We DO NOT Need Another Abraham Lincoln

Last month, Drew McManus posted that we need another Abraham Lincoln. He didn’t go into many details, but I wonder what he could be thinking. Since he suggests replacing Henry Ford with Abraham Lincoln as an exemplar, perhaps he is implying musicians need to be freed from the slavery of assembly line performance where standardization makes one concert interchangeable with any other concert.

All Abraham Lincoln exemplifies is lead from behind disengagement. When Republicans met in Chicago to nominate someone for president, Lincoln was in Springfield content to let his surrogates drum up support. After he was nominated for president, he didn’t even hit the campaign trail, again content to let surrogates like Henry Seward, a former rival for the nomination, speak for him while he sat in Springfield never making a speech.

Heck, Lincoln was so disengaged, he wasn’t even going to go vote on election day until someone pointed out it was his civic responsibility to do so for state and local races also being run that day.

This is not the type of leadership the arts need, especially orchestras. They need leaders who are engaged and involved with all their constituencies.

You may say that this is unfair and the Lincoln was only following the custom of the time and you would be correct. In Team of Rivals , Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Lincoln’s opponent in the presidential race, Stephen Douglas,

“Disregarding criticism that his unbecoming behavior diminished the “high office of the presidency…to the level of a county clerkship,” he stumped the country…becoming “the first presidential candidate in American history to make a nationwide tour in person.”

Even though Douglas was supportive of the spread of slavery, shouldn’t we look to him and the strength of character it took to break with tradition and face criticism when the country was at the brink of a national crisis as an example of leadership for the arts?

All right, so…. admittedly I am exploiting the fact Drew was a little vague about what characteristics of Lincoln are needed and quoting from a book whose premise is that Lincoln was a good organizer of people rather than a solitary leader to refute Drew’s thesis. Lincoln was faced by challenging circumstances which forced him to alter his position and practices throughout his career. That is what makes it so easy for those with opposing political view points to claim him as their own. It is easy to cherry pick from different periods of his life.

Not to mention that some people’s strength lies in mobilizing capable subordinates while others are really only effective when they step to the fore. There is probably more blame to be attached to bowing to pressure and adopting practices that run counter to your leadership strengths than to resisting popular expectations in order to operate effectively.

The fact that I was being intentionally inflammatory doesn’t diminish the fact that we are at a crossroads in history that will demand changes in behavior. Some aspects of how we operate may never change.

Lincoln stayed at home and didn’t make speeches because he didn’t want to commit to any course of action or give the newspapers anything to misconstrue. Today we expect presidential candidates to make an appearance everywhere, but they still try their hardest not to commit to anything specific and fear what the media may make of what they say.

For his time, Lincoln was actually rather politically savvy and aware of all the different constituencies he needed to please. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the reasons why Henry Seward didn’t get the nomination was because he spent the summer touring Europe while Lincoln was shoring up his support among key groups.

The changes the arts world need to effect are numerous or else there would be little for myself and hundreds of other arts bloggers and writers to talk about. So in effect we DO need someone like Lincoln as a leader, one who can recognize they stand at the crux of complicated times that requires one to change and respond in a nuanced manner.

There is a lot to admire in Henry Ford. He did much to improve the lives of his workers, but like the parts of his automobiles, they were viewed as parts that could be replaced without any impact to the viability of the company. Ford created a system where the means of production was low skilled labor. That is not necessarily the case with the arts.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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