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Michael Kaiser Headshot

Where Are the Senior Arts Managers?

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I have been approached several times in the last few months by arts organizations and by executive search firms looking for new executive directors. While I am not a candidate, I am usually asked to recommend others who might fill the position and am frequently asked to comment on other candidates who have already been approached.

It is surprising how many times I hear the same names and how few new names are ever mentioned.

The people mentioned most often are those doing a stellar job in high-profile jobs who have no intention of leaving their current positions.

The second most mentioned set comprises itinerant arts managers who seem to go from job to job without much success. They are hired for their 'experience' and for the organizations listed on their resumes but they never stay long because they never truly succeed.

The names I wish I heard more often were the younger, talented, aggressive, passionate arts leaders I have met around the nation who represent the future of the arts in America. They are not hired, too often, because they have not worked with the most famous arts organizations. Because many of them have worked with smaller, regional organizations they are not considered ready for the big time.

And yet from my experience, it is far more challenging to run a small arts organization in a mid-sized city than a large institution in a major urban center. And those smart arts managers who can successfully sustain and build a smaller organization have the skills required to manage just about any arts organization. It simply doesn't matter how large the budget is; it matters whether an arts leader can create and implement a smart plan, create visibility, build revenue and work effectively with artists, board members and staff. In other words, great arts entrepreneurs can be effective in organizations both large and small.

Hiring a younger manager is certainly risky. If one has never worked with donors of great wealth, managed a large staff, produced multiple events in a short period of time, worked with unions, etc., entering a major organization in the top position requires a quick trip down a steep learning curve. But hiring older managers with a string of failures on their resumes and lots of excuses about why each engagement didn't work out is also fraught with risk. Why will this engagement turn out any better?

In a field where few of us have the resources to engage a 'number two' executive, there is no large pool of trained leaders ready to move up to the top spot without some risk. The possibility of failure is inherent in virtually every appointment of a new executive director.

But search committees can improve the odds of success by taking a closer look at candidates and being willing to embrace those who have the skills and the talent to succeed, if not the backgrounds to impress.