Where are the Arts Managers?

The Scene: Dallas

Monday, January 23, 2012 - 06:00 AM

From KERA's Art & Seek, an online resource for arts, music, and culture in North Texas

The past two years, so many arts groups in North Texas have had to find new directors, managing directors and CEOs that people have wondered if there was something wrong — with the Arts District? With Dallas in general? It’s not an Arts District problem, not a North Texas problem.

It’s an arts problem.

It’s been like a revolving door all over North Texas. This is only a partial list of area arts groups that have had to hire a new CEO or managing director the past two years, or are still looking for one: the Dallas Opera, the Van Cliburn Foundation, the Dallas Film Society, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Fort Worth Symphony. There’s also a notable contrast with many of the previous generation of arts managers who often served for two or even three decades.

The local group that’s struggled the most with finding a director is the Dallas Symphony. The DSO is facing a fundraising crunch this month as it tries to keep from hitting its credit limit of $8 million. This effort is complicated by the orchestra’s search for its third executive director in three years.

Greg Hustis of the DSOGreg Hustis (Dallas Symphony Orchestra)

“For us, there’s a sense that we have all these fantastic pieces in place," says Greg Hustus, principal horn player for the orchestra. "We have a great conductor and a great hall. And we simply need somebody to help with both tactics and long-term strategy — where the orchestra is going and how it’s going to get there.”

The widespread lack of capable arts managers has affected even the highest levels of the industry. The New York Philharmonic hunted for an executive director for well over a year. To be sure, the Philharmonic has its headaches — for one thing, like the DSO, it’s run multi-million-dollar deficits in recent years. But this is the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest and most prestigious orchestra — and it finally found a new director. In Australia. After it was turned down by half-a-dozen other candidates.

An arts group can function on autopilot without someone officially running the business side — for a while. Tickets are sold, shows go on. But decisions eventually have to be made that only a manager can make.

“It’s everything from what kind of guest artists can we have to can we commission important works?" Hustis explains. "Are we going to tour, what are we going to do about recording? All these things have to be coordinated.”

Mark Weinstein is the new head of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. He calls the arts executive a translator. She takes the artistic director’s dream — does he want to start a new play series? — and figures out how to do it financially. Then she gets board members behind it because they have to raise the money.

Mark WeinsteinMark Weinstein (AT&T Performing Arts Center)

But the manager translates the other way as well, trying to get the artistic side to understand the market and organizational side. “Some of the greatest artistic heads of companies, they basically fail because they have a flurry of activity but someone has to figure out how to fit that into the normal capabilities of an organization," Weinstein says. "Our jobs are to smooth out the cycles so that there is constant growth. And so that when you get hit by a recession, you can glide through it instead of going bankrupt.”

Top arts management jobs like Weinstein’s pay well. So they should attract a bevvy of candidates. But arts organizations have reported getting dozens of applicants for artistic director, conductor or curator — while barely scraping together a handful for executive director.

And that’s at the top of the profession. Jose Bowen says one reason the pickings remain thin is that the starting jobs for arts management graduates generally don’t pay well. And the punishing costs of college don’t help, either. Bowen is dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. It’s one of the few that offers a double master’s degree in arts management — in the arts and business administration. “Our students graduate and are immediately faced with a choice," Bowen explains. "Come work for Goldman and make more money or go work for a nonprofit and make less money. And when you have loans, right out of school? That’s a hard choice to make.”

There’s also the issue of metrics. Commercial success is easy enough to measure for a typical CEO: profits, return on investment, stock prices, market share. For an arts group, though, what’s the yardstick for success? And how is the managing director responsible for it?

The seats may be full, the subscription numbers strong, the debt low, the endowment fat and happy. Yet arts groups are non-profits — like schools, hospitals and churches — precisely because they are tasked with doing the unprofitable, the worthwhile-but-not-easily-measured: inspiring people, enlightening them, breaking their hearts, beguiling them.

Which means any arts administrator’s effectiveness in keeping the place afloat financially may mean relatively little to the larger goal of bettering a community. It certainly helps if an organization survives to expand, to learn, to try more ambitious projects. But snoozy mediocrities thrive, as well. The rewards, then, even for an arts executive, remain intangible — and therefore not easily defined, grasped, pointed to, cashed in on. People go into the arts — even on the business side — for just those intangible rewards: for aesthetic and creative satisfaction, to be around creative people, to take part in something grander, more edifying than the manufacture of plastic buffalo humps (the phrase is Donald Barthelme’s).

But today, arts executives are also facing unprecedented challenges — from the recession, from new technology. Of course, the same is true for business leaders in many fields. But the arts exec has to adapt and survive — with the limited resources of a non-profit. “The cultural and business climate has radically changed," Bowen says. "There’s more competition for eyeballs, there’s more competition for entertainment. And so the traditional arts aren’t going to be able to do business as usual any longer.”

It’s not simply that the business model of non-profits is being battered or upgraded. The arts themselves are deeply ingrained in our human psyche, they’re ancient in their origins, going back to cave paintings and shaman rituals by the fire.

But how we actually attend the arts today — from parking to tickets to seating — all of that is based on 19th-century practices (often German ones): standing ovations, filling programs with essays as if they were textbooks, remaining respectfully silent during symphony concerts and museum tours — as if they were high Masses, dressing up to go to the theater, treating arts facilities as if they were churches or castles.

Good or bad, relevant to younger audiences or not, much of the ticketing-to-parking-to-seating issues are the domain of the managing director. So any need for innovation in these areas makes his job even more important. He’s the one who’ll have to manage the changes.

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