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Skagit Valley Hospital

A Crisis of Leadership

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Last month, I had the opportunity to see Michael Kaiser, the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, speak in Tacoma. The presentation was entitled “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative.” The timing was convenient, as I had recently finished reading Kaiser’s book The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations and was interested in hearing more about his philosophies around making tough fiscal decisions while preserving artistic integrity and your core mission. In particular, his claim that there is a leadership crisis in the arts further piqued my curiosity.

Called the “Turnaround King,” Kaiser has worked with several arts organizations on the brink of financial collapse and has helped them become sustainable, strong and vibrant community assets. After the market collapse last September, Kaiser began hearing stories of arts organizations cutting their programming and marketing budgets to preserve their financial viability. These actions go against Kaiser’s deep-seated management philosophies and so he began a fifty-state tour to talk about it. Kaiser believes in “great art that is well marketed.” To get there, Kaiser’s book lays out ten principles. Each of these ten principles requires a strong arts manager that will lead and inspire.

What stands out in this recession is the immediate reaction to cut costs. It makes sense; I know in my personal budget, I had to think long and hard about what I was willing to sacrifice. So, too, do arts organizations. However, this is not as easy a task as some “business-minded” folks may think. Rarely do you see an arts organization with excessive spending in one area. So where do you scale back? Unfortunately, in too many cases, the only places available to look are program and marketing budgets. Cuts to programming and marketing always lead to lower revenues in future years; it drives down donor interest, sponsorship, and ticket revenue. Kaiser argues you cannot save your way to health and that with most arts organizations, it is not a cost issue rather it is a revenue issue.  

Following that logic, how then can organizations increase their revenue?  In Kaiser’s argument – and where The Collins Group’s experience would agree – dollars follow a positive and bold vision, thorough planning, and confidence in the leadership. The Washington State Arts Commission and ArtsFund recently commissioned a study to look at the recession’s impact on the arts. One of the key findings was that adaptability and leadership distinguished organizations that are successfully navigating their way through these times:

“Organizations of different budget sizes and different artistic disciplines are experiencing the downturn somewhat differently; however those with on-going mechanisms for feedback from their constituents, and communications between leadership and board, for example, have a common ability to adapt and change course in all areas of the organization more easily.”

It takes strong leadership to steer an organization through these times and that is where, sadly, Kaiser sees the void. So what is standing in the way? How is a strong leader developed? What are the incentives to pursue arts management?

We want to hear your stories. Even if you do not work for an arts organization, what do you think are the qualities of strong organizational leadership? What challenges do you face in pursuing professional development?

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