The arts leadership dichotomy and why it works

I read this blog post by James Undercofler on the ArtsJournal site (thanks to Thomas Cott for highlighting it!) on Monday and it got me thinking about this strange dual leadership model we have in the performing arts.  Undercofler talks about a model where an Artistic Director, in theory, leads the artistic vision of a company while only actually in residence for as little as 15 weeks a year.  Meanwhile, a Managing Director does the work of running the company on a daily basis and, in many cases, making decisions that intimately affect the artistic output, all the while trying to appear to only do administrative work. 

While I hear this is often true at symphonies, opera companies, and the like across the nation, I find a very different reality in the theatre world.  Most of us don’t have the funds to have a support staff that allows an artistic director to go off to do other projects for 3/4 of the year and, more recently, we seem to be cutting costs by having our artistic directors direct all or almost all the productions in our season. (this is a topic for a completely different post!)  So, instead of the conundrum listed above, we find ourselves with the potential to have the best of both worlds.  I know many companies are choosing to save money by combining the roles of artistic and managing director right now (we just made this decision at Synchronicity) and, especially for smaller companies, this may be the way to go for the short-term.  However, I believe for companies with budgets of $500k or more, this dual leadership model is necessary for the long-term health of the organization.

Not only is it extremely difficult to find leaders who have to aptitude, desire, and concrete skills to perform all artistic and managerial roles, our leadership dichotomy can actually allow for greater artistic freedom and stronger support of the artistic product.  It allows the artistic director to dream big and concentrate on what would be best for the artistic health and growth of the mission, while the managing director sets about to facilitate that vision.  When I say “facilitate” I don’t mean “make it all happen this year.”  It is the job of the managing director to figure out an appropriate timeline that allows for the raising of the needed funds for the A.D.’s big projects and helping the A.D. to find fulfilment along the way.

I do think that there are some fundamental structural needs to allow this partnership to work in the best way possible.  First of all, the A.D. and M.D. need to both feel secure in their positions and understand the nature of their roles, there are few things more destructive to this model than an A.D. who fears a strong M.D. (I’m sure the other way around is equally destructive, but I haven’t actually seen that scenario play out).    Next, they need to be true partners.  That means appearing side-by-side on the org chart as well as both reporting directly to and voting members of the Board of Directors.  It can be difficult for the managing partner to do their job (especially during difficult times) if they are in a subjugated position to the artistic head.  Finally, communication is the key.  Actually, this one probably should have gone first.  If the A.D. and M.D. cannot learn to speak the same language, and be completely transparent with each other, you will see nothing but crashing into brick walls.  However, I do think that the feeling of security and true understanding of the roles helps tremendously with communication.

When it works, our strange and unique leadership model brings out the best in the organization and allows it to thrive artistically, financially, and administratively.

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