Arts Administration: Who Runs the Symphony?

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13334

Along with all the musicians who play in a symphony, there are many arts administrators who work to bring music to the audience. Learn what they do, and design a program for your own symphony!


Finding a Career, Musical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Look at this image of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from a performance night at Roy Thomson Hall:

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Image by Torsymph, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The audience is filing in, and on a night with a full house, there will be 2,630 people listening to the orchestra. More than a hundred musicians are preparing to play.

  • How did this all come together, and whose job is it to make sure that these concerts are engaging their audiences?

In this lesson, you'll learn about the people, besides the musicians, who make the symphony happen. Many professionals are engaged in the music industry without ever picking up an instrument, and their jobs are important and exciting.

You'll find out what some of them do, and you'll try out the top job at the symphony yourself by creating your own program!

A symphony orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians playing instruments that include strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Often these orchestras consist of over 100 musicians, and these are the people who probably come to mind when you think of an organization like the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO).

This lesson will explore a different part of the music industry: arts administration.

Arts administrators are responsible for a variety of crucial tasks. They choose the music that will be performed by the orchestra. They audition musicians and select the most talented instrumentalists to play in their halls.

Increasingly, modern arts administrators look for ways to bring together popular and classical music. They seek opportunities to connect their audience members to classical music, which is unlike what most of us listen to every day.

  • So, what jobs exist within arts administration?

Let's start with the top administrator job and then explore a few different departments within which arts administrators work.

conductor conducting an orchestra

The Music Director

The music director is the leader of a symphony orchestra.

He or she is the primary conductor of an orchestra in performance and rehearsal, which is an enormous job in itself. In addition, the music director selects the program for the season, hires musicians and conductors, commissions pieces from new composers, and organizes community engagement initiatives.

Music directors are established professionals who have conducted orchestras for years and often have prior experience in other facets of arts administration. They must be excellent musicians themselves in order to understand how to conduct an orchestra; however, they must also be business-minded and decide how to utilize large budgets.

Sometimes this job is divided between two people: a music director and an artistic director. In those cases, the music director still conducts the orchestra but shares hiring and programming responsibilities with the artistic director, who also handles budgeting and community engagement.

Watch Music Director Marin Alsop discuss how she creates programs for concerts in Marin Alsop talks about the art of orchestra programming, from Douglas McLennan:

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Marin Alsop is a well-known and respected music director; however, she was first a violinist and a conductor for many years.

  • How do you think that experience benefits her in her current role?


The music director frequently conducts the orchestra; however, a large operation like TSO has over 130 concerts in a year, and it's not feasible for one person to conduct all of those rehearsals and performances.

Symphonies typically have multiple resident conductors that are under the leadership of the music director. They lead orchestras and head up different artistic initiatives.

Often one conductor is in charge of the Pops program, which incorporates popular music and artists with the orchestra. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Pops program has brought Sara Bareilles, Kendrick Lamar, and many other pop artists together with a full orchestra.

Learn more about what a conductor does by watching What is the role of the Conductor? from Colston Hall:

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  • What do you think is the most important part of a conductor's job?

President or Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

Like most businesses, symphony orchestras have a president or CEO. This person is not very involved in the artistic side of the operation.

Instead, this person interacts with the Board of Directors. The members of the board are elected individuals charged with representing the symphony's donors--the people who donate money to the symphony.

The president or CEO is in charge of the administrative side of the organization. All of the departments in the arts administration eventually report to this person.

He or she has the final say on how much money can be spent. This individual also works to raise funds and grow the symphony's audience.


Most symphony orchestras are not for profit, and they rely on their patrons to donate to the organization. A patron is someone who supports the symphony. While they often donate money as donors, patrons can also be volunteers.

Arts administrators who work in development contact donors, organize events for their patrons, partner with local businesses, and find ways to connect to the community and grow the symphony's audience.


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  • Did you guess correctly?

The finance department allocates that budget among many different departments and makes sure spending doesn't exceed the available funds. It also applies for government grants to supplement the orchestra's funds.


Almost all symphony orchestras have an education program that trains young musicians and gives them the opportunity to work with some of the symphony's musicians and conductors.

Not only is this an amazing way to encourage musicianship and artistic engagement in young people, but the symphony also bolsters its budget by charging for lessons and participation in youth orchestras.

Marketing and Public Relations

You've probably started to notice that many of the departments in arts administration overlap with the departments you would find in most other non-arts-related businesses.

The marketing and public relations (PR) team is a perfect example of that. This department houses graphic designers, social media coordinators, and advertising specialists who generate content for print, radio, and online ads.

Now that you have an idea of what is included in arts administration and some of its jobs, continue to the Got It? section to test your knowledge of how a symphony is run and which jobs fit into each department!

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