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Where Are the Arts Managers?

The past two years, so many arts groups in North Texas have had to find new directors, managing directors and CEOs that people have wondered if there was something wrong — with the Arts District? With Dallas in general? KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s not an Arts District problem, not a North Texas problem.

It’s an arts problem.

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It’s been like a revolving door all over North Texas. This is only a partial list (in no particular order) of area arts groups that have had to hire a new CEO or managing director the past two years. Or are still looking for one. There’s also a notable contrast with many of the previous generation of arts managers who often served for two or even three decades.

  • The Kimbell Art Museum – Eric McCauley Lee became director two years ago, but deputy director Malcolm Warner just left to run the Laguna Art Museum.
  • The Dallas Theater Center – Heather Kitchen became managing director this year, after Mark Hadley stepped down, having held the position for 10 years.
  • Dallas Opera – Keith Cerny became general director last year after the infamously brief employment of George Steel who left for the New York City Opera. But then this year, music director Graeme Jenkins announced he’s stepping down after 17 years.
  • Jubilee Theatre — Tre Garrett just started as the artistic director of Fort Worth’s African-American theater company. Founder-director Rudy Eastman served for 24 years before his death in 2005.
  • The Van Cliburn Foundation – David Chambless Worters served only six months as president and CEO before resigning in June. The foundation is currently looking for someone to fill the position that Richard Rodzinski held for 23 years.
  • Turtle Creek Chorale – Artistic director Jonathan Palant resigned in August after four years, a replacement is being sought. David Fisher became executive director. Previously, Timothy Seelig ran the chorale for 20 years; he now heads up the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
  • The Amon Carter Museum – Andrew Walker is the new director; Ron Tyler retired after serving at the Carter in various positions for 21 years.
  • The Dallas Museum of Art – Maxwell Anderson starts this month as director after Bonnie Pitman stepped down for health reasons.
  • Fort Worth Symphony – Amy Adkins, president and CEO, replaced Ann Koonsman, who retired July 31. Koonsman had been the orchestra’s CEO for 30 years.

The local group that’s struggled the most with finding a director is the Dallas Symphony. The DSO is facing a fundraising crunch this month as it tries to keep from hitting its credit limit of $8 million. This effort is complicated by the orchestra’s search for its third executive director in three years.

Greg Hustis (left) is the principal horn player for the DSO.

“For us, there’s a sense that we have all these fantastic pieces in place. We have a great conductor and a great hall. And we simply need somebody to help with both tactics and long-term strategy — where the orchestra is going and how it’s going to get there.”

The widespread lack of capable arts managers has affected even the highest levels of the industry. The New York Philharmonic hunted for an executive director for well over a year. To be sure, the Philharmonic has its headaches — for one thing, like the DSO, it’s run multi-million-dollar deficits in recent years. But this is the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest and most prestigious orchestra — and it finally found a new director. In Australia. After it was turned down by nearly half-a-dozen other candidates in America.

An arts group can function on autopilot without someone officially running the business side — for awhile. Tickets are sold, shows go on. But decisions eventually have to be made that only a manager can make.

Hustis: “It’s everything from what kind of guest artists can we have to can we commission important works? Are we going to tour, what are we going to do about recording? All these things have to be coordinated.”

Mark Weinstein is the new head of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. He calls the arts executive a translator. She takes the artistic director’s dream – does he want to start a new play series? – and figures out how to do it financially. Then she gets board members behind it because they have to raise the money.

But the manager translates the other way as well, trying to get the artistic side to understand the market and organizational side.

Weinstein: “Some of the greatest artistic heads of companies, they basically fail because they have a flurry of activity but someone has to figure out how to fit that into the normal capabilities of an organization. Our jobs are to smooth out the cycles so that there is constant growth. And so that when you get hit by a recession, you can glide through it instead of going bankrupt.”

Top arts management jobs like Weinstein’s pay well. So they should attract a bevvy of candidates. But theaters and orchestras have reported getting dozens of applicants for artistic director or conductor — while barely scraping together a handful for executive director.

And that’s at the well-paid top of the profession. But that’s because the starting jobs don’t pay well at all, says  Jose Bowen. That doesn’t help recent arts management graduates who are struggling to pay off the punishing costs of college. Bowen is dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. It’s one of the few that offers a double master’s degree in arts management – in the arts and business administration.

