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Managing Cultural Sector Projects: Tips & Best Practices

One of the exciting things about project management is the variety of different types of projects available to work on. 

From building construction to product development, event management to process design, there is no limit to the number of fields where the craft is applied. 

While a lot of project management involves applying a standard set of processes, tools, and techniques to unique and challenging processes, it is also important to remember that in some fields different and specific considerations are encountered that need to be kept in mind.  For example, a project to oversee the redesign and renovation of a corporate office space is going to be very different from a project to develop a mobile app for a trade show conference.  Knowing some of the specific differences for certain areas will help PM’s to successfully manage projects in those sectors.  

One area with very specific project management needs is the cultural sector.  Cultural project management is a growth area with some distinctive considerations that are unique to the field.  This article set out to provide a few tips and best practices for managing cultural projects.  Four experts in the field of cultural science and cultural management were consulted.  All four are university academics and active, expert practitioners in the field.  They were asked a series of questions surrounding a single topic- What should project managers know and keep in mind when managing projects in the cultural sector? 

What is the Cultural Sector?

The cultural sector is a wide field, consisting of a multitude of various areas and activities.  While a single, defining, and agreed upon definition is hard to pin down, the cultural sector is most often associated with the arts.  This includes areas such as music, film, literature, fine arts, theater, music, dance, and other such creative endeavors.  Activities in these fields are associated with institutions such as theaters, galleries, and museums. Part of what makes the field so difficult to define is that cultural patterns can be found everywhere.   

One of the most unique elements surrounding activities in the cultural sector is the intention of connecting with emotions and experiential activities associated with and evoking deep feelings. 

There is a lot of grey area when discussing the cultural sector.  For example, debate exists as to the inclusion of both for profit and not for profit activities.  There is also a lack of agreement regarding the inclusion of areas defined as creative industries and cultural activities. Simply put, a checklist of items to define activities in the cultural sector does not exist and the field boundaries are open to interpretation. 

What is much easier than defining culture and the cultural sector is identifying the possible types of projects in the area, as well as the potential applications of project management.  Some typical examples of cultural sector projects involve events within the field, such as performances and shows, exhibitions, performances, and festivals.  Other cultural sector projects involve the production of cultural works.  However, even when projects in the cultural sector are event projects, they still have some very unique considerations to attend to and differences from events in other fields, such as sports or entertainment. 

Managing Cultural Sector Projects

All of the consulted experts focus on different areas of specialization within the cultural sector.  Still, throughout our conversations several common themes arose in the content of the discussions.  While managing projects in the cultural sector can be seen as an area of specialization itself, with no shortage of best practices, the following five items ascended to the top of the list as things for professional project managers to keep in mind when managing cultural sector projects:

  1.      Audience Consideration
  2.      Planning & Execution
  3.      Agility in Project Financial Management
  4.      Special Issues in Project Team Management
  5.      Varying Objectives

Audience Consideration

The output of cultural sector project activities is produced for consumption by audiences.  While the cultural sector itself is very wide, the audience for specific cultural sector projects can be very, very narrow.  Unlike other types of projects produced for an audience, cultural projects do more than deliver a service like entertaining people.  These projects raise questions, change awareness, and have strong aesthetical implications. 

Audience consideration goes deeper than just looing at differences in taste and interest.  The ability of a target audience to imagine and relate to the content must also be considered.  The level of sophistication leads to varying degrees of engagement.  For example, not everyone can engage equally in an exhibition of 14th century French art.  While a wider audience may enjoy it aesthetically, a much smaller audience, with specific interest and background knowledge, will be able to enjoy and appreciate an accompanying discussion on the works by an art historian. 

These types of considerations are addressed during the initiating and planning stages of project development.  Because cultural projects are very concerned with engaging an audience, it is important to match the levels of the output with the audience’s ability during the initial concept planning stages. 

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Planning & Execution

Another area of unique consideration in managing cultural sector projects is that activities in this area have vastly different skillsets when it comes to the areas of project planning and project execution.  The specific terminology in the cultural sector for these areas is programming and production. 

Programming is most similar to planning, and comes before production in cultural sector project development.  Activities in this area include developing a time schedule, budgeting, venue selection, and the host of other items that need to be done to plan the project.  Production is most similar to project execution, and presents very different questions to solve.  Production also involves areas such as security coordination, operation of technical equipment, plus other items in addition to the actual creation of the primary output and deliverables. 

While there are strong similarities between programming & production and the activities of planning & execution, divergences occur when considering the skills of the individuals involved in them.  In cultural project management, programming and production are two very different areas and with significantly different qualifications.  Ideally, people who want to develop proficiency in cultural project management need to cultivate skills in both areas.  Practically speaking, a when managing such projects a good project manager should work to facilitate collaboration, communication, and interactions between the two camps. 

Agility in Project Financial Management

Cultural sector projects regularly involve multiple, complex sources of funding.  Admissions, grants, endowments, subvention, and patronage are just some of the many sources.  The processes involved in receiving the funds do not follow a regular schedule and are frequently late.  Even spending can be erratic due to common occurrences like last minute programming changes.  Subsidies sometimes come in after an event is over and festivals often have lineup changes.  

These issues combine to create a lot of uncertainty in the financial management of cultural sector projects.  Project managers need to be agile in the areas of budgeting and financial management.  Monetary considerations for cultural sector projects will require more, and more frequent, attention due to the continuous changes and adjustments that are experienced. 

Special Issues in Project Team Management

In addition to working with cultural sector professionals on projects in their fields, many projects will involve non-professionals as well.  Those non-professionals present special issues and challenges in managing the project team. 

Volunteers are a key component of many cultural projects, particularly with larger events such as festivals.  Many of the team members who do receive compensation are not paid very much.  In both cases, a good portion of the team can accurately be described as underpaid and highly motivated.  Their reasons for involvement stem from intrinsic motivations to be a part of the project rather than from financial compensation as their primary objective.  Team members of these sorts can easily experience frustration and a loss of motivation if not carefully managed. 

When working with these team members, management needs to engage them frequently and keep their actual motivations in mind.   Space needs to be made to allow them to identify with the topic of the project, while at the same time making sure that their roles, responsibilities, and limits on their functions are clearly defined.  Most importantly, management needs to treat them in a friendly way, showing appreciation for their effort. 

Varying Objectives

All types of projects are more likely to achieve successful outcomes if the goals and objectives are known and kept in mind.  This is true for projects in the cultural sector as well.  However, those goals and objectives can be considerably different from projects in other fields.

Motivations usually go far beyond profits for cultural projects.  Festivals, for example, are more of a gathering rather than a vehicle to sell tickets and generate revenue.  Exhibitions are held with the intention of inviting artists in order to build discourse.  Events can operate with the objective to reach new audiences so as to legitimize future public funding.  Other altruistic aims are societal influences through communication of topics like anti-racism and anti-sexism.

Whatever the included goals of a project are, they need to be explicitly clarified.  Project managers should make a full effort to understand the goals and objectives of the project owner.  Those goals need to be communicated, articulated, understood, and kept front of mind throughout the project lifecycle. 

Managing projects in the cultural sector presents many more differences and uniquely challenging elements as well.  No amount of advice can replace experience, but some guidance can help to achieve success while that experience is being developed.  Cultural projects also have the potential to be rewarding and inspiring endeavors to work on.  The cultural sector contributes to society and its members.  The successful management of projects in the sector can help to further the depth and reach of that contribution.

Mark Romanelli

Mark Romanelli is a full-time lecturer in the Sports, Culture, and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. His curriculum includes courses in Project Management and Strategic Project Development. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management.

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