Arts management reshaping classical arts

The Business of Art: Arts management reshaping classical arts

By Lakshmi Anand

The last few years have seen arts management companies enter Indian classical arts - a field that has largely been unorganised. So, what is arts management? Arts management is about handling the business side of art, supporting artists in their careers, and ensuring a smooth process so artists can concentrate on creating. It involves developing the creative entity (art organisation and artists) managing them from start to finish, and convincing people to pay for the resulting artistic work.

Though India is replete in several unique and fascinating classical artforms, arts management in the classical arts is still a new concept that many artists and arts organisations do not understand and/or find hard to grapple with. An anathema to thinking of arts as a business, the old is gold belief of why change something that has worked for so many years, a lack of knowledge of the range of services professionals offer and, of course, the reluctance to pay professional fees for what has not been paid for to-date all appear to be reasons for hesitation.

The pandemic forced even the most recalcitrant in the industry into a rethink, proving a shot in the arm for these companies. An astute observer of the Carnatic music scene, Ramanathan Iyer, organiser, connoisseur and photographer, explains, “The lockdowns necessitated by Covid meant that public performances needed to be re-imagined and re-cast to suit the online space and its audio-visual ambience. Presentation aesthetics - never the strong point of many organisations - took a further beating. Many lacked basic awareness about cameras, lights, scheduling and spacing out content to avoid saturation. The result was a flood of poorly produced content, often with shoddy audio and video ruining the overall experience.” Increased awareness of such issues made arts organisations seek out professional expertise – arts management companies - to project and refashion themselves to the new normal.

Artspire and Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development Consultancy (SNS) were both born in 2017. Founded by Ramya Rajaraman, Artspire has staff in Chennai and Toronto and provides endto-end services for organisations and individuals engaged in the arts. These encompass marketing and branding, strategic planning, capacity building, audience development, innovation and research and coaching for personal development. Shreya Nagarajan Singh began SNS fresh from her Masters in Arts Management in the US. SNS provides complete arts management and development services for artists, organisations and any entity engaged in creative pursuits. This includes event and project management, strategic planning, goal setting, revenue generation, marketing strategies and so on. SNS has staff in Chennai, Mumbai and Chicago.

The Musafir Collective was started in 2018 by Aayushi Mehrish and Sanyaa Mehrotra. Aayushi, Sanyaa and their Chennai-based projects and operations manager, Jyothsna Akilan, are arts management graduates from Singapore, besides being trained in Indian classical dance. Musafir’s services include creating a network to connect artists with each other as well as industry professionals, organisations and brands; artist management and curating of events and experiences. Their clients include dancers, photographers and theatre practitioners/companies in both India and Singapore.

Aalaap, started in 2012 as an arts magazine, soon extended into curating artistic events. Aalaap is actively involved with the Natya Kala Conference, as the creative collaborator, operationalising the curator’s vision into the user’s experience, acting as the intersection between the venue (the Krishna Gana Sabha) and the curator. Aalaap currently functions as an equal opportunity amplifier of (mostly) dancers and their artistic activities, using Instagram as its main channel for dissemination. Otherwise, it is not a full-service arts management company, engaging only in specific projects with artists. Coming from a career in newspapers, the founder, Akhila Krishnamurthy, sees Aalaap as an extension of her own journalistic identity. While organisations constitute the bulk of revenue for arts management companies, dancers comprise most of the individual performer clients. Given that dance seems a more saturated field where it is harder to differentiate oneself, is a more expensive affair and requires a larger eco-system, this might make sense.

T.M. Krishna’s entire professional life is completely managed by Artspire. All his professional activities such as concerts, executing projects, tours and talks, coordinating with publishers, dealing with auditors and his financials are handled by them and he cannot imagine life without Artspire now. “It has relieved me tremendously artistically – I can focus completely on just my music and projects without worrying about any ancillary work.” Even those who contact him directly are given his Artspire manager’s contact information. “Artists tend to be haphazard, but with a professional arts manager, there is a process for everything – if I am booked for a concert, for example, a process rolls into place. Everyone involved - my coartists and I, and the organisers/hosts - are informed on exactly what to expect every step of the way.” He feels the element of distance between the artist and the organiser is helpful, stating that it aids in the professionalism of the nexus.

