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Cultural Management in international contexts: missions, working conditions, challenges, competencies, training - Results and conclusions of a comparative survey amongst arts/cultural managers worldwide; Institute for Cultural Policy, Hildesheim University Spring 2017

The following is based on a month American arts management Fulbright Specialist Tony Micocci spent in Cambodia, hosted by Cambodian Living Arts. His Fulbright Specialist project was funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by the United States Embassy in Cambodia. The visit included extended conversations with more than 40 socio-cultural facilitators, and below, excerpts from an interview with Arts Management Professional Rithisal (Sal) Kang, Executive Director of Amrita Performing Arts, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Mr. Rithisal was ideal for this interview as he has perspective of international work and training beyond what the researcher found to be typical among Cambodians, and is the chief executive of a successful and highly respected Cambodian institution that has evolved its mission over the fourteen years of its existence to embrace support for new artistic exploration and expression in a society that reveres its long Angkor history and cultural heritage.







The following is based on a month American arts management Fulbright Specialist Tony Micocci spent in four cities in Cambodia, hosted by Cambodian Living Arts. His Fulbright Specialist project was funded by the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by the United States Embassy in Cambodia. The visit included extended conversations with more than 40 socio-cultural facilitators, including arts managers, service providers, educators, government officials, and artists. A recorded interview with Mr. Rithisal, lasting approximately 1.5 hours, was framed by the comparative survey questions that are the basis of this book. The excerpts that follow are chosen to focus on areas in which Cambodia in general, and Mr. Rithisal’s perspective in particular, appear to be in contrast to Western ways of thinking about arts and cultural management.


It bears mentioning that there is currently no formal arts management training available in Cambodia, though thanks to a number of concerned individuals and organizations, both Cambodian and beyond, the need is coming into focus. The Rector of the Royal University of Fine Arts has stated his desire to institute such a program.


Mr. Rithisal was ideal for this interview as he has perspective of international work and training beyond what the researcher found to be typical among Cambodians, and is the chief executive of a successful and highly respected Cambodian institution that has evolved its mission over the fourteen years of its existence to embrace support for new artistic exploration and expression in a society that reveres its long Angkor history and cultural heritage.




Sal’s international experiences have been primarily in the United States, including line-production of a vast Season of Cambodia multi arts festival in New York City in 2013 and advanced arts management training, and two Cambodian projects in the African country of Rwanda.


Of particular note was the experience of genocide shared with Rwandan artists and audiences. The horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge, in which fully a quarter of the population of Cambodia died, including targeted killing of artists and intellectuals, continues to frame much of the art – and by extension, arts management – in the country today. The nation is clearly wrestling with a range of questions about its artistic and cultural identity internally and internationally, and doing so without the benefit of a generation of artists and thought-leaders who in less traumatized societies would be guiding and/or dialectically resisting this process. The implications of this, and its effect on what formal arts management training may evolve in the country, are vast and reach well beyond the scope of this brief report.


[Sal] I have worked (as producer) on two touring (projects) to Rwanda: the first time a dance theater production, a collaboration of Cambodian artists and Dutch director and dramaturg and lighting designer, and we also brought an American tech director/production manager: all Cambodians, Dutch and Americans worked together with people in Rwanda. We performed at a few places throughout Rwanda. (  ) It was a remarkable experience for the fact that Cambodia and Rwanda have histories of genocide, and so to share the artwork that speaks about genocide and bring into perspective what happened, and to share that kind of painful experience with each other, was very phenomenal. That was 2012. Last year I went back to Rwanda, this time with circus artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak (arts school) in Battambang and Phare Performing Social Enterprise (circus center) in Siem Reap, 19 of them working with an American creative team of four to five, including director, sound designer and lighting designer, and also a film director from the UK. We performed at a memorial museum in Kilgare and also at a refugee camp. That was to me among the most important international projects that we have managed.



