Arts Leadership and the Changing Social Contract

Posted by Emiko Ono, Apr 15, 2014 4 comments

Emiko Ono Emiko Ono

Since I began working in the arts in 2001, there has been a subtle but constant pressure on the sector to transform that can be both distressing and motivating. I will never forget the time in 2003 when Mark O’Neill, then the Head of Museums and Galleries for the city of Glasgow (Scotland), described how a population of shipyard workers reported that they did not attend a nearby museum because the price of admission was too expensive. The nauseating twist was that the museum did not have an admission fee. Last week, this story came to mind again as I spoke with Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and an arts leader with more than 25 years of experience. Susie’s hypothesis—that the tacit social contract between society and arts organizations is changing—is one I have found to be incredibly useful. The premise of her theory is that it is no longer sufficient for arts organizations to provide distinctive work, attract an audience, and secure financial support—it needs to include wider swaths of people who are largely not involved. 

In the past, a productive arts organization was understood to contribute to a community’s quality of life and help drive its economy—it was inherently perceived to be a public good. This “social contract” is fraying based on a growing awareness of the very real inequities that exist in the United States (and Scotland, for that matter). The nonprofit arts sector, including its funders, is increasingly expected to do more for distressed and marginalized communities if it is to merit designation as a public good.

As demonstrated by Mark O’Neill and Susie Medak, many of today’s arts leaders are proactively examining and addressing the complex challenges that confront the sector. At the Hewlett Foundation, we believe that the vitality of the arts is fundamentally dependent on the strength of its leadership. For our field to thrive alongside change, we need to ensure that we are preparing up-and-coming leaders to match the challenges that will come, and not assume that the current leadership transition will take care of itself. I would argue that we need to be investing more in leadership development and preparing people in different ways to ensure emerging arts leaders have what it takes to lead transformations, as the changing social contract implies is needed.

On investing more: Based on research conducted by the Irvine and Hewlett foundations between 2006 and 2009, we know that arts funders and leaders can be doing more to support and prepare emerging arts leaders. After all, these individuals are most likely to step into existing arts leadership roles or create new ones.

Since 2010, the Irvine and Hewlett foundations have invested approximately $2 million to support next gen leaders (generally those in their 20’s and 30’s with less than ten years of experience in the field) through three components: emerging leader networks, professional development grants for individuals, and grants for organizations to test projects that address the needs of younger arts leaders. (The two grant programs are administered by the Center for Cultural Innovation, which is in the midst of a thoughtful leadership transition spurred by the movement of its baby boomer leader.) While it’s difficult to say exactly what is the best way to prepare leaders, a recent independent assessment of the Next Generation Arts Leadership Initiative demonstrates that all three components of the Irvine and Hewlett foundation’s partnership are showing promising results.

One of the many encouraging findings is that a large majority of respondents (roughly 75 percent) reported that receiving a $1,000 professional development grant increased their commitment to, and likelihood of staying in, the field. It shows that a small investment can go a long way—and ought to prompt funders and arts leaders alike to consider how they might integrate a small professional development fund into an existing grant program or offer it as a staff benefit. When you dig a little deeper into the demand for the grants (since the grants began in July 2010, nearly 450 applications have been received and 350 grants have been made) and how people have used the individual grants, you see a real hunger for professional growth. Some individuals designed projects that involved a career coach (9 percent), while others shadowed a current arts leader (4 percent). One participant designed an arts pilgrimage to visit ten innovative museum education spaces, gaining insights to inform her organization’s facility expansion plans and a network of professional contacts along the way.

