03/03/2014 08:39 am ET Updated May 03, 2014

The Balancing Act of the Executive Director

One of the questions I am asked most often by board members of arts organizations is, "What should we be looking for as we hire a new executive director for our organization." There are numerous skills and qualities an executive director of an arts organization should possess, but my experience over the past 28 years suggests the most important quality is the ability to balance many needs, demands and requirements.

Successful executive directors must balance the needs of:

  • The artists who wish to express themselves; this expression forms the core of the mission of the organization and must be respected.
  • The audience who wants to be entertained, inspired, educated. While the most successful art typically surprises the audience -- who would probably have named more familiar works as their favorites before the event--the executive director must factor audience taste into programming decisions, or be willing to, or able to, find a new audience.
  • The press who set standards and influence taste in the community. While one can point to many popular works of art that do not please most critics, consistent drubbing by the press must hurt the ability of the organization to build a family of audience members and donors.
  • The donors who almost always want something back for their contributions. This may be association with something they feel is excellent or important for the community, access to artists, prestige or a social life.

The successful executive director also must balance short term financial needs with long term financial goals. It is easy to look five years ahead and determine what financial profile the organization wishes to enjoy, and even to delineate the level and type of activity the organization must mount to reach these financial targets. What is far more difficult is navigating the short term financial constraints so that we can reach the longer term. Do we reduce our investment in art now so that we can survive? Do we shrink our marketing budget? Reduce staff size or budgets? Cut artist salaries? Does this help us reach this idealized financial profile we aspire to? Or do we go for broke today, hoping to keep creditors satisfied while we build for the future?

And the executive director must balance the needs of the board members, who want financial accountability, artistic success and a modest level of fun or satisfaction that comes from volunteering for an organization one cares about with those of the staff who see the board members as their bosses and who often believe that board members owe a good deal--especially a good deal of money--for the privilege of sitting on the board.

In almost three decades of running arts organizations, I know that I have gotten these balances right at some times, and wrong at others. One is constantly calibrating how to best pursue the organization's mission while maintaining the level of support needed to do so.

It isn't easy.