A Lasting Legacy of Recession

One of the legacies of the lengthy recession we appear to be leaving behind us is that arts leaders are exhausted.

I have spoken with thousands of arts managers over the past six months and it is astonishing how many are considering leaving their positions in the relatively near future.

Very few of them are departing for wonderful new opportunities with other arts organizations. The vast majority are planning to leave their jobs with no new position on the horizon.

These managers are so tired of struggling to create interesting programming while balancing the budget and appeasing their (nervous) boards that they feel they need a break. For the past two years, they have felt pressured by both passionate artists who want to do their work regardless of the economic situation and conservative board members, many of whose own companies are in trouble. The challenge of appeasing both at the same time has been overwhelming.

That so many arts leaders are considering leaving their jobs (or the profession) at the same time cannot be good for the arts. These managers possess a wealth of experience and talent that will not be easily replaced. (One of the challenges of the arts is that few organizations have 'seconds in command' who are prepared to run an organization after the current leader departs. While corporations often have people ready to step into the leader's position, few arts organizations have the resources required to fund a 'number two.')

Many board members, tired and frustrated as well after the past two difficult years, harbor the belief that their organizations would benefit from new managerial blood. They believe that the current managers did not have the skills required to deal with the economic downturn, did not cut budgets quickly enough or deeply enough, were not able to market the organization effectively and did inadequate fundraising.

The truth is there is not a wealth of experienced arts managers waiting to take these leadership positions. Ironically, board members only realize this after the current leader departs and they face a negligible pool of willing and able applicants. Too often, board members opt for a financial person from the for-profit sector hoping their skills and discipline will help solve the organization's financial problems. (Of course, these board members are forgetting that financial people measure problems; they rarely solve them!)

I hope a massive hiring effort is not required in the coming year. That as the season comes to a close, these exhausted managers will use the summer to replenish themselves, to regain their excitement for their work and their passion for arts management. That many, if not most, of them will reconsider their plans and remain with the organizations that need them.

And I hope that board members will remember that the arts managers they employ have been through two of the most difficult years in their lives, and they need and deserve support, encouragement and gratitude.