What a Seder Can Teach Us about Arts Leadership

Posted by Marc Vogl, Apr 07, 2010 7 comments

Who went to a Seder last week?

I went to one in San Francisco and, perhaps because I was thinking about what I wanted to blog about in this emerging leader’s discussion, I was struck by the protagonist at the center of the story. (I was also impressed with my sister’s matzah lasagna but that’s for another blog).

If the Seder were a cabaret the big number is the Ma Nish Tanah, and that solo belongs to the youngest person in the room. And, what does this person do with the spotlight? They start asking questions.

I may be stretching here, but I think there is an analogy that may apply to the discussion of inter-generational dynamics within an arts organization.  Because so many arts organizations operate on incredibly thin margins and strive to provide quality programming that their constituencies (audiences, students, community members, etc.) depend on, they are, necessarily, very focused on the tasks at hand: getting the show ready to open this weekend, preparing for a Board meeting tonight, or turning in the grant application in by  5pm.  Those in leadership positions especially carry the burden of executing the plan of record which, as many E.D.s will attest, means putting out the fire that’s blazing now or shifting the pots on the stove around so that none boils over today.

So, who is responsible for periodically stepping in and asking the elemental but critical questions?

Perhaps it should be those on top of the organizational structure – whether administratively or in governance positions at the board level – but frequently those are the people who must answer the questions.

In the Seder it’s the kids who sing out to the elders: why are we doing things the way we’re doing things?

And it is for everyone around the table to respond, and hopefully, to reflect for a moment on the history that informs that response, to consider the present circumstances and how times have changed, and maybe even to look ahead and determine what we can do going forward so that we don’t spend another year going through rote motions and taking important things (like freedom in the case of Passover, or making art that has meaning for those of us in this field) for granted.

In the non-profit world these kinds of conversations – if they happen – typically occur at a retreat. But how many organizations invite their youngest staff members to their retreats? Or, to echo a great comment that Josh made in his post, how many younger voices are heard on the Board?

Don’t misunderstand me. The role of youth is not limited to asking questions. Conversations are always richer when multiple voices are heard and sincerely engaged in a back and forth. I’m just observing that the script-writers of the Seder ceremony were on to something when they cast the young’uns as the ones best placed to get the night’s most important conversation rolling.

7 responses for What a Seder Can Teach Us about Arts Leadership


April 09, 2010 at 1:33 am

Great post Marc! Heads up--I'm riffing off this in my last post.

(By the way, I think we may be long lost cousins. Evidence: We've got the same last name--plus or minus an "e"; we've got similar academic tendencies; and we both like meals involving flat bread and parsley.)

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April 07, 2010 at 1:09 pm

I like this analogy, Marc. To take it a little further, the seder also has a really important instruction: "no matter how wise we are, no matter how old we are, no matter how much we know about the Torah, it is still our obligation to tell this story every year." In other words, no matter how veteran people at the top of the organizations are, it is still incumbent on them to periodically revisit why things work the way they work, and to invite everyone to ask questions and to imagine a journey together. Not every year, of course, but certainly once a year.

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Deena Mirow Epstein says
April 07, 2010 at 1:35 pm

What a wonderful analogy! Amazing how relevant things so old can be--and also how important it is to pass them on from generation to generation.
Any by the way, I would love to have the matzah lasagne recipe!

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April 08, 2010 at 7:32 am

This is great! Also relevant, I think, is the importance for young people in the arts to have a place where they can ask questions and try out ideas without having to have them fully formed yet. So often we feel pressure present things in finished form. In large conversations with leaders we want our comments to impress. At the inter-generational event that is the Seder, the same questions are asked every year. No pressure to be new and different or to bring the "unique perspective of a young person." Just to ask the questions and explore.

Next discussion: The Four Children...another Seder staple I am sure we could dissect, especially for arts education!

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April 08, 2010 at 7:43 am

Social comments and analytics for this post...

This post was mentioned on Twitter by salamicat: RT @Doallas: RT @Americans4Arts: Marc Vogl from Hewlett Foundation blogs today on "What a Seder Can Teach Us about Arts Leadership" http://bit.ly/9J1ieH...

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April 07, 2010 at 5:12 pm

It could apply to many organizations indeed.

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April 07, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I too love this. I agree about its relevance to the arts, yet I feel it applies to just about any organization we could imagine. You've eloquently made the case for listening to the youngest and those at the lowest in the hierarchy of our arts groups. In my experience the same is true for corporations.

And we all would profit from listening to the homeless, the imprisoned, and others who are considered the least of us. Can we imagine what it is to be in their shoes? More often than not, I've found they feel themselves blessed when I'm bemoaning what I lack.

I suspect we could pool an infinite number of lessons for the art world from the seder! Thank you for yours.

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