I was at the Americans for the Arts conference in San Diego this year, however briefly, I was able to sit in on the wrap up session, in which a woman whose name and title I didn’t catch gamely trooped around the room cajoling participants into discussing their best takeaways from the conference sessions.
People were reticent, exhausted, as they always are at the end of the conference, and it was generally speaking a thankless job for the moderator—but she did draw out a couple of energizing comments amidst a bunch of tired faces waiting for Ben Cameron and a mariachi band to (separately) close things out.
At one point, a large late-twenties guy with a beard raised his hand. The moderator went over to him, and he took the mic from her (at which point I thought to myself, “Uh-oh.”) and said (and while I’m paraphrasing here, this is close enough to what he actually said to make me uncomfortable all over again):
“I’m a Next Gen Leader, and I have a couple things to say to the Boomers who won’t retire. One, your emails are too long and I. Don’t. Read. Them. Two, get out of the way—it’s time to retire!”
The room was still after this, though I would hope the minds in the room were not. Mine certainly wasn’t, though honestly it was mostly overwhelmed by a clenched stomach and the strong feeling that that was both totally rude and completely disrespectful. It’s the kind of thing a person might think at the end of a frustrating day, if one were so inclined, but it’s not the type of thing that you speak aloud.
My inner WASP was mortified—as my husband will attest, in my family we have a very structured way of dealing with unpleasant subjects, which is to say we build a structure around the unpleasant subject until it’s less visible. We speak in nuance, or not at all, we sideline discomfort and prefer to nudge rather than shove. We bide our time—which of course is not the same thing as not being ambitious; it’s just not being obvious. My mother and father, both successful business people with long, long careers dealing with lots of difficult people, nevertheless taught me that respecting those around me, and expecting respect from them in return, was paramount and always imperative.
So that guy’s comment made me feel gross. But here’s the thing: it made me feel gross for the fact he was saying it in a crowded room, full of the very Boomers he was referencing. It didn’t make me feel gross because I necessarily thought it wasn’t true.
The Center for Cultural Innovation has just released a report by Anne Markusen, funded by Hewlett and Irvine, called Nurturing California’s Next Generation Arts and Cultural Leaders, and it makes for a fascinating read, especially for someone like me, who grapples with feeling like I have so much to learn while at the same time feeling sometimes frustrated, stymied and undervalued in my work. I recommend you read the full report, but if you’re feeling like some CliffsNotes, what follows is a basic summary of the findings.
- The overarching thesis of the report is that Next Geners care very deeply about what they are doing, and are generally satisfied with (even proud of) the impact and value their jobs have to society, but generally perceive themselves to be undervalued, undertrained, unmentored, overstressed, and underpaid. Whew!
- Overall, respondents were very optimistic about their ability to make a life in the arts, though often they didn’t see themselves making that career in the organization where they were currently employed. In general, in fact, there seems to be a trend toward lateral mobility—climbing by jumping from vine to vine as there is space instead of waiting for the guy above you to jump off into the abyss.
- As has been the refrain over and over for the past few years, Next Geners are values-driven people – they want to be doing something that matters to the world and that they enjoy. That said, values-driven employment satisfaction only goes so far, and over half of the respondents felt they were overstressed, underpaid, unable to network and unable to feel job security. Only half of all respondents were salaried.
- Next Geners express a lot of frustration at the structure of organizations, which they feel leads to an inability to advance and a mismatch between aspirations and reality. They see a lack of nurturing from older leaders, whose attitude is often interpreted as disrespectful and dismissive of ideas, and feel generally that the organizations in which they work lack “strategic vision, financial realism, community awareness and diversity.”
- While Next Geners are getting promotions, they are more likely to get a title change than a salary increase.
In their preface to the study, Marc Vogl from Hewlett and Jeanne Sakamoto from Irvine call the report “a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the arts in California.” And I guess in a way it is, in that it is the unfiltered angst of the coming generation, packaged for public consumption. But here’s my issue: I think this makes us Next Geners sound like a bunch of whinging brats. I imagine a similar confessional report conducted on Boomer current arts leaders might have seemed a bit whiny too, but all the same I have a lot of unease around this conversation. Basically we’re saying, albeit more politely than the crank at AFTA, that we’re smarter, we’ve got better ideas, we believe in the value of this organization and don’t think you understand how to help that value shine, and we’re really frustrated that you’re still here—oh, but we’d really love some of your time and attention. It’s just a little All About Eve, don’t you think? Like this part, for example:
Addison DeWitt: What do you take me for?