Bowen: “Our students graduate and are immediately faced with a choice. Come work for Goldman and make more money or go work for a nonprofit and make less money. And when you have loans, right out of school? That’s a hard choice to make.”

There’s also the issue of metrics. Commercial success is easy enough to measure for a typical CEO: profits, return on investment, stock prices, market share. For an arts group, though, what’s the yardstick for success? And how is the managing director responsible for it?

The seats may be full, the subscription numbers strong, the debt low, the endowment fat and happy. Yet arts groups are non-profits — like schools, hospitals and churches. they’re non-profits precisely because they are tasked with doing the unprofitable, the worthwhile-but-not-easily-measured: inspiring people, enlightening them, breaking their hearts, beguiling them.

Which means any arts administrator’s effectiveness in keeping the place afloat financially may mean relatively little to the larger goal of bettering a community. It certainly helps if an organization survives to expand, to learn, to try more ambitious projects. But snoozy mediocrities thrive, as well.

The rewards, then, remain intangible and therefore not easily defined, grasped, pointed to, cashed in on. People go into the arts — even on the business side — for just those intangible rewards: for aesthetic and creative satisfaction, to be around creative people, to take part in something grander, more edifying than the manufacture of plastic buffalo humps (the phrase is Donald Barthelme’s).

But today, arts executives are also facing unprecedented challenges – from the recession, from new technology. Of course, the same is true for business leaders in many fields. But the arts exec has to adapt and survive – with the limited resources of a non-profit.

Bowen: “The cultural and business climate has radically changed. There’s more competition for eyeballs, there’s more competition for entertainment. And so the traditional arts aren’t going to be able to do business as usual any longer.”

It’s not simply that the business model of non-profits is being battered or upgraded. The arts themselves are deeply ingrained in our human psyche, they’re ancient in their origins, going back to cave paintings and shaman rituals by the fire.

But how we actually attend the arts today – from parking to tickets to seating – all of that is based on 19th-century practices (often German ones): dressing up to go to the theater, standing ovations, filling programs with essays as if they were textbooks, remaining respectfully silent during concerts and museum tours, treating arts facilities as if they were churches or castles.

Good or bad, relevant to younger audiences or not, much of the ticketing-to-parking-to-seating issues are the domain of the managing director. So any need for innovation in these areas makes his job even more important.

He’s the one who’ll have to manage the changes.

Background music: Excerpts from the DSO’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Orchestral Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”), Jaap van Zweden conducting

  • Brooke

    Correction: the new president and CEO of FWSO is AMY Adkins, not Ann Adkins

  • Jerome Weeks

    My mistake. And corrected. Thanks.

  • George L

    Unrealistic expectations is the problem. Arts directors, whether invovled in static visual arts or performing arts, are expected to make mountains out of molehills, and find a way to pay for it, even though financing is the legal responsibility of each organization’s trustees. Hence, success relies on popularity, and popularity on mediocrity. So…why leave home for that?

  • Lydia

    As an arts administrator and manager, I agree with George that we’re expected to work 24/7 without the tools we need to get the job done. I believe that the “financing” is the responsibility of everyone including the community though. There has also been an overwhelming trend to have events pay for programming and operations. “Let’s have a show” brings more work, costs and burnout to an already overburdened staff. I believe strongly that the art should be community-based. If the community won’t support it, it won’t be successful.

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  • dawn quiett

    Bowen: “The cultural and business climate has radically changed. There’s more competition for eyeballs, there’s more competition for entertainment. And so the traditional arts aren’t going to be able to do business as usual any longer.”

    There may be more competition for eyeballs but I don’t think that is what keeping people from attending the theater, opera and museums. I think it is cost. It is really expensive to do these activities. I get that these institutions have to make money to cover marketing and exhibit costs. But all of the marketing in the world is not going to make difference if people cannot afford to go.

    I think a lot of people would try to be involved if the ticket prices were more affordable. Why not a day to make tickets more affordable for everyone. If you haven’t been to a opera, a symphony or a play it can be daunting to buy a ticket even at the lowest price ($49 for the opera, $45 for the Dallas Theater Center, $10 for general admin to the DMA and another $20 to see the special exhibit.) While the museums do offer a free day once a month, the other freebies are only for students. Then you add up to $10 to park. It becomes a big outlay to see something you may not be familiar with. The AFI Festival has high tix prices too. I remember in the 80′s, the USA Film Festival had a poverty pass for $25. You could see everything but you had to go in last. There is nothing like that now.