Intercultural challenges as rewarding experience


[Sal] When I get into projects in Cambodia or abroad and the team comes together from different countries, there are usually intercultural challenges that we have to face—not necessarily negatively; it can be very positive and productive. One of the first projects we produced in Cambodia was the Where the Elephants Weep production (2008), Cambodia’s first rock opera involving around 30 or 40 artists. The stage had to be (technically) upgraded; we had to work on the lighting with an American lighting designer, American stage manager and ASM which was for the first time, like “what is that function?”—a new concept for Cambodian people.


Sal identifies his role as language translator as having gone much further than direct linguistic translation.


[Sal] It is not only the technical translation but the cultural translation: if they say that, how to say that to another person who comes from a different perspective and how to make the intersection of that understanding requires a lot of work, a lot of challenge, and there was a lot of headache attached to that, but it was a good headache, a kind of muscle building. (  ) And if I translate the whole thing of the American colleague to the assigned Cambodian prop assistant or the assigned ASM who is working on that, nothing is going to work because they feel intimidated by that because it was like 140 words spoken by a New Yorker in a demanding voice when a Cambodian would speak slower and in a softer voice. So again, two layers of that: the technical layer but also the cultural layer. Both are so important.


Sense of community and enjoying working together: process-oriented versus results-oriented working styles


Sal mentioned the Cambodian’s deep enjoyment of the opportunity of working together, which sometimes frustrated the Western production managers who perceived work to be going too slowly. Tony introduced the terminology “process-oriented” and “results-oriented” to seek a framework for pursuit of this point.


[Sal] When we speak about process-oriented or results-oriented, that is to us quite a Western way of articulating that; we don’t do it that way, but it can be a reasonable statement to say that. (  ) Cambodians are traditionally farmers and they work on things and the process of doing that, the sense of community is so profound. So enjoying the moment to work together is actually quite important… it’s the way in this part of the world, maybe—the process is very meaningful to them, and they would take the result not as seriously or not as meaningful as the process.


Buddhist values influencing working processes


[Sal] Taking the religious aspect of that, Cambodians are very heavily Buddhist people; one of the very important philosophies is karma: you do good you will see good, you do bad you will see bad. So that means the result will come anyway. With that kind of mindset, how can people be more attentive to the result than the process, because if something wrong happens they will say that that is predestined anyway, depending on that kind of karma theory? So what they’re doing is actually more meaningful—for lack of a better word I use the “sense of community”: being together, doing something together, is more important than getting results. But it has changed, it has evolved a lot. People in the city, like Phnom Penh, focus much more on the result, but people in the countryside, who are actually the majority of Cambodians, still take the result less seriously and the process is more meaningful.


in your opinion is there a kind of global approach in arts management, using the same strategies and instruments all over the world?


In Sal’s opinion arts management instruments are like a skeleton that needs to be filled with context: specific flesh and life. He also feels that the arts must lead and management be structured to support.


[Sal] I look at the instruments as the “skeleton” if I compare it to the body of something… the operational procedure or the environment of how to operate it, which I consider as the “flesh,” has to be done in consideration of the context—that can be historical context, cultural context, economic context—of that particular country or part of the world. So if the global approach means that there is one big way of doing things and that way can be applied anywhere around the world, I don’t think so. But the global approach, if we are looking at it as the skeleton or base, as being reference to make things done, yes, it can work that way. (  ) The management of the arts to me is the management that supports the arts, that understands the arts in that particular location—geography, culture, whatever context of the world and the way and methodology of managing it. Managing of the arts is not the employment (application) of the management theory and technique into the arts, because you know it is the other way around: first comes understanding the arts, and then start developing a strategy to manage it according to the art from that particular part of the world or particular culture. (  ) The art has to be above, and the business or strategic plan is the supporter of that so that the art can operate with integrity but not be dictated by the methodology of the management.


I think there is no global approach; a global reference, maybe. A strategic reference that people can refer to, but I don’t think there is a global management approach or common strategy to manage the arts and culture.





