Leading From Behind – We Need a Better Definition

About Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan has written 4 posts in this blog. #

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal. This year he is a Visiting Professor at Claremont Graduate University. #



  1. In this discussion, we see two views of engagement. One is the perspective of artists: engagement is a form of communication – one that can even have a deeply spiritual character. The other is of the administrator: engagement is a marketing technique, centered mostly around methods of gauging and responding to the public’s interests.

    Both views are important. I think part of the problem is that the arts in the USA have become administrative heavy, to the point that artists are sometimes not adequately included in the decision-making process about community engagement.

    A good case would be the Detroit Symphony. The CEO, Anne Parsons, had some good ideas, but her execution of them seemed to lack an understanding of the internal dynamics of orchestras. She made too many decisions herself about revising the musicians’ job descriptions instead of consulting and working together with them. For example, she seems to have basically told the orchestra it would be more involved with chamber music and community education projects. Anyone familiar with professional orchestras knows that approach will bomb in a major way – even though there are always members of orchestras who are fanatics about chamber music and educational projects.

    She should have turned to those specific individuals in the orchestra who are naturally enthusiastic about chamber music and education and said I have x sum of money this year for you to organize chamber music concerts and educational programs with your colleagues. (The chamber music and educational types in orchestras are usually not the same people.) Orchestra musicians are almost always willing to join with one of their colleagues who has a budget for a project he or she is really enthusiastic about. (I’m not sure why that is, but I know that’s how orchestra musicians think. They love joining with a colleague who is enthusiastic about something.) Find the folks in the orchestra who will inspire and lead their colleagues. To a considerable degree an artist’s work has to come from her heart. It’s better to let them inspire each other, and this almost always works in orchestras.

    Once that is done, let those individual artists lead the way while helping them with the organizational and financial skills they need. That type of administrative collaboration with artists often results in both artists and administrators being able to use their best leadership skills.

    The management of the Chattanooga Symphony had almost exactly the same goals as in Detroit. They took the approach I describe about encouraging internal leadership and it worked wonderfully, while the same goals in Detroit failed miserably because management’s methods were far too top heavy.

    I fear that the MBA-ization of arts management is one reason management has trended toward a dysfunctional top heaviness. Businesses and groups of artists have very different internal dynamics. A good arts administrator quietly creates environments where artists can lead, and where the public can engage with them. Red flags should go up when we see arts administrators talking about the artistic visions “they” are trying to create. Administrators facilitate artistic visions and dialog, they don’t create them. As has been mentioned in other places in this discussion, the best arts management is often a kind of leading by following — a very complex form of leadership through quiet facilitation, that has few relationships to business organizations.

  2. “A good arts administrator quietly creates environments where artists can lead, and where the public can engage with them.” -William Osborne

    Yes! Our calling is to become servant leaders.

    We wrestle here because for so many of us, engagement is measured by how well it leads to the financial viability and sustainability of our artistic enterprises. Yet, effective engagement cannot be guaranteed because it often relies as much on circumstance and luck as on calculation and logic. There may well be universal elements and considerations that define art, but day-to-day each individual will recognize and define art for him/her self.

    Ultimately, artistic engagement is a spirit journey found in the nexus of the artist’s attempts to touch on aspects of the sacred and the divine. Regardless of motivation, artists, like God, create something out of nothing, sometimes using smoke and mirrors to do so. Many then invite others to find meaning in the creation, often with the hope that the others will attach value to the meaning and then support further creative explorations according to their means.

    In the best of monetized worlds, sufficient support will accrue and translate into lifestyles to which individuals – artists and administrators – and their organizations would like to become accustomed.

  3. Sari Grove says:

    I’m an artist…what I hear is that art is moving into a conversation rather than a presentation…What that seems to mean practically is that my art might get better, but paradoxically, fewer people will pay for it…

  4. art institutions are parasites.
    billions of dollars goes to funding these orgs,
    practically NONE of which goes to artists.

  5. If institutions become willing to accord artists equal consideration, only then will they guarantee their future existence, unless of course we are moving into a fascism so pervasive that this is not possible.

  6. Ms. Bryant may believe her two comments may be taken into account – I believe not so – not because
    she is right or wrong but that most responders have long made up their minds that their point of view
    is correct – being long frozen into their positions, preaching the same dreary script or variations of to
    each other , they wax concern for the artist (arts ) when in reality it is their personal concepts of what is art
    and what art should do that consumes them and betrays their ignorance .. Facts are avoided like the plague as are any truths that might shake up a premise – many can claim some sort of school degree which they believe validates their theories , but only causes one to wonder ” how little an education can mean …….. also, some make a living as lecturers , speakers etc. espousing this nonsense and for others it gives
    meaning to their banal existence .
    You most often get the ludicrous nonsense of ” Our calling is to become servant leaders ” or
    ” bunch of theoretical nonsense .” Remember arts institutions have only one end result and that
    is to raise money for their survival and the “arts” being used as a stalking horse to this end . Whatever
    art results from this is the Sunday week end painter, the feel good community fair level .