On different approaches: While I am heartened by the promising indicators from the Next Gen Initiative, and feel it’s a crucial line of support in a field that is notorious for its low wages and benefits, I cannot help but wonder if we should also be doing more to prepare leaders in different ways. For example, Teach for America, the nonprofit that places high-performing college graduates in disadvantaged schools, is known for having spawned a new generation of make-no-excuses education reformers. I would argue that the changing social contract will increasingly require arts leaders to also be arts reformers. Based on a 2011 study on measuring and building social movements and work by NCRP on building relationships among funders and emerging leaders, my sense is that arts leaders will increasingly need to attune to the concerns of the communities in which they work, build relationships across sectors, actively consider how the arts can contribute to larger social and civic goals, and direct productive arts organizations. If rewriting the social contract between arts organizations and the communities they serve is a central task (and I believe it is) we should be doing even more to prepare leaders to be the authors that we need and want.


Are you interested in hearing more about arts leadership and emerging arts leaders? Join Americans for the Arts for our Arts Leadership preconference at Annual Convention 2014 in Nashville!

This blog is part of our Emerging Leaders Blog Salon this week, and is generously sponsored by Patron Technology

4 responses for Arts Leadership and the Changing Social Contract


Carol Lien says
April 19, 2014 at 10:47 pm

If new leaders in the arts can come up with a way to get shipyard workers and their like into museums, it will, for the most part, be a first.

I am in my 70s and have, on occasion, urged people, usually my inner-city adult students, to expand their experiences in ways such as visiting museums. The response was always either no response, or something like, "Me? --in a museum??" I found, even, that many people will neither listen to a public radio station nor watch a PBS TV channel because they don't identify themselves as belonging to the group who do such things. One man I spoke to would not even listen to an FM radio station--in the privacy of his truck! "I listen to AM," he said with finality--after I had told him about a program that I knew he would be very interested in.

I used to make it a requirement that my students get a public library card and bring me the card and two books that they had checked out--in order to pass the class. They fought me tooth and nail: argued vehemently, brought me books that they had purchased, brought me other people's library cards, said they couldn't find a library, etc. etc. When they finally decided I was serious and broke down and actually went to the library, their reactions were quite positive, but I doubt they ever went back. They felt that people were staring at them, wondering, "What's he doing in a library?" Also, they didn't like going to such a place alone, but would not consider asking a friend to go with them out of fear that the friend would make fun of, or reject a person who would enter a library. They even lied to their siblings and parents about where they were going when they left the house on the dreaded errand.

I am not surprised that the Glasgow shipyard workers came up with an excuse for not having visited the museum. But it is interesting that they came up with one designed to make the "establishment" folks feel guilty. I doubt they would go even if you paid them well to do so--not unless you could somehow guarantee that no one they knew would see them there, nor ever find out that they had set foot in the place.

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Brad Erickson says
April 21, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Thanks, Emiko. So right in many ways. The story from Glasgow is nauseating - and the writer above, Carol Lien, is correct in assessing that what the shipyard workers were really saying is they felt the museum was not for people like them -- they would side with the American mentioned above in thinking they were AM working class folks, not FM swells (even though FM radio is just as free as AM).

Can today's emerging leaders help repair the frayed social contract Susie talks about? As a theater person, I think about some of today's most exciting playwrights -- Tarell McCraney, Katori Hall, Luis Alfaro, Marcus Gardley -- and wonder if artists like these - artists who did not grow up in the privileged parts of our society that feel comfortable in our traditional arts venues - if these artists can help emerging leaders - and those of us veterans as well - to reach the wider swaths of the community that we must include if society is going to renew our social contract. Last fall the NEA showed that only 15% of Americans attended a musical in 2012; less, 8%, a stage play (at any kind of theater - high school, regional, Broadway, whatever). Meaning the VAST majority of Americans never stepped inside a theater in all of that year. And theater is one of the more popular disciplines! Society is right in saying we must do better if we want our contract renewed. Perhaps our emerging leaders can partner with our emerging artists in bridging the gap, and making 85% of America feel that the work we do is for them.

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Richard Rowe says
April 19, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Opened my eyes as to the future of the arts community--both in terms of what is being done now and more importantly what needs to be done in the future.

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Karen Hammond says
April 18, 2014 at 8:50 pm

A great insight into the future of art and where its leaders need to be.

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