Arts Leadership and a Healthy Arts Community

By Kenneth Foster

January 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I think it was sometime back in the ’90s when the arts field first started talking about a crisis of future leadership. We looked around and saw a LOT of Baby Boomer organization leaders nearing or entering retirement. “Where is the next generation of leaders coming from?” became a big worry and a topic of many conversations. Leadership development programs of all types were created to address this concern, including a proliferation of graduate arts management programs that would help train “the next generation of arts leaders,” ready to take over once the Boomers got out of the way.

It wasn’t long however, before some wrinkles in this imagined scenario emerged.

The first was that a LOT of baby boomers refused to retire. There were many reasons for this. To begin with, the arts leaders of the Baby Boom generation were deeply involved in creating the enormous nonprofit arts infrastructure that we have today. We prided ourselves (I say “we” because I am of this generation) on our devotion to our work above all else. Having invested our hearts and souls in our work with a passion of a generation determined to change the world, we were understandably reluctant to leave. Additionally, with our identities so completely intertwined with our work as an “Arts Leader,” many of us balked at the idea of walking away from something to which we had devoted our entire adult lives. Without these jobs in these organizations that we had worked so hard to create and inhabit, what meaning was there in our lives?

Furthermore, over the years that we had selflessly worked for arts organizations we had discounted our own health and well-being and sacrificed our future “for the good of the organization.” Many of us went without health insurance; most failed to invest in retirement. Now, approaching age 65 and beyond, the decision to keep working “until I die in the chair” was as much about money as it was about meaning. So we stayed; and continue to stay.

In some large organizations, with more stable and secure finances, arts leaders actually did invest in their future, so they could, and did, retire. But then, as search firms and search committees looked around for their replacements, another trend emerged. Not only were younger people lacking the “deep experience” that every job posting asks for in executive roles, it became clear that many younger people actually didn’t want those jobs! Watching their “elders” in these all consuming, eighty hour a week jobs devoted to a LOT of “administrivia,” many of the next generation were thinking, “Why would I want that job? It’s enormously stressful and unhealthy!” Who can blame them? We are now in this interesting phenomenon in which organizations are looking for leaders who fit a leadership profile that fewer people fulfill, and even fewer want to fulfill. This is not quite the leadership crisis we expected.

But is it really a crisis? Or is it a chance to remake our field and the very concept of leadership in a healthier way? To answer that, we need to step back and take a more expansive view of the world we live in and how we might need to rethink our idea of what makes a healthy organization and what a healthy leadership approach actually might be.

As the contours of our world are changing, and as organizations become more multi-faceted and diverse in their composition and staffing, ideas of what makes a healthy organization are evolving. I want to focus here on two major external trends that are, in my view, transforming our understanding of healthy leadership and functional organizations.

First, thanks largely to the internet and all its technological progeny, we are now living in a horizontal, networked world, not the vertical, hierarchical world that we Boomers inherited, sustained and still try to sustain even as we see it no longer operative. “Information wants to be free” may be old (and debatable) news but it is a signifier of the wholesale disruption of hierarchical patterns of control that once were signifiers of a “strong” or “healthy” organization. Social media and its ilk mean that everyone has access to everyone and everything all the time. Information chaos reigns in the contemporary world and no carefully designed, centralized, “chain of command” system can contain that chaos. We see evidence of that everywhere we turn from politics, to media, to education, to health care. All of our previously stable, solid, societal institutions are being upended and remade. Why would we think the arts would escape this fate?

Second, as the population continues to diversify and the values and beliefs of the multiple cultures that comprise the country proliferate throughout all of our societal structures, organizational systems that have been created, controlled and dominated by straight white men and the people who try to act like them, become increasingly susceptible to disruption and transformation. When the dominant culture (which actually thought/thinks of itself as the “only” culture), is confronted with the reality of its loss of the power that comes from being the dominant culture, organizational change has to occur. Command and control can no longer command or control the organization.

