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NY Philharmonic breaks the gender, age, and sexual orientation barriers

This past week I posted the NY Times article announcing the New York Philharmonic’s new president, Deborah Borda. I noted that Ms. Borda is 67 years old and openly gay and remarked that we have come a long way – age, gender, and sexual orientation did not matter when filling one of the most important arts leadership positions in the world.

 

I also noted that none of those criteria are really relevant; the best arts leaders are they who create great arts organizations and Ms. Borda, over her long tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, transformed the organization into one of the great orchestras ever – exciting and gifted music director and the highest level of music making; a commitment to new orchestra repertoire; a concentrated effort to engage new, non-traditional audiences; innovative use of electronic and social media; and the list goes on. And, the LA Phil is one of the financially healthiest ensembles of its kind.

So the choice was inspired and the selection committee was not daunted by gender, age or sexual orientation.   The post attracted significant attention, almost 1,000 views all told and many comments and “likes.” But beyond this victory for women, older folks and openly gay individuals, there is an important lesson here that, I believe, is worth noting and expanding upon.

I’ve been a headhunter for nonprofit organizations for over 35 years. During that time I have witnessed some bad behavior and heard the most outlandish comments from members of a search committee when deciding on candidates for CEO positions: “is the person too old, or, are they just looking for a retirement job;” “is she married, and do you think she will be having children?” “We really don’t want anyone who is homogeneous.” (yes, a search committee member once said that to me!).

Over a decade ago Bridgespan and Compass Point issued studies that predicted a shortage of leaders in the nonprofit sector. I wrote about the crisis in the nonprofit arts, and specifically in art museums. The gap, or shortage of leaders, will only widen as more leaders retire, as few boards institute succession plans and as the number of nonprofit organizations increases.

There is a more significant crisis in the arts. That is, most of the major US arts organizations are located in the large, urban cities, whose populations are quite diverse – ethnically, sexual orientation, etc. yet the leadership of these organizations is by and large white. The numbers are revealing- of the major ballet and dance companies in the country, less than 5% are lead (administratively) by anyone but a Caucasian; the numbers for theater and symphony orchestras are similar; and, for the forty largest performing arts centers in the country, almost all located in large urban cities, none is lead by anyone but a Caucasian.

The leadership gap in the sector is having some unintended: compensation for nonprofit CEOs is rising much more quickly than in other fields; searches are remaining open for longer periods of time; failed CEOs are getting second and third chances; and, we hope, search committees are dropping some long-held prejudices against age, gender, and sexual orientation. The challenge for further diversifying arts leadership is even greater because, with predominantly white search committees, there is often a lack of cultural competency (on the part of committees and candidates) that make these matches even more complex.

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