There Go The Brains of The Operation

I had been pondering on whether to post on this topic but Thomas Cott’s link to a Bloomberg News story about how leaders of arts organizations in the U.S. remain in that position far longer than colleagues in the UK.

The story weighs the benefits of leaders having long term relationships with donors vs. concerns about leadership becoming staid and slow to be responsive to changing times.

My concern comes from a slightly different, though related, direction. Over Christmas I received an email from a long time friend saying she was leaving the performing arts sector to take another job. We had been students together and I had initially modeled my career path after her’s until I realized I really didn’t want her career path. She was essentially the founding executive director for her organization and had held the job for over a decade before deciding to make the job change.

I have heard similar stories from other colleagues, including those in my cohort at Arts Presenters’ Emerging Leadership Institute. People ended up leaving performing arts, some only a few years after having earned a master’s in arts administration.

While I am pleased to see that a master’s in arts administration can get you jobs in other sectors, I am a little concerned about what this bodes for the future. I am not calling for long term arts leaders to vacate their positions and let others get their chance, though that is something that is frequently mentioned.

My concern is that there is going to be a huge leadership gap when the long time arts leaders do retire. My long time friend had about 20 years experience before she made her decision to leave the arts sector. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her assume a state or regional arts policy leadership position. Granted, she could easily return to assume such a role in the future. I wouldn’t discount it happening.

My knowledge of people leaving the arts is anecdotal and not backed by hard statistics, but I have to imagine there are quite a few others out there of whom I am not aware who are likewise leaving the arts. If so, there is a going to be a huge gap to fill if people with 10-20 years experience leave the sector with only those with less than 10 years experience to replace them.

And lets not forget, there is research showing that many people don’t want to become executive directors. There may be few of any level of experience who are willing to step up. This is where the research and the reasons given by my colleagues intersect–lack of opportunity and work-life balance are dissuading people.

I have written about this topic a number of times before throughout the years, but it was largely theoretical. Now I begin to see signs of the problem impacting my own experience and the repercussions become less abstract and more worrisome.

In terms of a solution, I look back to my post last month on the executive leadership as my best suggestion at this juncture. There I suggested there might be benefits in adopting emerging business models and changing job descriptions so that responsibility and involvement in marketing and development permeate the entire organization rather than being siloed.

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 ( 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. (

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.


2 thoughts on “There Go The Brains of The Operation”

  1. Joe – interesting post. I may be one of the ‘have kinda left the field and I may not come back’. I have a performing arts background (as a manager and consultant) in the USA and I now find myself a museum director in Australia. (I follow you in order to ‘keep up with things’). But given the current state of the sector (economy, new IRS regulations, current trend in boards running amuck, stress of fundraising, etc etc etc) after over 25 years in the field, I am not inclined to return to the stress and bother of executive leadership anytime soon. Especially if donor relations and fundraising is all I have to look forward to.

    Future planning (I don’t like the term succession because to me that implies planning for someone to leave and another person to try and take the first persons place rather than planning for the healthy and sustainable future of your organization … but I digress) future planning has been an interest of mine for years. When I was consulting it was a subject I could not stress enough. It is something I think is lacking here in Australia too.

    Despite the explosion of arts management courses and degree programs available (worldwide) there is this bizarre territoriality to arts leadership. So many directors and managers have struggled for so long to keep their organizations afloat the organization becomes like their children – and what parent wants to abandon their child? So they stay … they stay for years and years and years. They stay even after the ‘kids’ have suggested its time to go. Then, the institution is branded in the cult of personality and what new emerging leader can step into that void and try to live up to the expectations of Saint Former Executive Director? Then, as you so rightly point out, there are those who are not interested in being executives or directors. Who wants that hassle when programs officer is much more fun and they don’t have to raise money!

    I agree with you that the future mandates changes in job descriptions which allow for a greater breadth of shared responsibility. More importantly perhaps organizations should look at finding smart capable people who want to lead and allowing the job descriptions to be shaped by their strengths and capabilities. Then when a creative leader is in place forge a team that meets the organizations overall goals, rather than trying to force leadership to fit into a pre-designed job description with pre-determined individual goals. Just something to think about.

    • Padaric-

      Thanks for your detailed and impassioned comment. Everything you say (and more) is quite true. The one bit of hope I took from the article was a veteran arts person saying his generation’s time is coming to an end and that he viewed the younger generation as more responsive to changing times.

      So I hold out hope that things will gradually change for the better–though it may take longer in the US given the durability of the arts administrators there so change could potentially come a little too late.

      Perhaps we need to look to the Commonwealth Nations for some of our cues


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