The Art of Administration: Part 4 – Productive Tension Required

Fletch Waller is the president of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra board of directors. This is part three of his series on non-profit arts organization governance. Read part 1 and part 2 and part 3.

Fletch Waller SRJO

Fletch Waller

Arts orgs require a more complex leadership structure than do service organization.  A service org, such as Horizon House which I serve as a Trustee, needs one chief – an executive director, CEO, managing director, whatever s/he might be called.  But an arts org needs a two-person leadership team to be fully effective – one to provide artistic direction, the other to manage the resources and logistics of delivery.

To be fully productive usually means managing tensions between the two.  The artistic leader provides the creative vision, pushing the envelope to stimulate and challenge both the audience and his or her musicians or actors or artists.  And since the artistic product is the raison d’etre of the enterprise, the artistic director inherently has the initiative.

But unless there is counter pressure, that artistic reach can sink an arts org in a sea of red ink or a steady loss of audience left too far behind.  It is the tough job of an arts executive director to provide “elasticity” of the envelope while protecting it from tearing by reefing in the creative dreams to suit what is feasible in terms of time, money and manpower.  And that makes for tension.  Where that tension is tolerated, respectful and creatively resolved, an arts org will thrive.

The best example I’ve seen was as a trustee of Pacific Northwest Ballet back in the ‘90’s.  I worked with executive director Arthur Jacobus and with Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, co-artistic directors, to prepare a five-year plan for a Ford matching grant application.  The ambitions of Francia and Kent for an expanded corps, more performance time, and expensive new productions were gently, supportively, but firmly reined in by Arthur.  They provided the yeast while he leavened the dough.  And that productive tension yielded season on season of creative initiatives, audience and board support and operating surpluses.  It was when Arthur left to become Exec Director of the Oakland Symphony and the board (unwisely in my opinion) appointed Kent and Francia co-artistic and co-executive directors, that the org lost its rudder, over-reached and soon was awash in red ink.

Another good example is Seattle Chamber Music Society’s team of artistic director Toby Saks and executive director Connie Cooper.  They operate in a healthy, mutually respectful collaboration that has brought SCMS more than fifteen years of artistic excellence, solid finances, increasing audience sophistication, and growing esteem among chamber musicians.

For some arts orgs, SRJO being one, the early years and initial small scale mandates that founders fill multi-roles – artistic director, executive director, development and marketing director and more.  But there comes a time when too many hats inhibit one or another of the roles and/or the effort simply becomes too draining.  What the board then needs do is to put two in tandem, a strong artistic director (or co-artistic directors) and an equally strong managing director.  The first, to continue to stretch and dream of what product is to be produced; the other, to define the feasible, develop and deliver the needed resources, and – sometimes — to challenge the artists to dream in new directions.  Tension is inevitable within such a team, but when respectfully and properly balanced, and monitored and moderated by an alert board, it is a productive tension that keeps an arts organization vital, vibrant, and capable of serving its constituents.

Do you have experience, from a staff or board perspective, with an arts organization moving through this stage of growth? What’s your take on tension in an arts org.? Join the conversation. Share it with us here in comments, and share this post with others.

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One response to “The Art of Administration: Part 4 – Productive Tension Required

  1. Ellie Gittelman

    Good discussion of how conflict, when respectful and well-managed, can be good for an organization. It will be interesting to see how SRJO grows.

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