Arts Leaders Plan To Be Buried With Their Desks

Today the Hewlett Foundation released the results of a study on a question I have regularly written about over the last 7-8 years– When will non-profit executives retire so the younger generation can move into those leadership roles?

As before, the answer given by the report, Moving Arts Leadership Forward, was: Not any time soon despite all the predictions that mass retirements were upon us.

However, a ray of hope comes in the form of a qualification that hasn’t appeared before (my emphasis)

Sixty percent expected to remain in the paid workforce at least until the age of seventy, and eight percent said they did not expect to ever stop working for pay. Most late-career leaders are Baby Boomers, and the field can expect a durable Boomer presence through at least 2034, when the youngest Boomers will turn seventy. However, these late-career leaders weren’t looking to continue in the same positions indefinitely. Many were looking for capstone projects or positions and wanted to work in ways “where they are less in charge and have more flexibility and less responsibility

That bit of news made me wonder if this desire may have been part of the decision by the executive director of Forecast Public Art to step down after 38 years to take on the role of Director of Community Services for the organization.

The research report mentions that while it was once a concern about whether there were enough qualified people to replace the anticipated mass retirement, now there is a concern about whether enough early and mid-career professionals will patiently wait for executives to retire or if they will move to find careers in other areas beside the arts.

I should mention an important difference between this research report and ones I had previously cited. Where the others encompassed the non-profit field in general, this one specifically focuses on non-profit arts. Rather than trying to make general assumptions about what was likely to happen in the arts based on what was occurring in the non-profit field as a whole, we can get a more accurate picture from the responses of arts professionals.

One of the recent issues that seems to be specific to the arts is the term “emerging leader.” There has been a fair bit of discussion and a little controversy over the term because it has tended to be associated with age rather than career stage. As the report notes:

However, our data also found that the categories tend to associate age with career development needs, which does not reflect the realities of nonprofit arts leaders. And, late-career leaders can feel excluded by the terms, hindering the development of cross-generational connections that are vital to the health of the field.

In the report they use emerging leader to refer to people between the ages of 18 and 40, but in the future they say they will use different terms to delineate between people in early, mid and late career stages of leadership.

Another issue that emerged as fairly arts specific is the growing prevalence of arts management training programs over the last 20 years that have served to professionalize the sector. In the discussion of the consequences, they indirectly reference the ongoing conversation about who has the opportunity to participate in internships.

They also suggest that professionalization may lead to degree inflation that permeates most job descriptions, regardless of industry.

But professionalization of the sector has had unintended consequences. It creates an especially challenging environment for individuals with less formal education, raising questions about who has access and what resources are needed to realize a career in the arts today. Increased competition for positions of authority drives some early-career leaders to seek employment in sectors that offer more immediate opportunities for elevated responsibility, rapid career advancement, leadership status, and better pay. And increased professionalization, combined with a more crowded workforce, means that organizations can demand professional credentials for more mid-career positions, feeding the cycle of professionalization.

A concept I had not really seen discussed before was the necessity of mastering internally facing leadership and externally facing leadership.

“Internally facing” leadership includes the skills and knowledge that are needed to develop and align the resources (including people) within an organization to advance its goals. Professional development for internally facing leadership involves traditional opportunities, such as attending a conference dedicated to one’s field or bolstering one’s fundraising skills. “Externally facing” leadership extends beyond the walls of a single organization. It often focuses on field-level or cross-sector leadership, and embraces working for the good of something larger than one’s own organization.

What I found most appealing about this were the terms “field-level or cross-sector leadership” because I feel that this orientation will be important in helping arts organizations grow and develop.

The report notes that far from covetously grasping at their authority and historical practices, many executive leaders would like to create a more inclusive, cross-generational organizational culture. They “just lack models and the support for doing so.”

In an attempt to provide some useful guidance, starting around page 18 of the document, they make recommendations for moving toward more constructive organizational cultures which encompass everyone from foundations, boards and arts organization staff and leadership.

On page 21 they have a quiz to “help non-profit arts organizations identify and reflect upon the ways in which they currently practice leadership, and structure leadership opportunities across generations.” The quiz asks about adaptability, culture of learning, participation and decision making.

Following the quiz is a conversation guide to help with further reflection.

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.


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