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.