulfill the director’s vision and that same director calls all the shots, sometimes aggressively. There is no human resources coordinator or department to keep them in check. There are some people in such organisations that can stand up to these people, and I admire them for that. I wish I could do it, but it is not in my nature. Sometimes I challenge myself to speak up to defend myself or state that I feel wronged, in the same way I try to challenge myself to ask for a greater salary. But I think standing up for myself in the workplace is not something I will ever be able to do. It makes me really uncomfortable and I absolutely abhor confrontation. I guess that is a lot of the personality crossing over into the professional, I guess you do ‘take yourself’ with you to work!

What have been your own responses to workplace politics? How has it impacted you personally and professionally? 

Unfortunately my personal response to workplace politics is to get upset, feel oppressed, anxious and powerless. I put in a lot of effort and I am committed to my jobs/career and when I feel that I am being unfairly targeted and even bullied I take it very personally. Despite people saying ‘do not take it personally’, it is hard not to. I have also felt physical effects such as stomach in knots, fast heart rate, no appetite etc. Generally such experiences have left me feeling a bit ‘clouded’ unable to see or think clearly.

During the really difficult times I have found that it impacted my personal life to the point of shaping my character and the kind of person I am to be around. At those times my conversations were always on a ‘downer’, always recounting work scenarios where I felt bullied or powerless.

The professional impact is that it makes me doubt my ability and myself. I find that I become nervous or apprehensive about doing things that I have previously felt confident about, particularly when I know other people can see or hear me. One simple example is that during those times when I do most of my correspondence by email and if I do make a phone call, I will wait until the bosses and others are out as this way I am much more confident.

Now – with some hindsight and perspective – I basically see the management and interpersonal relationships of any workplace as an issue of personal preferences. People will, as much as possible, choose who they wish to work with, who they will be nice to and who they will tolerate.

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