In celebration of the MMIAM program’s 10th anniversary, I sat down with Professor François Colbert, founder and Co-Director of the MMIAM, to chat about the program’s origins, his experiences over the past decade, and what he sees for the program’s future.
Professor Colbert has been active in the field of arts and culture for over 40 years, particularly in the performing arts, museum and film sectors. He currently holds the Carmelle and Rémi Marcoux Chair in Arts Management at HEC Montréal.
Additionally, in May 2002 he was awarded the Order of Canada for his many achievements and for his unique contributions in developing the field of arts management. He was made Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2005.
He is the author of Marketing Culture and the Arts, published in 15 languages, and teaches two courses, offered as part of the graduate program, “Marketing Cultural Organizations” and “Cultural Policies,” as well as a doctoral seminar called “Fundamentals of Arts Marketing.”
You can revisit his original MMIAM Journey interview— conducted by former editor and program alum, Laura Adlers—here.
Brittany Johnson, MMIAM Editor
Let’s start with the question I ask everyone: how did you become interested in the arts?
I’ve always been involved in the arts, even from a young age. I took singing lessons as a child, at school, we had half an hour of music lessons every day. I learned to play the flute and when I was a little older, at 17 years old, I learned to play the saxophone. I eventually exchanged my saxophone for a clarinet. Later in life, I became part of a singing chorus while also learning to play piano.
And how did this transfer into a career?
Editor’s note: Professor Colbert’s career details have been greatly reduced for brevity. For a full breakdown of his career, please visit LinkedIn.
My best friend had a theater company and he asked me to work there as the part time Administrative Director. While there, I met the founder of a dance company and school. I was asked to become the Administrative Director for the school and later joined their board. This started a trend that never stopped. Over the course of my career, I think I’ve been on 32 different boards, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Radio-Québec, and the Canada Council for the Arts. I served as Vice Chair of the Canada Council for eight years.
I started teaching arts management in 1975. That year, the Banff Center had begun a three-day arts management seminar and with the encouragement of my colleagues and my university’s financial support, I attended. This opened several doors for me. I began leading public workshops and seminars and traveling across Canada. The next year, I brought this seminar to HEC. By 1985, I was still teaching these three-day seminars each year, adapting and changing as needed, but I was approached about turning the seminars into a formal diploma in arts management. In 1988, I started the graduate diploma in arts management (in French).
In 1991, two things happened: I got a $500,000 grant from the federal government to endow a chair in arts management, this is how the Carmelle and Rémi Marcoux Chair in Arts Management got started. Also, well, let’s back up a bit, I had been going to this cultural economics research conference every year, but as a marketing professor, it didn’t really feel like what I needed, it wasn’t quite the right place for me. So, I decided to start a research conference in arts management, the AIMAC Conference. And this continues every other year at a different location, internationally.
Finally, as you know, 10 years ago, I started the MMIAM program.
Editor’s note: Professor François Colbert is the founder and current holder of the Chair which was named for Carmelle and Rémi Marcoux, in recognition of a joint contribution of $1 million from these donors and Transcontinental Inc., the company that Rémi Marcoux founded.
It sounds like you’ve made a career of starting things from scratch, including MMIAM, what does it take to build a graduate degree?
The first thing is, obviously, an idea that you believe in. In the province of Quebec, there was no such thing as what I wanted to do, and I must say some of my colleagues didn’t buy into my idea. So, I then had to convince them and gain political clout, by this I mean talking to the right people at HEC, before the program was officially put up for vote. When the vote arrived, everyone at the table was already convinced. It took 10 minutes to vote the program into existence.
Then came the courses. We could not teach every single subject on the topic of arts management. We had to narrow down. One of my former colleagues was able to teach arts management, I was able to teach arts marketing, I had someone who was able to teach cultural policy, another who taught not-for-profit financial management, and we were able to put the students into some MBA courses.
The students were intimidated initially, but it was great for them. They realized they were as good as any MBA student. One year, I was able to compare the average GPA of my students and that of the MBA students and my students were higher. It was proof that just because you are an artist, that doesn’t mean you can’t also manage.
What were some of the challenges in getting the program off the ground?
The main problem was the universities and their bureaucracy. In Dallas, it took time for the program to become accredited. At HEC, I had colleagues who didn’t believe in the work I was doing, colleagues whom I had to convince, this, therefore slowed down the process.
