But What Does Barry’s List Mean?

So Barry’s Blog posted its annual Top 25 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the Nonprofit Arts list last week. In years’ past I would see this list and bemoan the fact that it seemed to be dominated by funders. I never said anything because I thought it would probably come across as sour grapes since I was, at the time, a funder (but not one that made the list).  As it turns out, this year I squeaked onto the list … barely. And so (with this new found and, no doubt, short-lived position of influence) I have decided to raise the question:

What are we to make of this list and who is on it?

One point of clarification: my aim is not to debate the merits of individuals on the list. My concern is with the overall makeup of the list. I attempted to raise this issue by commenting on Barry’s post last week. Here’s an edited version of what I wrote, building on a comment by Rachel who noted the absence of arts organization leaders beyond Michael Kaiser:

Where are the amazing managing and executive directors of arts organizations on this list? For that matter, where are the artists and artistic directors? I find myself troubled by the fact that this list is so dominated by funders, bloggers (like me), policy wonks, and people running intermediary organizations – despite the fact that some of these people are friends and many are people I deeply respect. Even when I worked at a foundation I thought that it was not such a great thing that so many funders show up on this list each year.

Barry gave a thoughtful response in which he clarified (rightly so) that his list was about arts administration and organizational leadership, and that artists did not appear on the list because nominators were asked not to recommend artists. He also noted that while there were countless things about the sector that troubled him the fact that the list was dominated by funders and policy types was not one of them. Another commenter (following mine) asserted that we need the ‘wonks’ and encouraged them to ‘wonk on’.

These are all valid points. I deny neither the need for policymakers, or funders, or service organizations nor their importance as entities that (often, at least ideally) have both the benefit of a systems perspective on the field and the ability to intervene and have positive impact. They are powerful and influential; and some of them should be on the list.

But I would argue that we should not be content that among the 44-ish people that appear to represent the top 25 and those ‘bubbling under’ only one (Michael Kaiser) actually runs or works in a nonprofit arts institution (that is not related primarily to arts education). Notably, Barry agreed (with Rachel’s point) and said he thought there were “any number of exemplary leaders of performing arts organizations that not only could be, but really ought to be on this list.”

Believe me, I fully understand why the list is constituted as it is. But it suggests a power/influence imbalance in our sector that one-third or one-half of the list is not made up of leaders within arts organizations (and by ‘leaders’ I do not mean to imply ‘directors’) and particularly artistic leaders (yes, being influential and powerful in such areas as arts administration, funding, advocacy, and organizational leadership). As I also wrote in my comment on Barry’s Blog:

If this were the 1960s or 70s W. McNeil (Mac) Lowry at the Ford Foundation would no doubt have been on the list, but so would have been Zelda Fichandler (founding artistic director of Arena Stage), Joe Papp (at the Public) and several other artistic/producing directors (and that’s just the theater).

Robert (Bob) Brustein, founder of Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre (ART) at Harvard University has written (I believe) 16 books on theatre and society over the past three decades or so—the majority of those while he was serving as a director at ART. Regardless of whether one embraces his viewpoints, one cannot deny that the theater world is better off because he was actively contributing to the conversation on such topics as the role of theater in society and what systems (including management, financial, political) support or hinder the making of art. He was not at all hesitant to challenge the decisions of policymakers, funders, and others. In 2000 he contributed an essay to a great book, The Politics of Culture, (G. Bradford, M. Gary, and G. Wallach eds.) entitled “Coercive Philanthropy.” The title (rather wonderfully) speaks for itself.

We are not having an enlightened dialogue about the current state or imagined future of the arts if among the 25 (or 44?) most powerful people thinking about the systems for funding, managing, and administrating arts institutions (again, excluding the arts education subset of the list, which seems to have achieved a better ‘balance’) none are artistic directors, or artistic staff, or artists.

Cynically, I wonder whether artists (etc.) would end up on the list even if Barry removed the rule that excludes them from being nominated. I say this not because we don’t have another generation or two of Roberts, Zeldas, and Joes working in the arts and culture sector (please forgive the theater bias; it’s the history I know best), but because I don’t trust they’d get nominated.

Barry writes in the introduction to the list:

Like every other field or profession, there are those in the nonprofit arts who are powerful and influential. To pretend that any world (ours included) is not stratified, tiered, territorial and subject to politics and disproportionately controlled by an oligarchy at the top is naïve. I believe the people who work in our field are passionate and motivated and seek the higher good, but I also recognize that they are human beings, and that our field isn’t some separate and perfect world – and that power and influence are tangible currency – sometimes spent wisely, other times needlessly squandered.

What I take from this passage is that the field should be engaged with which names are on this list and which are not. Thus, I’d be curious what people think of the list. Again, I’m not asking for opinions on individuals who are either on or off the list (as Barry notes, people are bound to have diverse points of view on the merits of individuals on the list). Rather, I’m interested to hear reflections on the overall makeup of the list—the types of people on it—and what this might say about the sector. In other words, what (if anything) does this list mean? Do you give the list much thought? If so, what do you think about it? And if it means nothing to you, why is that?

