Like most people in the arts, I believe that the boards of arts organizations must give their artistic leaders the freedom to plan seasons of art of their choosing as long as these seasons can produce the fiscal stability required to continue to produce art. While individual board members should always be free to express their opinions in polite and professional ways, they should not be allowed to force leadership to accede to their wishes. It is virtually impossible for an institution to present a cohesive, unified artistic profile to the public if myriad voices are each given equal weight.
That said, it is equally true that when a board is not happy with the choices made by its artistic leadership--when season after season is dull, poorly produced and consistently loses the interest of the public--the board is entirely within its rights to make a leadership change.
Too often, however, this change is made in a clumsy, unprofessional manner that creates dissent, loses donors and leaves the new artistic leader in a precarious position. A few rules for an effective leadership change:
- When board members are, as a group, unhappy with programming, it is incumbent on them to discuss this in a calm, professional way with the artistic leader; leaving them in the dark is neither helpful nor fair. Too many board members are embarrassed to discuss their artistic reservations with professional staff and assume that they are sending helpful signals.
- The decision to make a change must not be discussed with a large group of donors, friends, artists, etc. before it is made public. It embarrasses the outgoing leader and makes it difficult to exit gracefully when the whole world knows the axe is about to fall. The organization must have a clear, coherent message about the departure. When a board does not have the discipline to wait for this message to be delivered, a myriad of conflicting messages will be sent.
- Make sure that a clear, coherent plan for announcing the departure is made and implemented. Which donors need to be notified immediately? How will the press be informed? How will staff and artists be notified? When the roll out of the announcement is achieved in a measured and thoughtful manner, the entire organization, and especially the new leader, benefits.
- Remember that in this day of social media, news travels very fast. It is likely that huge numbers of people will know 'the news' as soon as one person outside of the inner circle is informed.
- Make sure to celebrate the achievements of the outgoing leader. The transition should not be viewed as a dismissal of all that has come before. We need our donors and audience members to believe that they were supporting important work.
Making a change in artistic leadership is one of the most important, and risky, decisions made by any arts board. It must be handled fairly, humanely and with a great deal of thought.