Artistic Directors Versus Executive Directors

09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the last several weeks I have been visiting cities across the nation discussing ways to address the current economic crisis. Amidst all of the pain, fear and serious discussion, one area of conversation always gets a laugh: the way to reduce tension between artistic directors and executive leadership.

I always compare the relationship between these two staff heads to that between a naughty child (artistic director) and an angry parent (executive director). The naughty child is always asking for "More, more, more!" and the angry parent says "No! No! No! We can't afford it." The lack of trust that develops between the two people who are meant to act as a team is ineffective at best and crippling at worst.

I appreciate the fears of the executive director; I have been one for 24 years. When one does not know where the money will come from to pay artists, staff, production costs, rent, etc., one hopes to trim every expense possible. Good executive directors appreciate that they cannot fulfill the wishes of the artistic director if they do not have the money to do so and in the current economic environment, anything extra seems impossible.

But the truth is that the only reason the executive director has a job is to fulfill the wishes of the artistic director. And good artistic directors always have a wish list because they want to expand the boundaries of the organization and to consistently produce great art. I have yet to see the mission of a not-for-profit arts organization that says "Our goal is to have a good balance sheet and income statement." (Actually I once read the mission statement of a not-for-profit arts organization that said only, "Our goal is to have a balanced budget." Clearly this organization did not aspire to very much. They could best fulfill this mission by doing nothing!)

I find that it is easiest to meet the needs of the artists while maintaining fiscal stability by developing a long-term artistic plan for the organization. I believe there are many reasons to plan one's productions or exhibitions three, four or even five years in advance including the ability to satisfy the artistic goals of the institution in an affordable manner.

I always make a simple chart that shows the major artistic and educational programs planned for each of the next five years. This plan includes all the items on my artistic director's wish list. I array these items in a way that makes me confident that I can fulfill this 'contract' with my artistic director. I know that if I have several years to raise the funds, form a joint venture, organize a tour, or create a marketing campaign required for a larger project, I am most likely to be able to accomplish what is necessary.

I have yet to find an artistic director who wants everything immediately. In fact, most artistic directors are so used to being told 'no' for many of the things they ask. If one can provide a plan for accomplishing all they desire, they become far more confident that the executive director is on their side and a new, far better relationship between them can be formed.