12/18/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Congruent Visions: A Key to Successful Arts Leadership

Those of us who follow the arts often see tragic tales of ousted artistic directors, bickering staff and board members, and dissatisfied and disenchanted donors spill over into the news. In order to run a successful organization, arts leaders must seemingly make the stars align, creating a congruent vision with the artistic director, staff, board, and supporters. While many factors are responsible for the health and fiscal sustainability of an arts organization, a critical relationship is chemistry between an artistic director and an executive director. But what makes these partnership dynamics successful, and what do the good teams have in common? What are the mistakes to avoid?

With six months running Armitage Gone! Dance under my belt with Karole Armitage (whom I had heard about but never met before interviewing with her) I've learned what makes up a good team. We've slowly settled into each other's communication style, personality, and work ethic, and in the process aligned our goals for the company and built a foundation of trust. We've both consciously worked to meet each other halfway to develop a strong working relationship, understanding that this is critical to the survival and the forward evolution of the company. But how are other people doing it? What can I learn from the successes of other partnerships? I called Patricia Barker, the artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, for her insight.

"We actually get along. I think this is advantageous. There are always problems, and when they come up, who is responsible?" says Barker, a former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, retired from dancing in 2006, and now artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet. Since taking the helm of the company in the 2010-11 season, she and Executive Director Glenn Del Vecchio have greatly increased the profile of the company, expanding both its repertory and its educational programming.

I rebuilt the repertory from nothing, and I had enormous support from Glenn. It's hard to clean house and lead a company with a new vision. It's like a good marriage, communication is key and if there is a problem we talk about it. If there is a difficult situation, either with a parent, or an individual in the industry, we approach it together. He reads what I ask him to, he trusts my decisions on repertory, and he does what he says he will do.

Del Vecchio echoes this sentiment:

I feel the most important aspect is a trust in each other; it's really important that I trust in her vision. This is the number one thing a ballet company puts on stage, and I am doing everything in my power get her vision to the stage. Sometimes things can't be done, and I am forced to come back to her and say that I can't make the million dollar production happen. The conversation always continues: How do we still get the best product on stage? This is where Patricia and I have excelled. It's not, 'This is what I am doing, make it work.' Instead, the conversation leads to, 'Can we sell this ticket? Can we afford this if we do it this way?'

Inevitably, there are disagreements. "We don't always see eye to eye," Barker says.

We talk it through, we each deliver our reasons and make our arguments. Ultimately, it's the artistic program that is the most important, therefore it's my decision. He may not agree with me, but he always supports me. It's the health of the organization; it's the harmony that happens between the board, the executive director, and the artistic director, and how the staff sees that. Everyone is working to implement the institutional vision. If we aren't on the same page, the staff, and ultimately the artistic product suffers. We have to be united. Sometimes an artistic director's wants and needs can get in the way -- especially when an organization changes direction. When you start blaming each other, everyone is at fault. It is never one person's fault. You have to be able to look at the tough questions together.

"I know for an artistic director, it's most frustrating when you can't do everything you want to do," says Del Vecchio.

When that relationship disintegrates, you create a contentious environment, and from my experience, the board winds up being far more engaged than it either wants to be or should be, and everyone starts backbiting and creating a negative environment. The artistic director is trying to justify the vision even though the money isn't there. The executive director is saying that despite trying to raise money in this difficult environment, the artistic demand isn't there. The board is reluctant to ask their contacts for funding if the organization is spending more than what it is taking in, which means throwing money 'down the hole' without a balanced budget. It is a negative spiral that is hard to get out of.

I bridged the topic with Karole one late night after shuffling through our budgets for the next two seasons. (As an aside, I am her sixth executive director in 35 years as a dancemaker.) Where the directors at Grand Rapids Ballet seemed to focus strongly on the trust that builds in the relationship, as well as the importance of good communication, Karole touched on something that I always recognized as well (and hope that I embody) -- that being an executive director involves a great deal of creativity as well.

What I have always said is the relationship dynamic [between an artistic director and an executive director] is like Siamese twins: It is two incredibly creative sides of the same coin. It really is a very deep partnership. Finding money, doing marketing, getting ways for the artistic project to exist is just as important and creative as the artistic product itself. It is literally two people from two angles essentially doing the same thing.

I think a lot of people believe that the executive director job is just making the budgets, or making sure things happen in a practical way. I see it also as engaging creatively to see the big picture, how to leverage things, and how to make connections in the world. As not just an artistic director, but also as a choreographer, I need someone who can both do that and maintain a meticulous sense of detail. I realize that this is sort of two contradictory aspects in one person. I have always felt ultimately the vision of what the art is and what it can be and what we can build, has to come from me. It is the underlying volcanic motion, but it takes an equal partnership to actually make it happen.

Curious, I probed more: What were traits of her less successful relationships with executive directors?

The less successful relationships were plagued by the same thing, people thinking they could coast on an institutional momentum. That doesn't exist. You need to be creative and on fire, seeing potential and making connections all the time. The people who did not do that were not doers; you need to gumption to make things happen.

A lot of it is chemistry, finding someone you just have a good feeling with. You can't describe it. It's similar to that spark that happens with love, you just know this is the right person. It's the single most important thing for success; it's totally about chemistry.