The Brunch Conversation (or 2030 Vision in Arts Leadership)

Posted by Jonathan Elliott, Apr 02, 2012 6 comments

Jonathan Elliott

This post began as a series of thoughts on the future of human resources in the arts, and opened up into a personal conversation gone global.

Also, it involves something I am deeply passionate about: brunch.

Once a year, my friend and I—let's call her Kay—get together for brunch. It's important for us to check in with one another, to swap ideas about careers, arts management dilemmas, and our Netflix queues.

Kay and I have been friends for twelve years; we've both just turned thirty, we both hold MAs in Arts Management, and we both work in jobs we love, for arts organizations on opposite coasts.

Kay took a big bite out of her bagel and lox and said to me, "I'm leaving the industry."

I blinked three times, as she took a deep breath and told me that, while she loved working in arts marketing, and while it was a fulfilling and affirming line of work, she had desires in life that she and her husband couldn’t reconcile against the current job offerings and future of the industry. I leaned back in my chair, which is the universal sign between the two of us for “game on.”

What happened next was a long debate about what we have in our lives and what we want, and our accomplishments and what’s going to happen next.

She cited domestic and foreign statistics via Neil Gaiman, I threw back an inspiring reflection or two that sparked conversations between us in the past. I reminded her that we love this, that we’re both good at this, and that the reasons we stay are interspersed amidst stories that can’t happen anywhere else.

We’ve both worked exclusively in the not-for-profit arts sector since we were 18; in my various jobs, I’ve found myself feeding peacocks, serving as a temporary guard to a second casting of Felix de Weldon’s Marine Corps War Memorial, debating the finer points of grammar with Edward Albee over a program note, and finding a spare piece of restroom decoration as a show memento for BD Wong (don’t ask).

The point is, in addition to the particular touchstones and passionate reasons for our both being arts participants and advocates, we’d attracted a whole host of unique, weird, beautiful stories by being in this business for the entirety of our adult lives.

We’ve made solid careers in this industry, and will grow into leadership positions of repute if we continue to advance. We’re doing good work, making change possible where and when we can, and that the potential for real growth and change in the American arts landscape does indeed lie ahead.

And Kay, in response, cited evidence and analysis that resources may in fact continue to truncate, into a future where the mid-range arts organization will not exist. She had accepted a position in which her communications and marketing skills would be used towards pharmaceuticals.

She wanted a retirement plan, and a developed human resources policy and protections, and health benefits conducive to starting a family—none of which she could find in her current position, despite its immense level of personal satisfaction and provision of meaningful work.

“I want kids,” she said, throughout the conversation, as a defense against my gobsmacked look of disbelief. I didn’t, and still don’t, buy that as an exclusive to leave the industry, as dozens of fantastic professionals across facets of arts management and administration are able to have families. Of course there are ways to make it work, but what Kay’s sentiment boiled down to was the big questions:

“What can be done to this field to continue and attract the best candidates, in order to keep them from leaving, nurture them into appropriate leadership positions, and leverage their skills to actively grow arts participation and interaction in this country, instead of simply managing a decrease in resources?

How do we keep the best and brightest of us in this field? What is 2030 going to look like if we don’t?”

We paid our check and left the restaurant. And I still haven’t generated an answer I’m satisfied with, as yet.

So I turn the debate over to you, dear reader: what keeps us here? What keeps you in the field, in particular? What is going to need to change or remain in order to retain us in the future? How do we get there?

I look forward to these answers, and I look forward to sharing them with Kay, over our next brunch, in an effort to lure her back. The floor is yours, colleagues.

Game on.

6 responses for The Brunch Conversation (or 2030 Vision in Arts Leadership)


April 03, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Greg, I'm right there with you. I guess what I'm really looking for here is--are there ways that, through interaction or partnerships, we can find a way to band together and offer competitive benefits, if not necessarily wages? Can organizations team up or absorb HR responsibilities amidst each other to offer 403b retirement plans and more sturdy health benefits?

What ways, small and large, can we offer some semblance of security for those who want to stay in this field for the long haul?

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Greg Burbidge says
April 03, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Jonathan -- That's a great post. I would say it's unproductive because now I've spent far too long looking out the window, thinking of people that have recently left the field here, and pondering your questions but without coming up with solutions.

I would say 'getting there' once we know where 'there' is will be easier, as attrition is a problem we see so much of and so many want to fight it. I'm curious to know if you or others have heard of other fields that have successful turned the attrition wagon around in their own fields and how it was done?

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Anthony says
April 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Hello. I graduated from the Juilliard acting program in '09. My passions lie in the performing of theatre as well as the executive aspects of it (non-profit sector to be precise).
I formed a theatre company when I was 18 with my graduating high school classmates who all got accepted to other major theatre conservatories around the country (NCSA, CalArts, Rutgers, BU), and we came back to our hometown of San Antonio over Christmas and winter breaks to work on projects together and learn from each other's teachings at school. We called ourselves The Convergent Theatre Company.
Fast forward 6 years to today after becoming non-profit, producing a play in NYC and receiving 2 NEA grants, I am currently in talks with a $200M performing arts center in San Antonio about becoming the resident theatre company when it opens in 2.5 years. It's not a done deal, but it's looking very positive (and frankly, I'd like to shout out to anybody who is really passionate about this topic of "The Best Human Resources for the Industry" and urge you to connect with me if you have valuable resources that could maybe help me secure the position :))
Anyway, this is where my life intersects with this blog. Becoming resident theatre company is a serious thing. I didn't get asked to become resident. I stuck my nose in there and inquired about the feasibility of it, which I was told was low at first. But I love my hometown, I love theatre, I'm got vision and management/leadership skills for days, and I want to be in that space.
So I did my research. I used my contacts from Juilliard and made new contacts by visiting the offices of executive directors and artistic directors around the country - theatre industry leaders like Ken Foster at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Chris Shuff at Theatre Communications Group, Thomas Cott at Alvin Ailey Dance Company and many MANY more - and learned about where the industry was at and where they think it's going.
While I'm hearing all the different points of view and personal stories after the 2008 financial collapse, I'm creating a business plan for my theatre in this new space in San Antonio. It had to address the key issues we face in the arts today:
-significant dwindling of contributed funds (foundations and govt)
-lack of creativity on the business side
-financial mismanagement - just to name a few.

