Case study

Chief executive of a classical music festival — Alexis Paterson

Starting out in arts administration, Alexis has worked her way up to the position of chief executive of the oldest non-competitive classical music festival in the world. Discover her top tips for breaking into this competitive industry

How did you get your job?

I completed a BA in Music with Mathematical Studies at the University of Exeter and stayed on to complete an MA in Musicology. After working for a couple of years, I returned to university on an interdisciplinary fellowship from Cardiff University and completed my PhD.

I applied for my current job as chief executive of the Three Choirs Festival after five years working as the music festival manager at Cheltenham Festivals, where I worked with the festival director on all aspects of the festival's programming and delivery. Applying for this job felt like a long shot, but in hindsight I'd gained a lot of the skills and knowledge I needed in my previous roles and was ready to take a step up.

What's a typical working day like?

It's usual for around half my working week to be desk time - dealing with emails, working through financial documents, writing papers for the board, reviewing policy, discussing current plans with colleagues and making decisions about how to progress with things or planning for future festivals.

The rest of the time tends to be spent in meetings, with artistic partners (our resident orchestra, agents, composers, performers, publishers and our artistic directors), venues and suppliers, local stakeholders (such as music services or councils) and with our own city committees and board of directors.

It's also common to work out of hours attending receptions, concerts and evening committee meetings, since our local committees are voluntary and some work during office hours.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The festival itself! There's nothing like the buzz of seeing months and years of planning come together in a vibrant, celebratory gathering of people passionate about the music being presented.

The rest of the year, it's the act of planning for all of that, and the creativity that comes with turning a collection of possible events into something 'festival', that keeps things interesting.

What are the challenges?

The further up the ladder you climb in arts administration, the less hands-on you become. I've always enjoyed mucking in at festival time and sometimes miss the physical dashing about that comes with a front-line role. The counterpoint to that is having greater influence over the creative and strategic direction of the event as a whole.

Away from the festival itself, funding and finance is a huge challenge for any charitable arts organisation. It's never easy and can be hard to predict. Practically, the hours can be long - even out of festival time.

How is your degree relevant?

At the simplest level, a broad knowledge of music - both its history and practical performance requirements - are important in being able to balance a programme and understand the logistical and financial implications of your choices.

More specifically, I specialised throughout my degree in contemporary music and composition, which has allowed me to develop specific projects and commission new work with confidence, as well as advocate for its support to funders and audiences.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I've grown into this role in the last three years. I was very much 'in at the deep end' to begin with and I had a lot of new skills and knowledge to acquire, particularly relating to HR, governance and finance.

In terms of ambition, I simply want the creative organisation I work for to reach as many people as it can - to inspire people, provide opportunities for broadening horizons, and be celebrated for that.

What advice can you give to others wanting to get into arts administration?

  • Try and get the broadest possible understanding of the industry by going to events, volunteering and asking questions. When you're working, be curious about the other roles in the organisation.
  • Don't be disheartened if you can't find a job straight away. When you do get in front of a panel, demonstrate your passion for the organisation and what they do, but don't forget the basics - using Excel well, handling databases and knowing how to write copy.
  • Passion really matters. Only a few jobs in the arts are glamorous - most are not particularly well paid, and the hours can be unsociable. You really have to believe in the purpose of arts and culture. On the plus side you're working with like-minded people, which is a joy in itself.