10/15/2013 08:19 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Much History Is Enough?

We live in a time of transition in the arts. There are a host of arts organizations that are facing the loss of their founders and must seek new leadership. This is not a coincidence. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed an explosion of regional arts organizations, of new dance companies, opera companies and theater companies, of arts organizations of color and of community arts organizations. The founders of these organizations are reaching their 70s and 80s.

While many organizations have already experienced the handoff from a founder to a new artistic leader, there are many others that will experience this transition over the next five or ten years.

Although they are frequently painful, artistic leadership changes can be good for an organization if the new artistic director is selected with care and with respect for the founding principles of the organization. A new leader can bring a fresh perspective, new ideas and can question conventional wisdom.

When a founder retires, the transition can be especially challenging. The organization was created specifically to support the vision of the founder. How does it support the new leader, and provide necessary visibility for a new vision, while recognizing and celebrating the achievements of the founder?

This is a delicate balance that many organizations get wrong.

Some founders are perceived to overstay their welcome. I have written before about the respect owed to someone who sacrificed a great deal, and worked incredibly hard, especially during the bad times; one simply cannot throw out the old and venerate the new. This is inappropriate, unfair and wastes the true benefits of celebrating an impressive history.

On the other hand, many organizations dwell far too much on the past, in deference to the founder. I am an avid student of history, but I also appreciate that it is future achievement that is far more interesting than past glory to many people, especially new donors.

One organization I know well had a 20-page preface to its strategic plan eulogizing its founding artistic director. It took so long for readers of the plan to wade through this detailed history that many gave up before reading the plans for the organization.

Worse, when the entire organization dwells in the past, it is difficult for the new leader to instill an exciting new direction, to take new risk, and to move the organization to a new level.

There are organizations that have managed this difficult task well. The Ailey organization has had three artistic directors in its 55 year history. After Alvin died, Judith Jamison was a natural successor. She handled the transition beautifully, fully crediting Alvin for all he accomplished while also making change. The most recent transition, from Judith to Robert Battle has also been handled exceptionally well. Both Judith and Alvin continue to be celebrated by the organization yet Robert has been freed to make substantial additions to the repertory of the organization.

It is no surprise that the Ailey organization has been able to maintain its donor base and audience throughout these transition periods and that the company is stronger than ever.

We must remember and revere our founders while empowering their successors.