I wonder whether the shape of this list reflects the fact that arts organizations (and by that I mean the individuals working within and for them) have, over the past three decades, ceded too much of the power and influence over the arts and culture sector to funders, government agencies, and service organizations? Am I wrong about this?

Despite having concerns about the lack of people working in arts organizations on the list and some questions about the methodology used to generate the list (I wonder how representative it is), I would be disingenuous if I said that getting on the list meant nothing to me. I sincerely enjoy writing my blog and am deeply gratified when people read it much less take the time to Tweet about it, or post comments, or otherwise engage with the ideas. But I would also be remiss if I did not say that (with very few exceptions) I am largely influenced (and inspired) by those working in the trenches, in arts organizations. This is because I spent the majority of my career working in arts organizations and I know that the picture on the inside is much different than the one often envisioned or theorized by researchers, consultants, funders, and policy makers.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Janet Berry says


    I think that the imbalance has to do with the fact that we haven’t found a sustainable business model for the performing arts. With very few exceptions, contributed income has to “fill in the gap” for operations (since the arts generally cannot support itself through its earned income), plus provide funding for R&D, capitalization. And while individual support is or is becoming the largest portion of contributed income, it doesn’t have the the influence that foundations or government agencies do: its too localized, it “follows” rather than leads, and it is decentralized among many individuals. If we could hit upon the “sweet spot” of our business model so that operations were sustainable, artistic leaders and executive directors would be on a more equal footing with institutional supporters, who would truly be more like venture capitalists. But most of the time we’re all scrambling a little to stay in the black. Funders, wonks and bloggers don’t have payroll (and income lost to hurricanes) hanging over their heads.

  2. Trevor O'Donnell says

    The irony to me in this list is that it contains so few people who are directly responsible for generating earned revenue. We read almost daily about diminishing audiences yet our “leadership” is comprised primarily of funders and policy professionals.

    If I were an outsider looking at this list, I’d assume that the future of our industry relies on raising contributed revenue and influencing public policy, and that building new, sustainable, paying audiences is a comparatively insignificant function.

  3. says

    The list “means” that the only people who work in “the arts” are Americans. Everybody else doesn’t exist. So the list title could be more accurate: Top 25 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the U.S. Nonprofit Arts. Just sayin’

  4. says

    Diane, you wrote, “I wonder whether the shape of this list reflects the fact that arts organizations (and by that I mean the individuals working within and for them) have, over the past three decades, ceded too much of the power and influence over the arts and culture sector to funders, government agencies, and service organizations?”

    Yes, yes, yes! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Perhaps with the defanging of the NEA and other public funding agencies, the arts community has begun to depend on foundation funders, who are becoming increasingly dependent on policy wonks to create influential studies and organizational models. Arts organizations have ceded some of their originality and power and, as a result, are no longer seen as influential to the field.

    The list is great and no one is detracting from the good intentions and good work being done by these arts leaders but I have to believe that some seriously innovative thinking is happening in the trenches and should rightly be acknowledged, if for no other reason than to make their work known to up and coming organizations seeking positive models for change.

  5. says

    In response to Zane – thank you for pointing this out. It is a US-centric list. Of course, we have tended in the US to not look beyond our borders for ideas and inspiration in the arts as much as we might. Over the past several years I have been grateful for the opportunity to go to conferences in other parts of the world where I have been inspired by incredibly smart people thinking about the role of arts institutions in society and how to increase the impact of the arts on communities and individuals. I wish more of that thinking found traction in the US.

    I have two final observations on the list: (1) For the most part, it seems that the arts and culture sector doesn’t really take much heed of the list. (2) Whether this is an indication that either people think all such list are rather meaningless (as a couple people have suggested to me this week) or that this one, in particular, is meaingless, I am left asking whether this list really serves any good or useful purpose?

  6. says

    Barry writes that his list of 25 (44) are “people who control much, if not most of the money, and decide where the funding goes (at least in broad swatches), what issues should be on the front burner, and what we talk about when we meet.”

    As you and others have pointed out above, there are not artists on this list. Why not release the “top 25 most influential arts leaders”, focusing on the art-makers, simultaneously with this one?

    Also, does the artistic community feel that these 25 / 44 people are leading us down the road we wish to go? If not, what are artists going to do about it? One suggestion would be to find ways for artists to be more self-sustaining, more materially and financially independent, wherever possible, from grant-organizations. We already seek protections for creative control; let´s take it a step further, go for financial control.

    Finally (somewhat off topic), in addition to a list of influential arts leaders that is not limited to the US: what about a list of top arts leaders who are American, but no longer live in America? Seems like in the past 10 years there is an increasing exodus from the US. American artists are finding they can do more of their work, and more easily, in other places than the US. Why is that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *