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Strategic management and JAZZ improvisation as an inspiration


It was 13th of March 2020, when the last lecture and group work with the students of the Master’s degree programme in Arts management at the campus of Sibelius Academy, as part of the Strategic Management Course, took place. In that period, the news about the pandemic were more frequent and some alarming news were coming from China and Italy, but yet the cultural field in Finland, and similarly in the rest of the world, could not even imagine what was going to take place in the coming months and year.

During the same course, before 13th of March, we have been discussing the importance of the strategic management in organisational development, with all its elements, such as strategic thinking, strategic analyses (external and internal influences), governance structures, management values, the whole process of strategic planning, decisions, implementing, and evaluation. We also discussed why strategic management is important for different types of art organisations, including small, big, NGOs, start-ups, bands, orchestras, theatre groups, platforms, collectives, galleries, festivals, etc. Among other things, several authors that address the strategic management from arts organisations’ point of view were presented, including Verbanova Lidia (2017) and Serge Poisson – de Haro (2013). Both authors acknowledge that strategic management is a process that seeks to help managers make value-enhancing strategic decisions. In addition, it also helps in clearly defining the mission, vision and goals; to see the “big picture”; to prioritise programmes and activities and to choose the optimum way to balance the creative programming, management actions, marketing approach, audience engagement and fundraising models.

The last thing that we have discussed before 13th of March, on the same course, was how strategic management can help arts organisations in predicting unexpected factors and strategies to deal with it. The arts management students from the Strategic management course were analysing five arts organisations from Helsinki and among other things, they had an opportunity to talk to the leaders of these organisations about their strategic plans and to see if they have some plans for turning unpredictably challenging situations into predictably successful outcome.

Unfortunately, despite the encouragement to search for a “magic key”, most of the leaders of the arts organisations have realised the impossibility of such a quest. Only very few have good knowledge and understanding of what strategic management is about and how it can help them.

When we asked one of the mangers from these five Helsinki based arts organisations where many concerts, including jazz ones, are taking place, if they have a plan B for an urgent situation, as it was in Italy and China with the first lockdowns, the answer was that they do not have a plan and that they believe that nothing of that kind of urgency would happen. This has shown that some of the art managers can hardly see the “big picture” and not necessarily spend time on the strategic analyses of the external influences, see the potential risks, and make appropriate decisions.

The very same day, lockdowns started in Europe, Australia, America and Africa, and the world was struck by COVID 19. This new crisis has tremendously affected the arts and cultural field as well, and in particular the individual and organisations' operations. Most of the artists, arts organisations across the world made the decisions of lockdown, and many festivals, exhibitions, concerts, performances and other activities were cancelled. This situation brought the sector into great uncertainty and economic crises with prediction for long-term negative effects on the arts. Many of the artists and arts organisations tried to find a solution in this situation, by shifting and adapting their normal functioning into the digital platforms, which was strategically seen as a good choice. However, this has brought another problem, such as the issue of audience engagement and access, as well as the issue of production, distribution and monetarization of the arts products and goods.

After the first shock of the lockdown, and after realising that this crisis will last longer than anybody expected, many artists and arts managers felt that this could be a good time for reflection, re-thinking the purpose of their work and also reconceptualizing the way they operate. And this is exactly what strategic management is about, to analyse the past and current situation internally and externally, and to find the best possible solutions and make the right decisions for the future.

As mentioned previously, one of the things that came out from the lockdown of the arts and cultural organisations, projects, activities, events was the shift to digital production, distribution and consumption. However, this online adaptation and the dependence on digital tools and devises, also shows the lack of skills to use them, and has brought the topic of access and growing risk of exclusion for people suffering cultural, technological, educational, and economical poverty.

From the other side, this shift to the digital has shown a great possibility to develop new creative approaches in arts productions, distribution, consumption, and developing of technologies for these artistic and creative needs.

Another related issue, and one of the most challenging ones that the creative sector, and in particular artists, artistic groups and arts professionals are facing in the middle of the pandemic crises, is the monetarization of arts products and related services distributed and consumed online. This question is related to the content of the product, its production, but also the distribution and consumption. This question is directly linked to the value of arts and arts products, the relation to the audience and in general, to the cultural policy and the instruments that are created in these exceptional circumstances. However, the public policies in most of the countries are under extreme pressure to handle the health issue and economies and not much can be done to support the art production and distribution. Finland is not excluded in this regard. This current situation with the monetarization of arts and culture will most probably bring new forms of financing. Further research and debate most probably will include topics such as new taxations (support the art and culture), new financial instruments from the public bodies, local small initiatives (municipalities unite organising funds for arts projects), new models of financing (innovative new models, related to individuals, corporations, private funds, etc.) but also new business models.

Another emerging question that came with the “new reality” is the role of the cultural venues and spaces. Many of these well-known art organisations were locked down and were unable to find the right way to continue with their operation without financial consequences. Re-thinking and re-modelling of these cultural venues and spaces are needed. New community roles of cultural organisations are needed and this needs to be part of the new strategic plans.

The shock for the art field that came with pandemic situation has shown that many of the artists, arts managers and art organisations of different types, were immerged to find solutions, but in the same time, many of them struggle with the lack of strategic management skills, which reflects on the decisions they made such as not making any changes, remaining closed, and still not having created a plan B for the new circumstances we are all living in, etc. The current situation regarding professional strategic management in the art field can still be considered as challenging. Unfortunately, this process of strategic management is still seen very formal and static, as a traditional bureaucratic planning process which produces at the end a strategic plan, which is usually requested from the public bodies to get funds. In the contemporary understanding of strategic management, it should be a process with unique combination of vision, creativity, innovativeness, intuition, participative approaches, discipline, flexibility, and adaptability with the main purpose to help managers and teams to achieve their goals for the future and to make right decisions.

The preparation of a strategic plan, in this new understanding, should start with the question “Why I am doing what I am doing?” This sounds like cliché, and many people have resistance to this, but if one can look closely to it, many answers could come up that will help in shaping the orientation towards the future. Furthermore, the external and internal analyses of the influences on our working environment should take place. In addition, it should include the vision, mission, short- and mid-term goals for development, and one of the most important parts is the selection of strategies.

To begin with this process of strategic management, one should look for an inspiration to do so. Jazz music can serve as an endless source of inspiration for many of us for different purposes. Stories and experiences of jazz musicians could serve as a trigger that opens new perspectives into similar practices related to strategic management in arts organisations.

One of the very well-known stories is about Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, when Miles Davis heard him play a wrong note in a middle of a concert, but he continued to play his solo, adapting the ‘‘wrong’’ note so that it sounded correct.  One of the things that this situation can teach us, is that any bad or unpredicted situation can be turned into a good situation.

Davis did not search for causes of the wrong note, but he gently used it as material for building a possible new direction. Making the wrong note sound right, also offers to the others in the band the possibility to transform. And from the strategic management point of view, this is an example that shows what our attitudes should be when strategically thinking. It should be positive, innovative, adoptive, affirmative, and flexible.

Can we adopt this kind of attitude when strategically thinking of the COVID situation and our own position in it? Can we think of an innovative way for our artistic work, or models of management? Can we also be flexible in our operational models? What about our audiences, the financial models? Can we have this positive affirmative attitude towards the unknown situation that COVID brought us?

This kind of examples shows us that Jazz improvisation can serve as an inspiration for strategic thinking. But the question is, are art managers and even jazz musicians open and willing to learn from these examples in order to shift the mental maps, apply this knowledge in the everyday life and be able to change the attitudes and perspectives towards strategic thinking and their future orientation.



Dr. Violeta Simjanovska has more than 25 years of academic and working experience gained in the field of arts management and cultural policy in Europe and worldwide. Starting as an Electrical engineer, then jazz music festival manager, also as a general manager of a Performing Arts Research Centre, leading many international projects, working also as an expert, lecturer, professor and researcher in the past 15 years, that was the way of her transformation that took place in her personal interests and work focus.

At the moment, she is working as a Head of arts management department and Lecturer in Arts Management at Sibelius Academy, University of Arts Helsinki. In addition, she is working as a consultant and cultural expert on few international programmes, such as Creative Europe and Horizon 2020. She has published more than 40 articles, books and research reports in field of cultural policy and cultural management.