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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Arts Leadership and the Changing Social Contract 

April 17, 2014 — By Emiko Ono

This piece is cross-posted from Americans for the Arts' ARTSblog, where it was published earlier this week as part of an Emerging Leaders Blog Salon. -ed.

Since I began working in the arts in 2001, there has been a subtle but constant pressure on the sector to transform that can be both distressing and motivating. I will never forget the time in 2003 when Mark O’Neill, then the Head of Museums and Galleries for the city of Glasgow (Scotland), described how a population of shipyard workers reported that they did not attend a nearby museum because the price of admission was too expensive. The nauseating twist was that the museum did not have an admission fee. Last week, this story came to mind again as I spoke with Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and an arts leader with more than 25 years of experience. Susie’s hypothesis—that the tacit social contract between society and arts organizations is changing—is one I have found to be incredibly useful. The premise of her theory is that it is no longer sufficient for arts organizations to provide distinctive work, attract an audience, and secure financial support—it needs to include wider swaths of people who are largely not involved. 

In the past, a productive arts organization was understood to contribute to a community’s quality of life and help drive its economy—it was inherently perceived to be a public good. This “social contract” is fraying based on a growing awareness of the very real inequities that exist in the United States (and Scotland, for that matter). The nonprofit arts sector, including its funders, is increasingly expected to do more for distressed and marginalized communities if it is to merit designation as a public good.

As demonstrated by Mark O’Neill and Susie Medak, many of today’s arts leaders are proactively examining and addressing the complex challenges that confront the sector. At the Hewlett Foundation, we believe that the vitality of the arts is fundamentally dependent on the strength of its leadership. For our field to thrive alongside change, we need to ensure that we are preparing up-and-coming leaders to match the challenges that will come, and not assume that the current leadership transition will take care of itself. I would argue that we need to be investing more in leadership development and preparing people in different ways to ensure emerging arts leaders have what it takes to lead transformations, as the changing social contract implies is needed.

On investing more: Based on research conducted by the Irvine and Hewlett foundations between 2006 and 2009, we know that arts funders and leaders can be doing more to support and prepare emerging arts leaders. After all, these individuals are most likely to step into existing arts leadership roles or create new ones.

Since 2010, the Irvine and Hewlett foundations have invested approximately $2 million to support next gen leaders (generally those in their 20’s and 30’s with less than ten years of experience in the field) through three components: emerging leader networks, professional development grants for individuals, and grants for organizations to test projects that address the needs of younger arts leaders. (The two grant programs are administered by the Center for Cultural Innovation, which is in the midst of a thoughtful leadership transition spurred by the movement of its baby boomer leader.) While it’s difficult to say exactly what is the best way to prepare leaders, a recent independent assessment of the Next Generation Arts Leadership Initiative demonstrates that all three components of the Irvine and Hewlett foundation’s partnership are showing promising results.

One of the many encouraging findings is that a large majority of respondents (roughly 75 percent) reported that receiving a $1,000 professional development grant increased their commitment to, and likelihood of staying in, the field. It shows that a small investment can go a long way—and ought to prompt funders and arts leaders alike to consider how they might integrate a small professional development fund into an existing grant program or offer it as a staff benefit. When you dig a little deeper into the demand for the grants (since the grants began in July 2010, nearly 450 applications have been received and 350 grants have been made) and how people have used the individual grants, you see a real hunger for professional growth. Some individuals designed projects that involved a career coach (9 percent), while others shadowed a current arts leader (4 percent). One participant designed an arts pilgrimage to visit ten innovative museum education spaces, gaining insights to inform her organization’s facility expansion plans and a network of professional contacts along the way.

On different approaches: While I am heartened by the promising indicators from the Next Gen Initiative, and feel it’s a crucial line of support in a field that is notorious for its low wages and benefits, I cannot help but wonder if we should also be doing more to prepare leaders in different ways. For example, Teach for America, the nonprofit that places high-performing college graduates in disadvantaged schools, is known for having spawned a new generation of make-no-excuses education reformers. I would argue that the changing social contract will increasingly require arts leaders to also be arts reformers. Based on a 2011 study on measuring and building social movements and work by NCRP on building relationships among funders and emerging leaders, my sense is that arts leaders will increasingly need to attune to the concerns of the communities in which they work, build relationships across sectors, actively consider how the arts can contribute to larger social and civic goals, and direct productive arts organizations. If rewriting the social contract between arts organizations and the communities they serve is a central task (and I believe it is) we should be doing even more to prepare leaders to be the authors that we need and want.