How To Be an Arts Leader


Teaching Artist Leah Padow's visual arts class at Playa del Rey Elementary | Photo generously taken by Alex de Cordoba, Courtesy of P.S. Arts

ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.

Have you noticed the number of arts leadership training programs that have popped up over the last five years or so? Arts service organizations have programs, so do colleges and universities, even charitable foundations have jumped on the arts leadership training bandwagon. Most of these programs are carefully designed and well-intentioned and provide would-be arts leaders with good management skills, encouragement, and networking opportunities including introductions and access to existing arts leaders. The shared goal of most arts leadership training programs is to prepare individuals to effectively run arts organizations. Sounds good.

In 2010, Grantmakers in the Arts published an article written by Russell Willis Taylor and Andrew Taylor called "The Smart Marketplace: Bridging the Gaps in Arts Leadership Training." The article suggests that while numerous training programs exist there is an absence of connective tissue between training programs, personalized help, and support. "We suggest that neither the quality of prospective leaders nor the quantity of professional training opportunities is the problem. Rather, we are missing a free-flowing and responsive information network that would help match the two more effectively."

Personally, I think that leadership challenges do not result from training programs or ineffective support networks, they result from the rigid hierarchy that forms the super structure of the arts. If we step back and look at arts communities from a distance, it's easy to see that leadership is designated in a very specific manner. The individuals sitting at the leadership table are the heads of major arts institutions and arts funders. Into this mix is frequently added the heads of a few ethnically-specific organizations. Whether or not these individuals have leadership ability is less important than the high profile role they play in the community.

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If you are just entering the field and hope to become an arts leader, you must consider the realities of the environment within which you want to exist. Leadership programs will train you to be a good manager and, if you are a natural leader, you will do well in any organization you chose, but to ensure that you become a designated arts leader you must make a critical decisions related to how you will "situate" yourself in the community, and you should make these decisions early on. For example, when I began my career in arts management I discovered very quickly that I am most interested in the work of small and mid-sized arts groups. I also like sitting in the margins of the arts community because it gives me a unique perspective. I have little interest in being an arts leader in the traditional sense, so my career strategies did not include working with institutions. If you truly want to be an arts leader, you will not become one as a result of a training program. You must chart a course that leads to upper management positions in arts institutions or arts funding organizations. That's just the way it is or, rather, the way it always has been.

Is top down, designated leadership the most effective type of leadership for the arts? Probably not, but what's the alternative? Is it possible to insert an organic leadership pipeline into the existing arts hierarchy? Now there's something for emerging arts leaders to consider.


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