Barry’s Blog has added two more questions to this week’s group panel on the future of the NEA. My answers are below; or you can check out the entire thing here (scroll down). If you do the latter, keep an eye out for Shannon Daut’s excellent comments on public arts agency leadership.
Q: We talk a lot about next generation succession and emerging leadership issues. What role do you think the Endowment should have in helping to train, prepare, develop and support the next generation of arts leaders and how might it go about that?
A: I believe that our field too often privileges experience at the expense of talent, learning ability, and entrepreneurial spirit. The wisdom of experience is not the same thing as the functional skills required to get things done. After all, how many arts organizations across the country are now redesigning staff job descriptions around maintaining a presence on Facebook, created by Mark Zuckerberg from his college dorm room?
What the field needs most in this area is a clear leadership pipeline for arts managers. The private sector has formed many fruitful partnerships with top colleges, professional schools, and so forth, establishing rotational leadership development or project management programs, 360-degree evaluation practices, and a clear “track” for professional advancement in many industries such as consulting and banking. While not all of these innovations may be the best choice for the arts, clearly our field has a lot to learn from our for-profit cousins.
While the burden of involving next-generation leadership in organizational decision-making will ultimately fall to arts organizations themselves, the advantage of getting the NEA involved in this discussion is its national and cross-disciplinary scope. For example, the League of American Orchestras has developed an exemplary orchestra management training program, but it will never be open to non-orchestra professionals because that would be outside of the League’s mission. A couple of participants in previous weeks of this blog drew attention to the untapped potential of the Endowment as a convener, particularly of national service organizations. I think this would be an excellent topic to bring up at such a convening—and please, NEA, if you do so, include emerging leader voices in your planning process.
The truth is, though, we don’t need the Endowment’s help to start taking better advantage of the contributions of emerging leaders. Most of the bright younger and newer arts professionals I know are not hard to find; it’s just that their entry-level or junior management positions don’t afford them the kind of platform that others in the field have to make their intelligence and insight obvious to everyone. If your organization doesn’t already involve the entire staff in strategic conversations about the future, there’s nothing preventing you from changing that tomorrow. If your organization’s board doesn’t already include voices from people younger than in their forties, that’s an easy change to make. If you don’t have any idea of what your direct reports think about how the organization could do what it does more effectively, ask them. You might be pleasantly surprised by what they come up with.
What would you like to see the Endowment accomplish? What policies should govern its actions? What should be its priorities? If you were to advise Rocco Landesman on what the agenda for the NEA should be –what would you tell him?
As I mentioned in a comment the other week, it strikes me that the NEA and most of its followers have focused quite narrowly on the concerns of nonprofit arts organizations in the United States. In a perfect world, I would like to see the arts field work much more collaboratively and proactively with other fields. There are a myriad of ways in which the arts intersect with broader federal and societal priorities. As Chairman Landesman has recognized, the arts potentially have a gigantic role to play in the economic revitalization of neighborhoods and downtowns, particularly outside of major metropolitan areas where small investments can make a big difference. So why isn’t there more interaction with Housing and Urban Development? The arts are widely regarded as the linchpin of a broader creative economy, due to the space they provide for innovation for its own sake. So why are the arts so rarely a part of the discussion of the White House’s new Office of Social Innovation? Our world is rapidly becoming more integrated even as it becomes more complex. If the recent political brouhahas involving the NEA teach us anything, it should be that we can’t afford to stay in our silos for much longer.
Beyond that, I would encourage the Chairman to focus on the infrastructure of arts production in the way that I mentioned earlier. While the Endowment already does a decent job of spreading funds around both geographically and to organizations of different budget sizes, the fact remains that the vast majority of arts organizations have no hope of receiving an NEA grant because they are too small. Arts organizations receive far more from the federal government in the form of Congressional earmarks than they do through the Endowment’s competitive process. Given that large, established institutions have by far the most tools at their disposal (prestige, connections, large customer base, individual donors) with which to ensure their own survival and artistic success, I believe that the Endowment’s resources would be best directed toward the identification and support of exemplary “under the radar” arts programs, including innovative models for cultural production and distribution.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the Endowment’s value in centralizing attention on issues of fieldwide interest has yet to be fully realized. By convening discussions relevant to the field and by commissioning high-quality research that enhances our understanding of what the arts do and how they do it (not just how many artists and patrons there are), the Endowment could provide an extremely valuable service that not many others would be in a position to duplicate.