Eve Harrington: I don’t know that I’d take you for anything.
Addison DeWitt: Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on, that you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?
Eve Harrington: I’m sure you mean something by that, Addison, but I don’t know what?
Addison DeWitt: Look closely, Eve. It’s time you did. I am Addison DeWitt. I am nobody’s fool, least of all yours.
Eve Harrington: I never intended you to be.
Addison DeWitt: Yes you did, and you still do.
Eve Harrington: I still don’t know what you’re getting at, but right now I want to take my nap. It’s important…
Addison DeWitt: It’s important right now that we talk, killer to killer.
Eve Harrington: Champion to champion.
Addison DeWitt: Not with me, you’re no champion. You’re stepping way up in class.
This isn’t just demure propriety on my part, either. Yes, I absolutely have frustrations about my career in the arts—I took the survey, and I can see some of my comments made it in. I’m frustrated at my salary, frustrated at a difficult organizational structure that ends up meaning I don’t have enough staff or time to do everything I’m supposed to do. But I’m not so naïve as to think that simply by moving up in the hierarchy all that’s going to get solved—nor am I so parsimonious as to think that those higher up in my organization either don’t see those frustration points or don’t care. They were all frustrated young professionals once, too. Which isn’t to say that there’s not value in people of all ages and levels in the hierarchy seeing this report and thinking on what it means now and in the future.
In the introduction to the proper report (page 10 of the PDF), Markusen says the following, which is really at the crux of the issue:
“A number of recent studies have predicted a massive inter-generational management transition looming in the nonprofit sector due to top leader retirements. The transition is likely to create long-term weakness and instability in many nonprofit organizations if not addressed with some urgency…This impending leadership deficit may have even greater impact in the relatively young nonprofit arts field, still generally characterized by founder-leaders who have “learned on the fly” and by few training and professional degree programs, low paying staff jobs, long work hours and inadequate advancement opportunities. The generation of young leaders who sparked a powerful nonprofit arts movement more than thirty years ago are now seasoned and accomplished managers and strategists, and m any wonder who will become the leaders for the future.”
A few years ago I was watching a panel, I think—I can’t remember where, but it was on leadership transition. A managing director of a major theatre was asked about what she thought the qualifications should be for Next Gen leaders moving up into leadership positions, and she paused and then briefly told the story of how she herself became a leader in the arts. At the end of it she said:
“But, you know what? Things are a lot harder now, a lot more complex. And I don’t think, if my younger self were to walk in the door now for my job, I would have hired her. You just need so much more now.”
I don’t think that’s true—I think she just, like all of us, didn’t realize how hard it was going to be when she started, so she didn’t have the fear. Like the person who is new in town who unknowningly wanders through the bad neighborhood, but only gets fearful after someone else tells them how lucky they were to survive, part of moving up is having the hubris to believe you’ll be able to succeed. The truth is that, as I’m learning from being a new father, it turns out that our parents never really had it nearly as together as they made us think. Arts leadership, like parenting, is as much about being open to learning from others and making mistakes, reflecting on the lessons you picked up when you were younger, and preparing to be unprepared for what’s coming.
One of the last comments at AFTA, maybe a half hour after “your emails are too long,” was from a young black woman who stood up and said, “I just want to respond to that guy who told our bosses to get out of the way. And I’ve got to say, our bosses deserve a lot more respect than that. I want to thank all of the people who have guided and mentored me, and taught me the skills that are allowing me to succeed now.”
It’s always that balance, isn’t it? Because I’m fairly certain that woman has that same ambition in her as the guy—it may just be that she’s learned the most important lesson of all. People don’t move because you tell them to move. They move because they feel comfortable that you’ll succeed in their place, and that the organization they care so much about will succeed then, too.