Selective and Sophisticated Followership

“Do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?” These are two questions. The charge of an individual artist or artist collective is not the same as that of an institution or organization.

I believe that artists ought to follow their own inspirations and motivation. I do not feel it necessary for a successful artist to lead anyone else, although it’s neat when it works out that way. In order for an artist’s work to have any impact, someone else needs to engage with it, but that audience need not be led by the artist in order for it to be important. In this, an artist is neither leader nor follower, but following its own lead.

I am more interested and challenged by the question of whether an arts institution should lead or follow its audience. After sitting with “it depends” for a bit, I’ve come to conclude that the institution must support its dual customers: the audience and the artist. Each comes to the institution needing to connect with the other, and it is the role of the institution to facilitate a connection. It must exhibit work that will appeal to and enrich the audience it serves while providing a receptive partner for its artists.

This is not to say that institutions should let the audience do the programming, or that it should take all of its customers’ feedback at face value. An institution must read between the lines, process information from box office reports, audience patterns, themes and trends, local and global dynamics, and so on, and with this in mind offer its audience an opportunity to experience art that it will be moved by and hopefully (most of the time) enjoy.  This may not even be the work an audience wants to see if it is the work that the institution feels must be seen by that audience based on its expert understanding of the audience’s needs.

Institutions must be bold! Institutions must take risks! Institutions must have perspective! They also must facilitate a meaningful connection between the audiences and artists it supports, trusts, and believes in. I believe this can be best accomplished through selective and sophisticated followership.

About Jenny Byrd

Jenny Byrd has written 2 posts in this blog.

Jenny Byrd is the Executive Director of Brimmer Street Theatre Company, an Event Manager at UCLA, and an Executive Arts Management student at Claremont Graduate University. Her spare time is spent wedding-planning with her new fiance.


  1. Tom Rushton says

    “Followership” – I like it! Sounds like an idea that’s worth exploring. What makes a good follower as opposed to a bad one? How does one follow well, particularly if one is an institution? How do you get people to follow you then, if you’re also following? Is followership the opposite of leadership? is one inferior to the other? Are followers attractive to anyone other than the person being followed? I’d love to hear what you have to say to these questions…