Happily, ideas like leadership are not the province of a single culture and a healthy organization recognizes that and embraces multiple leadership strategies to insure organizational health. We are now in a world of shared leadership, consensus decision-making, horizontal organizational structures, team building, work-life balance and self-care to name only a few more effective, and healthier, approaches to organizational leadership. These are concepts that heretofore have been ridiculed as soft, non-competitive, unrealistic and similar adjectives that are used to denigrate what are actually policies and practices that are humane and respectful of our individual and collective selves.

As we move into a new world with alternative ideas of what a healthy organization is comprised of and what constitutes healthy leadership, those individuals and organizations that are riding these trends rather than fighting them are the ones that will emerge from the chaos of our transitional moment into a new, healthier environment.

So what should those who aspire to be healthy leaders and organizations be doing?

First, study environmentalism and resilience theory and re-envision your idea of what makes a sustainable (i.e. healthy) arts organization. There is an environmental concept that I love that defines sustainability as the endless striving for an unattainable ideal. Is there a better way to define art and therefore arts organizations? As artists, are we ever “finished” with the process of creation of a work of art? Healthy arts organizations must think in the same way; that our work is an endless process of striving for an unachievable ideal. It is the ideal that drives us to work; sustainability comes in the act of the work itself. It’s not about how big your organization’s budget is, or how many staff you have, or how stable (or maybe rigid?) you are! It’s about that vision—and the endless striving towards it—that makes you sustainable and healthy. Are you really working towards that ideal or are you just trying to grow your budget?

A new, resilient organizational vision also requires a new vision of leadership. Healthy organizations will look at the diversity of their staff and leadership for clues to new ways of providing organizational leadership. Do we really need a CEO “at the top,” a concept and a term that we have appropriated from the hierarchical, straight white male dominated business model of corporate America? This is an organizational form and structure that is, in fact, antithetical to who we are as artists and what we do as arts organizations. It stifles the creativity, experimentation and exploration that are, or should be, at the heart of our organization. Can we imagine new ways of working that has us thinking – and acting – more like the artists we are than the business people we most assuredly are not?

Now that we have (finally) made some progress towards bringing diverse voices into our organization, we need to bring those diverse leadership perspectives into our organization as well. Today’s arts leaders need to be open to alternative points of view, able to encourage intense and productive discussions and not threatened by dissent and disruption. The best arts leaders in today’s world must above all be synthesizers; people who can listen to and manage alternative, even conflicting points of view and synthesize them into a coherent organizational ethos. Getting everyone “on the same page” does not mean lock-step agreement to a single narrative but instead a somewhat loosely defined, adaptable idea based on where we are headed and able to acknowledge that multiple paths will get us there. Our willingness to tolerate an atmosphere of continuous change and adaptability to that change is what will make us both successful and healthy organizations.

In today’s chaotic environment we have a very human desire, perhaps need, for “stability” for “rock-solid” answers. We desperately seek a predictable future. This is not possible. It’s not the world we live in and there are no signs that events around us are going to get any less unpredictable than they are. So arts leaders interested in creating healthy arts organizations will have to strive for a more dynamic view of what stability means, one that is focused on the vision but willing to entertain multiple strategies to get us there. We just can’t be the “institution builders” that defined the Baby Boomer generation of leadership. Instead, we need to be facilitators and guides, helping steer our organizations through some very rocky waters.

Our choice now is to either adapt our organizations and our leadership to this changed world, or engage in the endlessly frustrating, unsatisfying and ultimately unhealthy way of working of the past.

Where are you headed?

This article appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of In Dance.

Kenneth Foster is Professor of Practice in the Thornton School of Music and Director of the Graduate Arts Leadership program at the University of Southern California. From 2003 to 2013 he was Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. His first book, Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice, was published in 2006. His second book, Arts Leadership; Creating Sustainable Arts Organizations, was published by Routledge Press in May 2018. He has an extensive national and international consulting practice for a variety of arts organizations, specializing in leadership development and innovative organizational design and planning for the 21st century. He currently resides in Pasadena with his partner Nayan Shah.