Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sustainability I: Secretary General Wanted!

So, I'm a little swamped since my family's trip to Alaska, and mentally I'm swamped because I haven't been able to sit down with Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class, a book which is step 1 in the project of quantifying the arts. There's a lot to be desired there, but... anyway...

I'm writing this actually about an email I got on a mailing list for Emerging Arts Leader. A decently large dance company named Misnomer Dance Company was looking for a Managing Director.

I was struck by a moment of shock as I looked at this. It seemed to me like putting out an ad for Vice President, or some equivalently crucial position. It just struck me as wrong to be putting out a web advertisement for one of the two most important positions in your organization.

Then I saw a similar, even more worrying ad, which read: NEEDED: Secretary-General. Amnesty International.

How does an organization go about looking for its own head? It seems to me that the day an organization has to search outside itself for a head is the day that organization dies. It's a complete failure for an organization to admit that none of the people who support the head of a company or group is capable of running the organization.

That's what the question of sustainability in a community arts program really means. When the person leaves, who do they leave behind? Who have they trained to continue in their role? Have they groomed the people who work with them to be heirs?

To cite a counter-example, two of my friends who didn't previously know each other but had both attended UCSB in different years chanced to meet. The older one (who graduated a few years ago) inquired as to whether an organization she founded was still in existence. It's purpose was to bring arts to an under-served community: theater to students not majoring in theater (who are often shut out of theater programs in schools that have theater departments).

She was pleased and surprised to find out that the other friend (who she had never met) had served as the chair of the same organization a year after she graduated, and that he had indeed passed it on to yet more students.

There had been a natural line of succession. I don't know if it had been planned or if it simply had the good luck to happen (as had happened at my high school with six successive years of a literary magazine before the ball was dropped).

The key of sustainability, in human terms, is succession. In fact, in this regard, the "Champion," who arts-communities hunger for, may in fact be harmful; many arts "champions" have a 'do-everything-themselves' ethos that actually fails to create the next generation of leaders.

An arts community has gained nothing if, a decade after it begins, it's forced to advertise "Arts Leader Needed. Email resumes."

1 comment:

Ian David Moss said...

Hmm. Well, this is an interesting perspective. I sympathize with some of your points in theory, but in reality a lot of times the true heart and soul of an arts organization is not (or at least is not seen as) its executive or managing director. Rather, it's the artistic director who really defines the vision and external identity for the org. Artistic director succession issues are huge in the arts, and have to do with generational changes as well as the natural lifecycle of organizations (i.e., when is it appropriate to let an organization pass away or retire along with its founder? More often than it actually happens, I feel). But for MDs and EDs, a lot of times what happens is that orgs look for an opportunity to "trade up" when the current person leaves, which in their minds means looking outside the organization. While I definitely believe in the benefits of hiring from within (posted about this a few months ago), the fact is that it's different when you're talking about an organization of 2-15 people rather than a megacorporation with thousands of employees. Sometimes the org might be heading into a different stage in its lifecycle than it has been and no internal candidate is really prepared to take on that challenge.