Next Gen National Arts Network

Leadership Defined for the Future

I. Conception: National Performance Network Annual Meeting, New Orleans, December 2013
They don’t make plans, they don’t solve problems, they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.—John P. Kotter, What Leaders Really Do

Towards the end of the NPN’s 2013 annual meeting, and in its tradition, we closed with a town hall meeting for all the NPN partners. This was an opportunity for the partners to share candidly their concerns, frustrations, and call for support. The partners’ meeting is a moment when we acknowledge our successes and struggles. It’s also a moment, when one can look around the room and not feel alone. During this town hall, Harold Steward from the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs stood and addressed the hall. His concern/question was, “What do you do when you know you are in line for succession, but you don’t feel prepared or really know what the transition plan is?”

His direct supervisor, Vicki Meek, added that she too felt that the transition and succession process is one that the organizations are not preparing for. The baby boomers are on their way out, but who is going to take up the responsibility to lead? And who wants to lead a not-for-profit arts organization when the current leadership seems overworked and underpaid?

As we listened to these questions, I couldn’t help but be aware of my executive director, Shay Wafer, next to me. We both looked at each other and then looked around the room. I saw heads nodding, elbows nudging each other as if in solidarity, “are you paying attention to this?” The network was in agreement.

Mimi Zarsky, from the National Performance Network, and the facilitator of the town hall suggested, “If anyone wants to continue this conversation after the last breakout session, I can get you a room, just see me after.”

I flagged down my friend and colleague, Jevon Collins from Kings Arts Complex, Columbus, Ohio. Over lunch we talked about Harold’s comment, our own current roles, and where we see our career paths headed. Topics of preparation, positioning, leadership, all came up, and after lunch we decided that we needed to take this conversation further. I recruited Ashley Walden Davis of Alternate ROOTS to help gather folks into the room. We were granted space in Mimi’s suite. And through a mass text and door-to-door campaigning to other breakout sessions, we invited anyone and everyone that identifies as a “Next Gen” artist or arts administrator to join us.

We started with three people in the room. Minutes passed, and there was a knock on the door. Three people turned into ten, fifteen, and then twenty. We welcomed people into the room and without an agenda we opened the discussion to see what was on people’s minds and hearts. The artists wanted to know how to develop and strengthen their network and opportunities. The administrators wanted to learn more on how to position themselves for leadership. All of us were concerned about the field, whether the issue was about lack of funding, low pay, the difficulty of making a living in the arts, organizational health, personal wellness, or life/work balance.

As it seemed clear that these challenges and concerns were shared by a constituency of mid-career artists and administrators—leaders, and progressives in their own way—we came to agreement that something had to come from this. But what? A support network? A professional development group? Or perhaps a group that meets once a month on the phone and connects to create a stronger network of young leaders? How about all of the above?

The baby boomers are on their way out, but who is going to take up the responsibility to lead? And who wants to lead a not-for-profit arts organization when the current leadership seems overworked and underpaid?

II. Inception: Nationwide, January 2014
The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion.—National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965

We decided to start with monthly conference calls that would be hosted by a Next Gen member to introduce two other members from the network, so we could better understand the artists and organizations participating. That was the pilot. However, by February’s call it was decided to take on a more curatorial approach based on needs and themes from the group. From there, Ashley and I agreed to spearhead the efforts of shaping the group, curating the future calls, and mobilizing the group.

For the rest of 2014 Ashley and I divvied up the learning calls that happened on the third Tuesday of every month at 6:00 p.m. EST. Our first series was on an issue that Gen Xers are deeply concerned about personally and professionally—money! The series included the topics: “Knowing Your Worth: Negotiating Salaries and Contract Fees,” and our most attended call, “Organizations and Money.” Each call included one or more guest speakers moderated by a Next Gen host. All of our guests volunteered their time and expertise to share with our network. In addition, most of our guest speakers offered publications, documents, references, and other resources specific to their topic. We used the notes from each call and included the materials that were offered and added them to a folder in the Next Gen Google Drive, so that even if interested parties can’t attend the standing time, we can always access the notes and attachments.