Tony and Sal agreed that Cambodia currently operates as something of a “blank slate” from an arts funding perspective, as there is effectively no consistent pattern of funding for the arts in the country from either governmental or private sources, and no history of arts philanthropy apart from occasional private sponsorship of performances following ceremonies in villages. What does exist is a massive number of what are generically referred to as “Non-Governmental Organizations,” a term applied to everything from UNESCO and the European Union to the French Institute and American-style non-profits (but without tax deduction donation incentives in Cambodia), a few of which are involved with the arts. Many of the most successful Cambodian arts organizations have nonprofit funding organizations set up in the U.S. and elsewhere which fundraise to support arts activity in Cambodia (as does Amrita).


Resistance of Cambodian artists and cultural operators to statistical arts evaluation approaches


Sal is resistant to the data-oriented mind set of some of these NGO’s, especially as it relates to artistic output. While the author is sympathetic to Sal’s concerns at one level, especially as it may apply to specific artistic output, nonetheless he noted an absolute ignorance and disregard for metrics of any sort in relationship to arts management in numerous conversations throughout the country, even as applied in areas such as audience analysis, alumni tracking and arts economic impact, which have proven elsewhere in the world to be somewhat effective in arts advocacy among funders and decision makers in non-arts sectors.


[Sal] Even within the nonprofit itself, there are grand ways of using the ‘executive NGO’ approach—you know we don’t say ‘nonprofit’ here—actually using a lot of the methodology of for-profit business but turning it around a little bit. It has driven me mad when I heard in conversations “the measurable outcome” which is totally the kind of language within the nonprofit world as well, not only in the for profit. For example, a project manager would ask a set designer, “if you use $500 for that, explain to me what will be the result before I approve that.” The artist who makes that set does not know how to answer that question.




Arts not for art´s sake but part of ritual life  


[Sal] In Cambodian culture the art is so profound from birth to death. There are always ceremonial performances attached, particular songs and recitations in this part of the world with people living in the villages. (  ) If you look at whether it is part of everyday life or not based on quantifiable data going to Western idea of auditorium… performing in Cambodia is actually quite ritualistic, the nature of the performing arts here is quite that.


Tony questioned the existence of an appreciation or art for art’s sake outside of ritual and noted the lack of art museums. Sal implied that museums were a relative recent French colonial concept in Cambodia. It is notable that the National Museum to which Sal refers permanently exhibits only ancient statuary, there is no national art museum in Cambodia, and with rare exception exhibition of contemporary work is undertaken only by the private sector.


[Sal] The National Museum of Cambodia was built by the French in colonial times and before that the appreciation of seeing the arts was not within the artistic context but in the religious sphere—people go to temple, and in the temple there are paintings, there are sculptures, there are theater performances relevant to the religion. I grew up appreciating painting in the 1980’s not by going to the museum but by looking at all the paintings on the walls about the Buddhist story and on the ceiling.  


Not a modern art museum but (privately owned) galleries like Java Arts (Ref show contemporary art; last year also the National Museum hosted a contemporary art exhibit for three months for the first time since the French colonial time.


From the author’s observations, with rare exception dance and music follow the same patterns as visual arts in Cambodia: traditional and classic forms dominate and are presented in temples, at rituals such as weddings and funerals, in mobile shows on temporary stages in villages, and as tourist showcases, while contemporary forms are left to their own devices to find performance opportunities.


Presentationally, while the Cambodian people enjoy dancing and singing, opportunities to experience these forms in Western-style concert form are unusual. At the time of the interview, the Amrita organization was preparing a highly unusual event: a large scale contemporary dance work titled Here I Stand in Time to be presented in three outdoor public ‘site specific’ locations in Phnom Penh. While an accepted presentational model in the West, this was reported to be quite new in Cambodia.


