At one point in my tenure as a philanthropoid at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation I went back to the board dockets of decades past to try to piece together the evolution in the Foundation’s theater and dance grantmaking over time. In some early dockets I discovered a number of grants awarded to arts organizations to support what the Foundation called (if memory serves) an artistic leader discretionary fund. I was amazed by the discovery.
After a recent conversation with Arts Emerson’s David Dower, it struck me that the theater field (perhaps other parts of the arts and culture sector, as well) are overdue for some philanthropic entity (not necessarily Mellon) to resurrect something akin to a New Artistic Leader Discretionary Fund.
Not only have we recently witnessed a significant turnover in artistic leadership positions in the nonprofit-professional theater, but after decades of watching the sector play musical chairs with leadership positions, a number of top posts have gone to women, or people of color, or others who, though mid-career in many cases, are taking the helm of an institution for the first time.
HowlRound has recently published a series of posts on this seismic shift in the theater, featuring discussions with outgoing and incoming leaders, among others. (The screen shot above captures one of the posts.) In an essay introducing this series, David Dower writes:
There is a lot at stake here. Not just for the individuals or the institutions directly engaged in transitions. These risks are ours as a field. If the institutions with incoming individuals—many of them women and people of color who have been long kept out of these roles—stumble, we open the door to old arguments about “readiness” and “qualified candidates” that have masked and abetted the dominance of the white male in our field.
(BTW, I did an interview for this series with Bill Rauch, who is exiting his post at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this coming summer to take over the new Perelman Center in NYC, in which we discussed values alignment.)
To perhaps state the obvious, what I’m calling for is distinct from awarding funds to support a specific proposal 6-12 months into the tenure of a new leader, putting forward a new strategy that is aligned with the priorities of a foundation. I am advocating for a genuine discretionary fund that says, “Welcome to your new job! We don’t care how you choose to spend this money, we are backing you.”
Why do we need such grants–and why now? They would provide critical, immediate endorsement and leverage for these new leaders. When a new artistic director is the embodied mechanism for necessary change in an institution it seems important that this individual have power to effect a new strategy. It is naïve to assume that just because the roles may look equal on the org chart that new artistic leaders feel they can command the same authority over the institution and its budget, data, brand, staffing, programming, stakeholder relations, contracts, union negotiations, or board meeting agendas as their (perhaps longer-standing) managing directors or executive directors. There is nothing like bringing a nice chunk of cold, hard cash to an institution within one’s first few months (with perhaps the strong possibility of more where that came from) to gain a more solid seat at the table.
On a more tactical level, as anyone who has taken over an organization at the start of a season planned by a predecessor knows, it can be important early on to signal if change is coming and, if so, the direction of that change. Funds would enable these leaders to bypass existing budgetary and programmatic constraints and e.g. jump start a few initiatives, or make a few high profile commissions, or add an event to the season, or undertake some necessary research and development, or invest in more PR, or make a critical hire. Such early actions and investments can speak volumes and help to spur other stakeholders (many of whom are waiting-and-seeing) to jump on board.
For those rolling their eyes thinking, “An artistic leader discretionary fund is so … old school” I would counter by arguing that if we are, indeed, living in a time when those with different backgrounds, perspectives, identities, aesthetic values, and priorities are, at increasing rates, moving into critical leadership positions then quick and meaningful backing of these individuals would actually be quite strategic for those who care about, say, social justice or the role of arts organizations in culture change, or having a more vibrant and relevant arts sector.
For years many have been saying that necessary change in the arts and culture sector would not come until there was a new generation of leaders holding the reigns of the major institutions. Well, they’ve arrived. But to enact necessary change they need to be in a position in which they can afford to lose some longtime subscribers and ticket buyers, lose some donors, lose some staff, lose some board members, lose some sponsors, or even lose the plot for a bit—and carry on with confidence nevertheless.
Do the new artistic leaders coming into institutions today (particularly women and people of color) feel the backing of their boards? Do they feel authorized to make necessary changes? Has the risk capital been raised and set aside to support their first three years and possible financial losses? Or are they being cautioned from a few too many fronts not to rock the boat and not to do anything to disrupt the finances, the relationship to the community, or the general vibe of the place?
The New Artistic Leader Discretionary Fund concept hearkens back to a time when artists were trusted with money and when not every penny a nonprofit spent had to be accounted for in advance of spending it. Is it a coincidence that this was also a time when the leaders of establishment cultural institutions were quite often white and male?
I don’t know …
What I do know is that it would be incredibly refreshing to see one or more foundations grant this same level of historic trust to this new, beautifully diverse generation of leaders.