Most musicians, however, appear to handle many aspects of their professional careers by themselves. Any assistance received is mostly in the digital marketing and promotional aspects. For N. Vijay Siva, managing Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and shooting any bytes or episodes is taken care of by one of his students. S. Sowmya’s social media is managed by a friend. Jayanthi Kumaresh says she has artist managers who take care of concert coordination, logistics and tech support. K. Gayatri gets a studio photoshoot done annually (this appears to be an industry standard now) to be the repository of professional quality images for her concert announcements and promotions which are then handled by students. Bharat Sundar has friends assist him with promotional posters during the music season but otherwise, does it himself. Sanjay Subrahmanyan is a client of Bhargavii Mani and Consultants, a communications design practice, which operationalises some of Sanjay’s outreach. Sudha Ragunathan states that she handles all aspects herself.

Sikkil Gurucharan has adopted a mixed approach. He has outsourced his YouTube channel to Kalakendra, a company that, for years, put out several CDs and other digital content in the classical arts. As with many other artists, skilled friends or students make his promotional posters. For many years, his father handled his scheduling. Now, Gurucharan himself deals with that, especially because he receives many bookings while on travel. He mentions having been approached by arts management companies but felt that while requests from new entities could potentially be outsourced, organisations he has worked with over the years were still best handled by him.

Indeed, many traditional sabhas and organisations assume they will be speaking to the artists themselves since it has always been the practice. The fact is, despite a desire for professionalism being expressed verbally, the industry rides on an inherent informality and vagueness in details where little is put in writing. Many are long-standing relationships, sometimes multigenerational within the organisation and, in some cases, with the performers too, as with Gurucharan. With a history built on personal charisma, many artists are anxious about having an external entity in between.

Artists, for generations, have been managed, usually by a family member, a parent in the case of up-and-coming artists and a spouse or partner for more established individuals – additionally, students are also usually in the wings. Family members/students taking on this role can affect the original relationship and does not allow for full professionalism. A qualified arts manager provides impartial, candid advice keeping the entire market in mind.

This is inextricably linked to another aspect. Most artists are uncomfortable with what they see as ‘ceding control’ which is also why it is only the inner circle of immediate family and students – those with shared or vested interests – that is entrusted with any delegated details. For an arts management company to fully and properly represent an artist, they would need to know, among other things, their clients’ fees, and their co-artists/ensemble’s fees– these are usually extremely closely held ‘secrets’ that can also vary based on many factors, again not shared.

Some artists do not wish to reveal their nexus with arts management companies while others are unwilling to even discuss how they handle the numerous facets of their professional lives and if they use any assistance at all. One arts management company said they were unable to give out any representative client names because clients were uncomfortable sharing this fact.

When asked what arts management is, most overwhelmingly think marketing and promotion of arts and artists. This appears to be because much of what is seen publicly of their efforts is just that. However, this is but one prong of arts management - the real goal is revenue generation while consistently furthering the image that each artist is attempting to achieve. This is operationalised by a clearly envisioned plan whereby everything the company does is in line with advancing the overall strategy for that client. Such companies can open up new windows of opportunity for their clients. Besides concerts in newer portals, for example, other revenue-generating avenues might be workshops, masterclasses, interactions, and literary festivals.

When potential clients approach arts management companies for the first time, it is often for help with a specific project. They are often surprised that the managers look at the overall costbenefit of the envisioned project such that the artist benefits financially, either directly or as an after-effect. Shreya explains that many artists never think that way – they take it as a given that expenses need to be incurred to keep themselves relevant and visible.