    I feel like a lot institutions are short sighted. They rely on their current older audiences and don’t make much of an effort to grow a younger audience.

    Lydia says “if the community won’t support it, it won’t be successful”. She is right. I think people would love to support the arts but in this economy, they just cannot afford to .

    Marketing may get people to look in to going but when they see the minimum prices of $49 and $10 to park, they opt out. I would be interested to see how full these events are and if maybe if they lowered the tix prices they would have fuller houses and perhaps make more money. It is not just live events, movies have become so pricey that people are really thinking is this worth $12?

    I have done marketing for the Video Festival of Dallas, which was super affordable, films, and The Sixth Floor Museum. I want Dallas to have a vibrant art scene.I’d like to be a part of that scene.But in all honesty, I just cannot justify a $50 ticket.

  • Anonymous

    Dawn: This is a common misconception — but sticker shock is understandable when you look mostly at the premium, mainstage seating prices.

    Actually, many theaters and museums have very cheap deals if you’re willing to hunt for them, and you don’t even have to look far. The Dallas Theater Center — right out front on its website — promotes its pay-what-you-can performance. Other companies (Cara Mia, Kitchen Dog, Stage West, WaterTower) offer pay-what-you-can deals, sometimes for preview performances — all of which cost only $10 at the Undermain. Teatro Dallas has offered $10 tickets. Theatre Three has its ‘Hooky Matinee’ with tickets as low as $10. TITAS’ lowest ticket price for its touring shows (Pilobolus, American Ballet Theatre) is $12. You can see the Dallas Opera’s offerings for $25 – pricey in comparison, perhaps, but it’s certainly not the $50 you mentioned.

    Ahem, and it should be pointed out: If you’re a KERA member, a number of arts groups like Circle Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Crow Collection and Dallas Children’s Theatre offer a discount as well.

    Meanwhile, the Nasher is free on the first Saturday of the month, while the Dallas Museum of Art is free every first Tuesday — although I believe that applies to general admission and not special exhibitions. But you can also purchase discount tickets that let you visit both the DMA and the Nasher. The Modern in FTW has half-price Wednesdays.

    The timing of such discounts may be inconvenient or you may have to grab them quickly (online or at the box office), but these deals make museums and theaters close to movie-ticket prices.

    On the other hand, paying for the underground parking in the Arts District IS murderous. And if the city wanted to encourage visits to the District, they’d find a way to make parking more reasonable. If I don’t have some pre-arranged pass to a garage, I simply park on the street. The meters usually don’t apply on weekends or evenings.

  • JeromeWeeks

    Dawn: This is a common misconception — but sticker shock is understandable when you look mostly at the premium, mainstage seating prices.

    Actually, many theaters and museums have very cheap deals if you’re willing to hunt for them, and you don’t even have to look far. The Dallas Theater Center — right out front on its website — promotes its pay-what-you-can performance. Other companies (Cara Mia, Kitchen Dog, Stage West, WaterTower) offer pay-what-you-can deals, sometimes for preview performances — all of which cost only $10 at the Undermain. Teatro Dallas has offered $10 tickets. Theatre Three has its ‘Hooky Matinee’ with tickets as low as $10. TITAS’ lowest ticket price for its touring shows (Pilobolus, American Ballet Theatre) is $12. You can see the Dallas Opera’s offerings for $25 – pricey in comparison, perhaps, but it’s certainly not the $50 you mentioned.

    Ahem, and it should be pointed out: If you’re a KERA member, a number of arts groups like Circle Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Crow Collection and Dallas Children’s Theatre offer a discount as well.

    Meanwhile, the Nasher is free on the first Saturday of the month, while the Dallas Museum of Art is free every first Tuesday — although I believe that applies to general admission and not special exhibitions. But you can also purchase discount tickets that let you visit both the DMA and the Nasher. The Modern in FTW has half-price Wednesdays.

    The timing of such discounts may be inconvenient or you may have to grab them quickly (online or at the box office), but these deals make museums and theaters close to movie-ticket prices.

    On the other hand, paying for the underground parking in the Arts District IS murderous. And if the city wanted to encourage visits to the District, they’d find a way to make parking more reasonable. If I don’t have some pre-arranged pass to a garage, I simply park on the street. The meters usually don’t apply on weekends or evenings.

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