[Sal] It is the first time we’ve produced site-specific performances and we are learning how to do it, a bit nervous, I don’t know how much we’ll get in trouble for the public space in which we’re doing it. Free to the public. We have the invited audience and audience at each site, but the “unintended audience” (in Western parlance, “walk in audience”) is unknown.


Relevance of the arts in people’s lives in contemporary society we can look at that, but if you want to look at the whole Cambodian culture we also have to look at the fact that literally every half kilometer there is another temple, anchors of culture and education. The first school was built in Phnom Penh in the 1950’s, but before that all the men—only men—were taught at the temples by the monks: language, writing, reading. So we have to look at this as a reference to achieve what we want in this part of the world.




[Sal] I’ll put in three categories.


One is the government which runs its own institutions: Secondary School of Fine Arts, the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) and the Department of Performing Arts involving national performing troupes of Cambodia. In each province, there is a small Department of Culture and Fine Arts which hires artists also as administrators, all poorly paid.


Second is the arts and cultural activity in the NGO world like CLA, Amrita: some international associations as NGO’s, some local associations as NGO’s. These have different legal status: local associations register at the Ministry of the Interior; international associations register MOU’s with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These [international associations] manage to tap into economic benefit from abroad.


Third is the commercial world where the artists are contracted to perform at hotels and restaurants for touristic purposes.


Artists in Cambodia are working in different sectors from public to NGO to private to be able to survive


It’s hard to find the artist who only does one; (referring to dance rehearsal observed prior to the interview) one of the artists that you saw in that rehearsal is also a government artist working at RUFA, works for something like Amrita, and two days ago, she was onstage dancing at a truck concert sponsored by one of the largest phone companies. That is how a lot of Cambodian artists survive, to be involved in all three of them. It’s hard for the artist to survive staying in only one.




The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of the Cambodian government issued a formal National Policy for Culture in 2014, following receipt of field input to a 2011 draft. It is the first such policy since prior to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. By all accounts, the author’s observations are that it has so far had no beneficial effect on financial support for the arts, though outlines governmental authority to forbid presentation of art which it deems to be against Cambodia’s national interests, what is termed “negative culture.”


Sal also mentioned regional initiatives under ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations., the artistic and human effect of which he was dubious.


[Sal] Cambodia is part of the regional community which is called ASEAN, 10 countries, and among the three pillars of ASEAN is culture and the arts. What I have seen is collaboration projects like the Ramayana festival which is the big literature in SE Asia, but it’s almost like we come to Angkor Wat together and I perform this part and you perform this part and I do my own thing in collaborative performances, so I have seen things like that on the government-to-government level rather than real people-to-people or artist-to-artist engagement, intersection, collaboration, meaningful dialogue.


Heritage preservation as priority of Governmental cultural funding


Given its effect on tourist revenue, especially from Angkor Wat, the issue of cultural heritage preservation as part of governmental policy cannot be ignored, and was observed in some conversations to be experienced in opposition to support for new artistic expression.


[Sal] Heritage preservation remains the (government’s) priority; it’s the economic engine of the country (due to its tourism impact). Also it is interesting to see the same thinking among other governments in the region like Indonesia, and I also see the inconsistency between the individual state members’ cultural policies, and their regional cooperation. Each country is promoting its national pride to the point that each doesn’t look at its neighbors as the community that we belong to together.


Cultural confrontations between countries in the region as a consequence of colonization


Sal references as indication of weak regional cultural alignment an ongoing Cambodia/Thailand conflict related to an ancient mask dance, Khon in Thai and Khol in Khmer. Thailand is seeking to register the dance form with UNESCO as a Thai Intangible World Heritage treasure, but Cambodia claims the form to be originally Cambodian. (Ref Sal blames much of this on the relatively recent national boundary establishment by colonial powers, often dividing social affinity groups.


[Sal] So how can people from two countries within the community of ASEAN, that officiated their regionalization in 2015, two years later be fighting over two different art forms, and say that is not yours but is mine? They talk about the policy of regionalization but then there is a lack of understanding. How do you also fabricate (effective regional cultural) policy when the ministries of culture are still talking about (national) cultural preservation. This is important, governments should be doing that; but how also within this larger context?