For the vast majority of its practitioners, the performance of Indian arts is financially insufficient by itself and also unpredictable – teaching and/ or a second profession are frequently necessary for income supplementation. For organisations, it is often ticket sales from a handful of programs that underwrite the rest – in fact, in Chennai, except for the December music season, most programs are free for audiences. These factors comprise arts management companies’ biggest challenge. How does one get potential clients to take a leap of faith, and allocate a steady expense from an unsteady income for unpredictable benefits?

Understanding this, Artspire, SNS and Musafir offer at least four types of client interfacing: longer-term engagement, usually on a retainer basis; stand-alone projects for a fixed fee; a commissionbased fee and hour-to-hour individual coaching/strategizing sessions. Within each, they offer much flexibility, cognisant of the fact that every client is different.

The ideal engagement for the companies is a long-term one that allows them to direct all their resources to advance the client’s interests. Ramya stresses that arts management is not a quantity but a quality game. “We have at least one senior staff member and one junior member assigned to each client, and we strive to build a long-term relationship. Our efforts take a certain period of time to show results.” Some of Artspire’s current clients include T.M. Krishna, Bharata Kalanjali, RASA, Karuna Sagari, Sampradaya Dance Creations (Toronto) and Alchemy Black Box Studio. Artspire does not do events management, though they will organise and curate events if it furthers clients’ goals. 

Shreya Nagarajan Singh’s slogan is ‘Leave the artisting to artists and leave everything else to us.’ The company’s clients include Malavika Sarukkai and the Kalavaahini Trust, Dakshina Chitra Museum and its annual marquee festival, Utsavam, Ektaa Foundation in California and the Adishakti Theatre in Auroville. SNS also has an event space in the heart of Chennai that clients can use.

Until organisations and artists get more comfortable trusting and empowering arts managers to advise them and take on non-artistic tasks and responsibilities, most clients, it appears, would be comfortable only with outsourcing some aspects, or specific projects. Given its current nascent stage, the potential market also appears to be limited only to headliner artists and/or those attempting to forge solo careers.

Having professionals handle all one’s external nexuses and being able to focus entirely on one’s artistic practice and performances would, theoretically, be a dream come true for all professional artists – all the ancillary work of canvassing, logistics and communication is very cumbersome. Snafus can and do occur – artists have sometimes booked themselves for concerts in two different cities at the same time or booked two sets of artists for the same concert – these often come to light embarrassingly late too.

Sheer lack of time means even elementary marketing and promotion can fall by the wayside. Bharat Sundar is candid when he says that he does not think much about social media marketing and does so only when inspired – other artists expressed similar sentiments. This is very understandable. For creativity to be best harnessed and fructified, an artist requires mental bandwidth and freedom to indulge, delve and soak in the art sans encumbrances. Since creativity is rarely linear or systematic, artists’ self-done outreach efforts can appear inconsistent and ad-hoc to viewers who are sometimes left wondering why, for example, a particular program is touted much in advance while another is not even announced (opening up more cans of worms). This is inevitable unless a professional is looking after the artist’s affairs via due process.

Artists balk at having to pay professional fees for what they have not paid for so far even as they wrestle with the additional aspects of trusting an external entity and maintaining an appearance of doing it all oneself ‘as done historically’. The pressures are magnified now, however, with the world having truly become a global stage and the preponderance and cruciality of social media. T.M. Krishna says, “We cannot do it all and have to learn to let go of what we are not capable of. We should trust that our arts managers are invested in our well-being.” He adds that even older organisers now know, and have accepted, that he can only be booked through his manager. They, in turn, actually find it convenient because of the accessibility and availability of his manager and the consistency and predictability of what will subsequently transpire.

The fact that arts management companies have understood the unique issues of the Indian scene is reflected in their providing different pricing structures – The Musafir Collective says that they turn away no one for the ability to pay. Both SNS and Artspire offer one-on-one coaching sessions to allow for even very specific, onetime, nuggets of advice. In the future, the quality of their work, the flagship events, word-of-mouth and a few candid celebrity clients might make artists and organisations see arts management professionals as a normal and necessary part of truly professionalising the classical arts eco-system.

(The writer’s interests lie in music, food, travel and life-at-large. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022 and 2023 and blogs at