The Business of Culture – Interview with Agnes Wiesbauer-Lenz, Managing Director of Steirischer Herbst
The Steirischer Herbst, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has become a cornerstone festival of avant-garde art in Europe. Every autumn, the city of Graz is host to a vast program of drama, film, architecture, music, literature and visual arts bringing together Austrian as well as international artists.
In general, reports and articles in the arts and culture sector focus more on the work and achievement of the artistic directors. However, this article puts the spotlight on the ones behind the curtain, those who run the daily business. What is the art of managing a big cultural organisation such as the Steirischer Herbst? Agnes Wiesbauer-Lenz, the Managing Director of the festival, talked to me about how she manages the organization, her biggest successes and her personal career development.
I had the pleasure of meeting Agnes at a seminar I recently attended in the small mountain village of Alpbach. During a break, we had a casual exchange about contemporary art and documenta 14, which we both visited this year. I really enjoyed hearing about her views. Agnes not only looks at art in a very comprehensive way (most of us probably only think about visual arts). Drama, performance art or architecture are of equal importance to her. In addition to her passion about the arts, Agnes applies a very pragmatic and analytical mind-set. Moreover, she manages to combine these two effortlessly – to her they are inextricably linked – and with the ability to captivate everyone around her, even those who might not be art insiders.
Agnes’s career path in the cultural sector developed naturally: She was born into a family where arts and culture have always been a key topic – with a mother who loves the theatre and a father who has a passion for photography. After graduating from high school, she sat down with her father to explore options for her career. Agnes also loved the theatre and initially wanted to study Cultural Management. However, at this point in time, this course was only offered as a postgraduate program. Therefore, she opted for Theatre Studies and Business Administration.
What I found particularly interesting was that Agnes co-founded a students’ drama club with her friends at university. According to her, this was the task that finally proved to her that she wanted to work in the arts and culture sector. Agnes’s management skills were already on full speed then: the group organized four drama productions per year with Agnes taking over tasks such as organisation, sponsor management and production. Not only did she learn a lot of practical skills and was she able to live her passion for drama but also was the group able to build up a valuable network. A network that all of them can still tap into.
Soon after her studies, Agnes joined the Museum of Modern Art (Museum Moderner Kunst, mumok) in Vienna as the assistant to the director. After a management change, the new director wanted to develop the organization into a new direction and created a job position for Human Resource and Organizational Development which Agnes took over. Alongside her job, she also obtained a postgraduate degree. However, not in Cultural Management (as she envisioned after her A-Levels). She opted for Human Resource and Organizational Development which she considers a fundamental part of a leader’s skillset.
Agnes built up the department for Organizational Development and later on was promoted to HR director of the museum. What she loved most about working in the museum was the exposure to a diverse range of topics.
“Museums involve research, educational topics, marketing and PR, organizational development, accounting and operational tasks which exposes an HR manager to teams with various professional backgrounds.”
She still considers her business degree a crucial part of her career development. When there was an opening for the Managing Director of the Steirischer Herbst, Agnes applied because she appreciated the work of the current artistic director and was looking for a new challenge.
The goal of the festival is to bring productions to Graz which are usually not accessible in the region – you would need to go to Vienna or Berlin, for example. Events with formats such as the “Impulstanz Festival” in Vienna do not take place in Graz. Therefore, the Steirischer Herbst fills this niche. Furthermore, and maybe even more importantly, the Steirischer Herbst is avant-garde.
The Steirischer Herbst does not have one major location where the events take place, like, for example, the Salzburg Festival. Agnes calls it a “festival that meanders through the city of Graz”. The only exception is the festival centre. A guiding theme keeps all the different artists and events under one thematic roof. This way, all the events and artists are connected – in terms of location and content.
“This year, we celebrate 50 years of Steirischer Herbst. I consider the concept of this festival extremely brave and forward thinking: a producing festival covering all types of art.”
In addition to her passion for the theatre, Agnes also loves visual arts and contemporary art – an interest she could nurture during her times at the Mumok. “My work at the museum definitely shaped my knowledge about contemporary artists. Furthermore, working in an institution like the Steirischer Herbst or the mumok is an amazing chance to work with living artists.”
Agnes as the Managing Director is in charge of running the business side of the festival – human resources, partner management, location management, maintenance of the infrastructure, legal dimensions, budgeting, shareholder controlling and management of the sponsors and the government entities involved. The festival collaborates with private sponsors and receives government funding from the region of Styria and the government of Austria. According to Agnes, festivals are a good way for private sponsors to get visibility for their investment. For three weeks, a high density of the target group can be reached. This can be more effective than running several longer advertising campaigns over the year. Agnes not only ensures that the organization works on its inside but also how it is communicated to external parties.
In general, cultural organizations follow a two-head leadership approach: the Artistic and the Managing Director bring the creative and the business side together. Agnes calls herself very fortunate to be able to work with the Artistic Director of the Steirischer Herbst because their work methods and values match.