It is a problem not only between Cambodia and Thailand, but you will hear the same story in Indonesia and Malaysia. And sometimes the confrontation is among this village of Indonesia and this village of Malaysia: they say this belongs to this and this belongs to that. And that political division is done by the colonial power; and this part of the world was not divided by country but divided by smaller village and now this person may be related to this person here, living in a different political border, maybe having some cultural confrontation to each other.


Sal clarified that the real problems began when the colonial power, France, pulled out, leaving the national boundaries in place.


[Sal] The problem started when they came, but it was fine when the big supreme boss was here (because) there was no fighting, but then when they left, the legacy of that…. They divided (the region) based on their political understanding or theory or knowledge from the West without an understanding of what is here. What is the reason of dividing the countries that way when they don’t know what’s going on in this culture?




Sal quickly responded to this question with two areas that were reflective of points raised in other conversations the author held elsewhere in the country.


Finding a balance between producing economically motivated traditional work for tourists or designing projects solely to satisfy donor interests at the risk of artistic integrity versus enabling new contemporary and socially relevant art work


[Sal] Balancing artistic integrity and the economic opportunities … do tourist shows, or pursue a grant and do it for the purpose of that grant, disregarding the artistic integrity, or trying to keep the artistic integrity and becoming underfunded. That is a challenge. The cultural manager has to play a good balance of that.


Nurturing artistic expression that has relevance to matters of human concern and not merely to be decorative


[Sal] How to engage the arts into the dialogue of the world, and of the region as well. When they talk about ASEAN it’s only about economic [concerns], about commerce, about international trade, [and] the art is seen as maybe a flower to be added to the hair. People look at the beauty of the art at the core, but the art can play more than that, and there [should be] no necessity to explain that the art can participate in talking and articulating issues like global warming, reflecting on issues like the family; the arts should be more relevant to those kinds of discourses.


Tony asked whether some of this comes back to the question of the fundamental relationship of the Cambodian people to art, what they expect from it, and the previous discussion of the roles of spirituality and religion in relationship to art, which lead to what felt to be Sal’s perception of the overarching current challenge facing Cambodian arts managers.


[Sal] Yes. And that is the job of the contemporary arts manager to understand the past of that, to learn well the religious element about the past, look at what is now…. and then decide. There is a future to go to and I think this contribution to the world, to the discourse through the arts, is important and is necessary.


It was the impression of this researcher through this conversation and many throughout Cambodia on this initial visit that the search for the current and future cultural identity of this country is enormously complex, with an outcome that is far from clear. The discussion is complicated by strong traditions; core religious and social beliefs; a less than free political environment for open discussion; lack of funding for the arts, philanthropic tradition and the nation’s economic structure and needs; and the massacre of a generation who in other countries would be the leaders, culture bearers and thoughtful sounding boards for the young. From the researcher’s initial observations, some Western arts management approaches and concepts have relevance to Cambodia at this time but by no means all. Some, such as the application of data-driven decision making and the trust required for collective action and arts advocacy, are met with suspicion by many and exist in Cambodia in incipient form at best. On a positive note, a recognition of the value of the arts management sector and the need for more training in this area is on the rise, and discussions are under way within Cambodia as to how its strengthening can be best supported.


Tony Micocci presently directs the Arts Administration Program at the University of New Orleans, in Louisiana, U.S., and is a longtime professional arts management practitioner. He wishes to acknowledge the support of the Fulbright Specialist Program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, and Cambodian Living Arts for their support in making possible his research in Cambodia.



The researcher found no evidence of permanently established performance troupes in Cambodia. Reference to a ‘Royal Ballet of Cambodia’ appears to refer both as a Westernized term for the classic Cambodian dance forms in general and as the name for an occasional production of such dance by the government for state occasions.