Barry Hessenius

This week arts interview talks to someone who has a unique perspective on the arts industry – another blogger. Barry Hessenius, of Barry’s blog, has a readership of around 10,000 arts administrators from the United States and across the globe. Barry discusses what he feels are critical issues facing those in the industry and each week he shares common concerns and discusses ideas, all with an element of humour. In January, Barry posted a piece on job advertisements in the arts that we felt was worth further discussion, so we asked Barry for a moment of his time.

Interview by Kim Goodwin

You say in your post that job advertisements are firstly generic, but secondly unrealistic – in what way are these advertisements unrealistic? Is it not fair to look for well rounded, experienced arts professionals?

It was, of course, meant as tongue-in-cheek satire, so looking for well-rounded and experienced arts professionals is not only fair, but the only rational option. But the advertisements themselves are all the same and on the surface it would appear that the employers are looking for some “perfect” candidate that likely does not exist. Let’s be real – the “ideal” candidate that meets that kind of job description probably already has a job – one paying far more than the one being offered. I think in order to better match qualified candidates to jobs that they would be a good fit for, the descriptions should be a little more honest in what the job is and what the challenges are, and those doing the hiring should be a little more open to the qualifications of candidates in trying to determine who could, in practice, do the job well. I also think that those doing the hiring might at least consider taking a little more risk in terms of whom they ultimately hire and not rely so much on past experience as the only determinant of consideration.

How often would you say that arts organisations “settle” for the best they can get? 

If their expectations are unrealistic and ill thought out – then 95% of the time. What choice is there? There are few really fully developed, spectacular, gifted, visionary, experienced, dynamic, charismatic leaders in any field. That does not mean that the rest of the candidate pool is not qualified, is not competent and is not capable of growing and learning, and developing into true leaders. The point is that what arts organisations should probably be looking for are diamonds in the rough as it were – potentially gifted leaders and managers. And take a little risk on them. I think personal chemistry is not an unimportant criterion to consider. On the other hand, organisations that look for candidates that are a good match in terms of the skill sets the candidates have, as related to the challenges that the organisation faces. Understand that for the most part employment at their organisation is part of a longer and larger career trajectory for the candidates and appreciate that they offer an ecosystem in which rising stars in the field can cut their teeth, gain experience and become outstanding administrators and managers – then those organisations very likely find new hires very close to what they want – and in that sense do not “settle” at all.

Realistically, how many arts organisation recruit primarily through networks and relationships, making the advertisement more an act of compliance rather than a real tool to uncover emerging talent? 

I think that is probably correct. I have no idea about the statistics, but I would suspect that most organisations that hire a search firm, or that advertise widely and prefer national searches, do not get that much larger or better a final candidate pool than they otherwise would have.

Do you think there is value for arts organisations to invest in better human resources or talent management techniques?

Value? Absolutely. The problem is one of cost. The current economic constraints all but prohibit that kind of investment. While it is always challenging to find the right person for a given position, at least in America, it is a buyer’s market at the moment. Supply exceeds demand, with more qualified candidates than positions available.

Retention is a harder challenge for a number of reasons, chief among them that most small to medium sized organisations have limited advancement opportunities for their employees. They have relatively small teams, people in the higher or supervisorial positions do not tend to retire or move on all that frequently, baby boomers are finding that it is more difficult financially for them to retire (and many do not want to anyway), and thus, the openings for the younger cohort of arts administrators are fewer and farther between. That results in lateral advancement, which is not often available either, to other organisations as the only viable option to move up the ladder, or move out of the field altogether – which is a problem for all of us. In several studies, including one I authored on Youth Involvement in the Arts for the Hewlett Foundation, we found that while the inability of arts organisations to pay even a living wage to younger employees was an issue in retention, it was not as important to that cohort as their career trajectory, mentoring opportunities, meaningful work, the chance for early decision making responsibility and to learn on the job, and a convivial working environment.

As to better talent management techniques, I think we have a long way to go. In terms of providing professional development opportunities for our people to enhance their skills and become better administrators or managers, we are woefully inadequate. To the extent we offer any training opportunities, they are extremely limited (e.g. we offer fundraising training, but not such things as “how to be a better listener”). And while there are university degree programs in arts administration, there are too few easily accessible, affordable, on demand training options to the average arts worker.

Interested in further reading on roles and jobs in the arts?