Don’t need a weatherman to know . . .

11.09.10 | 8 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, directors, ideas, non-profit theatre, theatrical ecosystem


In the past twelve months, I have been a candidate in several searches for a new artistic director, and in three cases, I have been one of the last two or three standing. These experiences – these cover letters, interviews, meetings, discussions and also the crushing disappointments of that final phone call or email – have been very instructive.  In combination with several conversations I have been lucky enough to have with thought leaders in our industry as well as generally observing the way the wind blows, I want to fly a few flags that trustees are quietly unfolding when it comes to filling leadership roles at their arts organizations.  Some of this is specific to the process of hiring a new artistic leader, and some of it is perhaps even more true once one is doing the job.

  1. Trustees can see very clearly if an artistic director never hires anyone as good as she is to work as a guest artist at the theatre.  Similarly, they know when an artistic director fails to provide guest artists with the same resources that she reserves for herself.  An AD who gives herself more toys with which to play than she provides for her guest artists has ceased to serve the mission of her company and has begun to serve herself. 
  2.  There is also movement at a few of the top venues in the country towards non-practicing artistic leadership, such as Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, who can better oversee all of his venues if he is not caught up in rehearsals himself.  Some Board members are questioning the utility of the two-headed leadership model; this can be anxiety-inducing for managing directors who feel threatened while also raising the ante (and probably also the anxiety) for producing artistic director candidates.
  3.  Trustees expect the artistic director to be a community ambassador and a solicitor for major gifts.  This may seem like a no-brainer to the good citizens of 2amt, but it is new news at the old court.  They are looking to see if candidates have any demonstrable experience in these roles; they want to know that their new artistic director is interested in the life of the organization, in the fiscal health of the organization.
  4.  Boards of Directors or Trustees are likely to put a candidate through a “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”-like marathon of interviews and appointments, in order to see if she can stay on message and stay fresh, because that is part of the job for which she is vying. Earlier this year, as an example, I participated in 17 consecutive hours of interviews, coffees, meetings, cocktails and dinner with all the various stakeholders at one company; each of them was hearing what I believed for the first time, and I had to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to invite each one on the journey with me.
  5. Trustees want to see that a candidate has respect for the managerial and financial responsibilities that come with the job, but often are unable or unused to seeing that a freelance director has to build a community, an ensemble, in record time and has to be receptive to the needs and concerns of her actors, her designers and the company to whom she is contracted. They rarely consider that the freelance director or designer is skilled at working within and honoring the limitations of a budget: one is not likely to get invited back for a return stint if she blows the budget out of the water.
  6.  Freelance directors and designers know the value of a dollar because we often have so few of them, both in our own pockets and in our production budgets; we know how to use them wisely.
  7.  In the current and foreseeable fiscal environment, trustees are more risk-averse than they have ever been.  Artists, whether leaders or guests, have a responsibility to think through and then articulate the rationale for great but risky ideas.  It is important to demonstrate that one has a plan as well as a vision, although it isn’t necessary to say ‘we’ll be here on Thursday.’  As a director, I tend to work backwards from tech, knowing I want a certain number of run-thrus in the rehearsal hall; this tells me when I need to have the company ready to run, which in turn tells me when I need to have them up on their feet, by which declension I learn how long I can spend doing table work.  It is incumbent upon the artistic director to delineate the steps along the way for her Board of Directors, just as one does for one’s self when beginning work on a new production. 
  8.  It isn’t the quality of the art that is likely to capsize the company; it is the fiscal policy.

Is the wind out of the southeast when it used to be out of the north?  What are your Board members telling you?  What aren’t they telling you?  What trends are you seeing?

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Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • Thomas Garvey

    This is QUITE an interesting post. Judging from local theatres’ outputs, I’d say #1 definitely is not true in Boston (the opposite is rather obviously true). The rest of your post rarely mentions the quality of the artistry of the candidates under question – it instead focuses on their management acumen. I just note that without comment; I’m sure you’re being accurate. #2 I find intriguing – the artistic director who is actually the managing director, and doesn’t direct him- or her-self. How many theatres have actually adopted this model? Again, none in Boston that I’m aware of.

    • Anonymous

      Hi, Thomas.

      Obviously it depends upon the particular individuals and the relative functionality of a given Board, but if the trustees are diligent and engaged, they are seeing these things.

      Also, I chose not to talk about art because, firstly, we know that the art is part of the conversation, and I wanted to talk about things which people may not be as aware of; secondly, in my experience, the discussion of the art takes a significant backseat to the discussion of the financial, the managerial, the fundraising.

      • Elana

        Thanks for the interesting perspective, Kate! I’m curious: Did all of the theatres you were applying to have a full-time managerial and marketing staff?

        • Anonymous


  • This is really interesting. What I’d also like to hear is what AD’s think of all these expectations from the Board. Do you think these expectations are reasonable or unreasonable? Sustainable or unsustainable? Do these expectations make the next AD job more likely to be a stepping stone, or more likely to be a destination post?

    • Anonymous

      Hi, Aaron,

      What surprised me was how long it took, in some cases, to get to talking about art. That vision and mission were either taken as a given or irrelevant if we couldn’t tick enough of these financial and managerial boxes. I am not sure about the ‘reasonable or unreasonable’ dichotomy, exactly, but it is a very broad set of skills that trustees are seeking; it is certainly challenging to give appropriate focus and consideration to all these areas.

  • Good post Kate, and much to chew on here.

    As one of those board directors of a theatre company recently involved in a search for a new Artistic Director, I can say that what I am far more interested in is the artistic vision, experience and communication skills of a candidate for the position of AD, and how that ‘fits’ with the Company’s own mission statement and strategic plan. It has not been my experience ever that ‘art takes a significant backseat to the discussion of the financial and managerial fundraising’ when considering the position description and duties of an AD. That could well be as a result of the executive model adopted by the companies on whose boards I serve.

    The model of AD as CEO is one that has been common in Australia for some time. However, the alternative model, where the AD reports to the CEO or Executive Director (who is, in turn, responsible to the Board for financial and other executive matters) is also one that has a lot of currency right now in Australia, especially in the larger, or flagship major theatre companies. It’s felt that giving the AD the ‘room’ to concentrate on artistic matters is a better use of the resources that individuals bring to the role.

    And, of course, the success of such a model depends upon the relationship between the AD and CEO, and the Board, whose task, among other things, is to focus on ensuring sound governance practices for the organisation.

    • Anonymous

      Hey, Kate, glad to hear that art is in the front seat at your company; as I say, this is based on my experiences and on conversations I’ve had with some people working near the top of the profession in the states. I participated in one search this year where the question of my approach to the material didn’t come up til the second hour of the on-site meeting(read: third interview) with the search committee, and even then, we spent less time on it than on marketing, fundraising and staffing issues.