“The most important thing is that the axis between artistic and commercial director is aligned. If this axis is aligned, the whole organization works.”
I ask her which position shaped her leadership skills the most. “I definitely think my current position. I have a lot of responsibility – 20 people around the year and once the festival approaches, it is more than 100 people. The Steirischer Herbst does co-productions and is, therefore, dependent on other organisations as well. I learned a lot about group dynamics and try to apply my organizational knowledge. In general, a background in organizational development helps anyone who takes over a leadership position.”
While a museum follows a more or less steady and calculable pattern throughout the year, a festival has a totally different dynamic. The Steirischer Herbst spans across all forms of art –drama, visual arts, film, literature and architecture. Probably one of the most interesting characteristics is that it is a “producing” festival. This means that artists come to Styria and develop the artworks right at the festival. Coordinating such a big event requires to plan ahead. Every department has its own working rhythm, multiple location partners are involved and all the artists need to be coordinated. Furthermore, the planning time of cultural organizations is not to be underestimated: some productions need to be planned three years ahead.
I ask Agnes how she manages to keep track of all the pieces involved. Agnes smiles and answers with a very relaxed and calm voice: “Well, it is good planning. Everything needs to fit together and we need to plan ahead well in advance.” It sounds so easy when she says it. And I guess the secret to her success is this very calm attitude.
I get curious and want to know how she manages difficult situations. And again, Agnes takes a bit of time to reflect and answers: “Step by step. Maybe I cannot solve the problem as a whole, but maybe I can solve parts of it. Of course, as a leader, you juggle all the different balls and try to keep them above the ground. Sometimes, a ball drops. But you have to get used to picking it up and moving on.” I get the impression that Agnes is a very analytical leader and I really admire her pragmatic attitude. One of my key take aways from this interview is to always try to keep calm. Another important piece of advice is to bring everyone involved to the table.
Agnes tells me that she definitely got more and more relaxed the more she advanced in her career. Her start at the Steirischer Herbst had a very dramatic perspective: her predecessor had died. Agnes was thrown into the cold water. The start was tough because not only was it a new sector and type of organization but also, naturally, had there been no direct handover.
“Our festival is also entrepreneurship. We take risks with the productions and we often do not know if they will turn out a success or not.” Agnes tells me about one of the most recent productions where they chose a certain artist for his skills to do a project, but they are not sure yet how it will turn out in the end.
The most attractive part of her job is he diversity of tasks. There is no „typical” day and every day brings new challenges. Furthermore, Agnes appreciates that she works with a lot of people. In general, running a cultural organization is very similar to running any other type of business. With one special dimension: “I can do the things I really enjoy with people who I really like.”
“I love the environment, I am so lucky to be working here. I never think ‘oh no, I need to work again’. Of course, sometimes I am exhausted and sometimes we all have days where we do not want to go to work. But my general attitude is very positive. Another benefit of working in the arts and culture sector is that at the end of the process chain, there is an outcome that everyone can see – an artistic product.”
What would she recommend a young graduate who aims to become a Managing Director of a cultural organization one day? “Definitely gaining practical experiences. In the end, we can never tell what will happen in the future but gaining as much experience as possible is key. Furthermore, a good understanding of legal dimensions, particularly liability law, is very useful. And, last but not least: be prepared to give everything and work hard. An organization like ours cannot be managed from a sailing boat.”
In general, Agnes considers most of the people working in the creative field as intrinsically motivated. “If you work in the theatre as part of the crew and you do not show up, the curtain is not going to open. There will be no show. I think that a lot of people who decide to work in the arts and culture sector are aware that they will not earn as much as in other jobs. However, their intrinsic motivation is extremely high.”
When I ask Agnes about her most recent success moment as a leader, she says there have been so many that she has to take a step back. She then tells me about one of her biggest successes: Agnes managed to substantially improve the balance sheet and outcome of the fiscal year 2016. She went into every contract, dug into every detail and tried to save and build up reserves to be able to support the artistic production of 2017. Furthermore, 2016 was the third best year regarding sponsor contributions, had the highest number of visitors with almost 62.000 visitors and the highest revenue according to ticket sales.
This incredible success just came up towards the end of our interview and Agnes seemed to casually drop this information and emphasized that her success is always linked to the support of others. Which is true, without a doubt. Nevertheless, I am sure that Agnes Wiesbauer-Lenz is a leader to watch in the cultural space. This woman is only starting out!
Agnes Wiesbauer-Lenz is the Managing Director of Steirischer Herbst, an avant-garde festival in Austria celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Previous to this position, Agnes was HR director of the Museum Moderner Kunst (mumok) in Vienna. Agnes studied Theatre Studies and Business Administration and holds a postgraduate degree in Organizational Development.
Picture credits: unless otherwise stated, all pictures are courtesy of Steirischer Herbst.