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Succession Planning

Most failing arts organizations hang on long after they should because one small constituency supports it: whether the arts council panel who continues to support a noncreative poorly run organization because it is “the only one” serving the community, or the wealthy patron who continues to use personal wealth to extend the life of an organization, the organizations don’t meet the test of relevance and access (or they would be more broadly supported).

Diane Ragsdale wrote “let’s change the artistic directors and/or the managing directors after a time, say, every seven years.”

As to the suggested solutions, beyond letting it happen naturally, I offer an objection to just the third solution: term limits.

I don’t agree that there should be forced churn in arts organizations. First of all, by proclaiming such a premise, it gives it credence. Yes, let’s make sure that managing directors and artistic directors leave after seven years. But, in the arts, as in other ventures, productions take time – time to test out things, time to support hunches and risks that may not pan out, and, quite simply, time to develop a work or a new ensemble or a new creative team – likewise, most exhibitions require three or four years from concept to opening. I have at least two further objections to the argument:

First, who is the “us” in the “let’s.” “We” don’t have control over this, in part it is the arts leader herself (she may choose to move on or to become an independent) or perhaps the board who desires a change. I hope that the day never comes when it is simply the audience, or the critics or (god forbid) a funder who is the “us.”

Secondly, there is ample proof that the inverse of the proposition is true. The great arts institutions are led by individuals who have been in their positions for a significant period of time – in fact, I would posit that seven years is more the minimum. An artistic leader and institution require time to generate the credibility to attract artists, the best arts leaders have the instincts to support a new playwright and produce his first three plays though they are financial failures, so that the fourth can be win a Pulitzer prize.

And my response does not presuppose the absence of small organizations. There are numerous examples of non-traditional arts organizations whose managing directors or artistic directors created strong, accessible, creative and relevant organizations after taking three or four years to “right the ship,” only then to point it in the right directions and to lead it forward.

James Abruzzo, Consultant, Consulting, Executive Search, Nonprofit Compensation, Expert Witness, Succession Planning

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