Out of these "given circumstances" and my own personal history and tastes, I created a new vision. A modern vision. One that allows a culture to exist around the theatre company without the sole focus being the productions. There will still be shows in the traditional sense where audiences sit in seats and watch the work, but that's just the "meat at the buffet". Everyone needs a little corn, a little broccoli, a little ice cream to go along with their main course. Can't be just meat!
I won't delve into all the details, but suffice it to say that:
-besides just plays audeinces will experience more ARTISTIC content (online and at more frequent "mash-up events". This new content is THEATRICAL in nature (not boring interviews and "sneak peeks") and it feeds the diversity artists/audiences/instituionalists crave.
-It's social. We encourage co-created experiences. When audiences can get access to face time with artists, the company develops individual relationships in the community and achieves not only new audiences, but repeat audiences who want to deepen their involvement and become owners of their experience, which is good for everyone.
-There's a daycare involved.
-People can actually know what parking space they're going to park in before they leave their house, so the anxiety of arriving late because of limited parking is gone. Again, good for everyone.

If you can achieve a few key things that are "good for everyone", the company, the institution, and the audiences can feel comfortable taking risks and doing what a theatre company is supposed to do - SUCCEED!!

We're providing real value to our audiences. We're going above and beyond (and OUT-OF-THE-BOX) to care for their ENTIRE experience, so they're not sitting on benches for 4 hours watching Hamlet or seeing a boring-ass website.

I think I'm done. I am very passionate about creating a space where artists, audiences and institutionalists feel EXCITED about going because there are things to do there!! That's the future folks. I don't know about 2030. I hope it doesn't take that long for theatres in this country to overhaul their cultures to a more social, friendly/welcoming, and dare-i-say "less uppity" environment. I think a great example of this is The Signature Theatre in NY with it's new complex in NY. Jim (Sig Artistic Director) nailed some big issues right on the money and created a place that people want to go.

The Convergent Theatre Company will hopefully secure this residency in San Antonio and reverberate throughout the entire industry.

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April 16, 2012 at 11:14 am

Hey Anthony--

Thanks for the response. I have fourquestions for you.

1.Have you conducted a feasibility study to gauge supply versus demand of the arts in your community, prior to beginning this endeavor?

2.Do you have a five year plan for both programming and aligned revenue? How do you plan to provide staff continuity through this crucial period?

3.If I'm a late twenties, early thirties young professional with a real talent for and experience in nonprofit finances, marketing and/or management, what makes working for your company a viable alternative to a larger--and arguable more stable--environment, in this or another industry?

4.What does your company provide to someone who has no experience in attending theater?

Well, that's more like four and a half, considering number 2, but I hope the considerations of these drive my point home--how are "startups" in this industry actually faring as far as acquiring talent and resources necessary for sustainability? Do we need more arts organizations or less, given the amount of committed staff we have in the field right now? And what's going to convince a new audience member that you're going to stick around, instead of fading away after a season or two or three, like so many of our contemporaries and predecessors?

Looking forward to your responses!

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Ms. Devra L. Thomas says
April 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm


Coming to this post a little late (from a link in You've Cott Mail a few days back) but I'd like to throw out a few things, from a female perspective, to add to Kay's dilemma.

For most of us women in small to mid-sized arts orgs, especially performing arts, the work schedule is not structured around a Mon-Fri 8-5 time frame. But the (almost) entirety of support structures available are in that period. Introducing a family into this equation is nigh-on impossible for some people, simply difficult for those of us a little more blessed. I had a child at the same time I started working full-time in theater management and she has been shuffled from home to multiple grandparents' homes to friend's to paid babysitters, because we had to build our own support structure so that I could pursue-- what is still-- a meaningful career. I've known stage managers, designers, directors, and actresses to drop out of the scene entirely while their children were young because there wasn't another viable option. It's not just audiences we lose because we don't provide childcare, it's our internal stakeholders as well.

I know that is one small part of Kay's (and your) argument but it is one that pervades the talk of women in the field. I would suggest we figure out how to borrow from the hospital field, which offers round-the-clock child care for their multiple shift workers, to support our first to second to late night shift needs. And before anyone asks "How would we afford it?", I don't have an answer to that. But if we can't raise our own families within the context of the arts, how do we have a credible stance for asking anyone else to?

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April 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Well said, Devra! As a gay man who desperately wants kids in the near future, it's equally a challenge; the basic Human Resources gaps of this industry--from protections against sexual harassment and malfeasance on down to issues like childcare, maternity/paternity leave, adequate savings assistance and competitive benefits--are big detractors. If you're the "best and brightest" of this business, odds are another industry--say, the for-profit entertainment sector--is going to find those same candidates attractive, and are going to also make a bid at snapping them up.

How do we avoid handicapping ourselves further, by letting our most driven and mobile candidates tumble into industries that will let them build more well-rounded lives?

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