It took no time, however, for the three of us, Zannie Voss from SMU, Stefano Baia Curioni from SDA Bocconi—who was with us at the time—and I, to determine what courses, which semesters would be spent in which cities, it went like that [snaps]. I had my director, the Director of HEC, on my side, and at some point, he said ‘Enough talking, let’s go ahead.’
After 10 years, what still excites you about the program?
First, it’s a pleasure to be with a group of students who are so diverse and so interesting. Second, I’m always amazed at the transformation—when the students first arrive in Dallas, they’re individual students wondering what they’ve started but when they leave Milan, they’re a family. You don’t see this in other masters programs. Perhaps it’s because our program is small, perhaps it’s also the travel and the fact that the students are always together…you all create bonds. Third, seeing the students get good jobs. The students have told me that this program has been useful in their career—this is the best feedback I could get.
You know, those two days in Montréal for the 10th anniversary were so good! There was so much love. That’s the MMIAM program. To see each cohort get together that weekend, pleased to see one another and mingling with the other cohorts…I said to Bernadette (my wife) ‘well, I guess I’ll do another five years…’
Do you have a moment that you’re particularly fond of?
Yes, with cohort six! We were on the Great Wall of China, and I asked Bernadette to marry me. Caroline [Piché] told me that I had to invite the entire cohort to my wedding and so I did! Almost all of the students, 10 out of 13, came.
They came from China, Portugal, France, the United States…the three who didn’t come couldn’t make the trip work with their work schedules. We did the wedding at my country house and of course, the theme was “the Great Wall.” We wore traditional outfits and Yumi [Palleschi] (also a graduate of cohort six), who was a concert pianist, played for us. She said ‘anything you want to hear, I’ll play it.’
That’s amazing! So, I heard you mention that you’ll do another five years. What do you see as the future? Or have you thought that far ahead yet?
Well, we’re still trying to recover from Covid-19. In our university, and all the others in Canada, and the US, applications have dropped. This was the same with the MMIAM program. We have to rebuild. This is a challenge because it’s already a small program and I don’t have a large marketing budget. So, I have to get creative to not just attract people but also make this program known. I’m not sure how many years it will take to rebuild.
Also, this is a program that travels and it’s one of the major reasons people apply. Covid-19 meant that we couldn’t do that and so we had a hard couple of years. Speaking of the travel, there is also the war in Ukraine and the tension between the United States (and Canada) and China. International politics impact us.
On top of all of this, we always want to be trying to improve the program, to find out what we can be doing better.
Can you talk about the ways you’ve adapted the program over the years?
We have to keep our eyes open and offer courses to suit the skills that managers say they need. These changes often come from the field, having managers say ‘we need this’ is important. I’m talking specifically about my province, and my city here, but there are often colloquiums or seminars, during which we get this feedback. As an example, we added a social media marketing course, this wasn’t offered at the beginning of the program.
My other challenge is that one day I will retire. I have to have colleagues who pick up my work and move it forward; this requires nurturing. At HEC, I’m known as the guy who starts something and it works. So, I’ve got an image to maintain [laughs]. Honestly, it works because it’s a matter of passion. I’m passionate about the MMIAM program. Maybe it’s because I have passion for the arts and for artists as individuals, and I want to be useful for the field. But, I’m trying to find colleagues who have some passion for arts and culture and who will place that into the MMIAM program.
In order to do this successfully, it probably has to happen at each of the campuses. Is that something you’ve talked about with the other partners?
You know, there is an example of this. We were lucky because when Zannie left, Alex [Turrini] from SDA Bocconi went to Dallas for two years and while he did this, Andrea [Rurale] picked up the program in Milan. They both believe in this program. We also have Professor Jaime Ruiz-Gutierrez from the Universidad de los Andes, who had asked me to be part of the partnership, and Monica [Muñoz], who was a graduate of the first cohort who now works there. She has become a great colleague who I can rely on as well. The same for Professor LIN Yi from Peking University in Beijing who hosts us for a 10-day campus visit. But the challenge is transferring my—our—contacts to a new generation and fostering those relationships. It’s important to have people who you can trust doing this work beside you.
Is there something you’ve done this year, personal or professional, that you’re excited about?
The 10th anniversary and the reunion! It was the highlight of my year.
Is there something I should have asked you that I didn’t?
I’ve been at HEC for 50 years!
And if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that you have to love what you do. Working at HEC, being a professor, was the last thing I ever thought I would do, but if I’ve been here for as long as I have, it’s only because I love what I do. I believe in the good I’m doing for society. And I work for a great institution.