At the core of Next Gen, and what these calls do so well, is create a space and archive to store institutional memory. On the calls we transfer ideas and passions, plus receive support and acknowledgment from one generation to another. And for one hour, once every month, a group of Next Gen participants and our allies come together to gain skills, devise new policies, and share solutions to organizational problems. We provide space for that exchange. And we do it, not because it makes the leaders of Next Gen look awesome. No, we do it because we heard a need and responded. Then we asked leaders in the field, executives, and funders if they would give their time—just like we do—to create intergenerational dialogue and to empower future leaders. And you know the beautiful thing? We’ve never had one guest turn us down.

Because of this overflow of generosity and the fast rate of growth, the leadership team for Next Gen expanded to include Harold Steward and Jonathan McCrory, Director of Theatre Arts at National Black Theatre, Harlem. In 2014 we led sessions in July at the Theatre Communications Group conference in San Diego and in November at National Performance Network’s Annual Meeting in Oklahoma. Our topic 2042: Imagining the Future for Young Administrators in Theatre, was an opportunity for next generation leaders to connect with each other and current leaders to discuss critical issues in the field and create plans to tackle and execute actions for a more lucrative and healthy personal and professional future in arts administration. We broke it down into three categories: succession and transition facilitated by Harold; how does the next generation define themselves facilitated by Jonathan; and imagine a utopia of work culture that allows work/life balance facilitated by myself. In addition to these facilitated conversations, we conducted a short survey at each conference to gather data on the current climate in the room.

People smiling at the camera
Harold Steward, Ashley Walden Davis, Jonathan McCrory, and the author at the TCG Conference 2015, Cleveland, OH. Photo by Beto O’Byrne.

Repeated themes in both TCG and NPN groups included:

  • The need for solutions to bridge the gap between exiting leaders and those poised to inherit their roles
  • Exploitation of young administrators
  • Creating healthy boundaries at work
  • Overworked and underpaid staff
  • Real sustainability in arts organizations
  • Lack of support from executive leadership for healthy work/life balance
  • Organizational health.

In addition, both groups reported that although arts organizations make declarations of commitment to diversity and inclusion, the reality is that the majority of executives and directors from each group are white and male, and often minority group members with advanced degrees and years of experience are paid substantially less than their white counterparts.

Next Gen took this information to create action items to resolve these issues. We decided that our key areas of concern are Institutional Memory, Transition and Succession, Diversity and Accountability, and Adequate Resources and Policy. But now that our network has grown from 20 to 120, it was no longer just a group. We had established a platform and an organization. We had joined a movement!

people talking in a circle
Next Gen in action at the TCG Conference 2015, Cleveland, OH. Photo by Beto O’Byrne.

Now that our network has grown from 20 to 120, it was no longer just a group. We had established a platform and an organization. We had joined a movement!

III. Progression: The Future
We have to do it together. We cannot permit our lives waste away, our talents unchallenged.—August Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand

On December 19, 2014, the Next Gen leaders met to create the beginning of a strategy for the group’s next steps. Leaders were myself, Jonathan McCrory, Ashley Walden Davis, and Harold Steward. The actionable next steps are to be executed throughout 2015 beginning in January 2015.

We are the Next Generation National Arts Network: Leadership Defined For The Future, a coalition of artists and administrators from all over the United States who have set out to chart the course to be future leaders in the arts field. This effort is led by a coalition of millennial and future leaders who support one another through networking, and skill and resource sharing. We come together face-to-face where possible to build strong bonds.

This is not simply an organization, but a movement to develop emerging and mid-career arts leaders, primarily under forty, preparing them for leadership positions. Additionally, Next Gen seeks to build bridges between the past, current, and future generations of leaders to produce a more thriving field and sustainable life in the arts.

We want our ecosystem to have a richness of diversity of artistic discipline, thought, capital, and human resources to share. We welcome, theatermakers, visual artists, musicians, dancers, craftsmen, spoken word artists, artisans, museum curators, program directors, box office managers, filmmakers, etc.

If you are starting out in the arts and want to get connected, Next Gen is for you. If you are emerging or mid-career and have questions on positioning and leadership transition, we got you! If you are leading and creating new innovative strategies in the field, we’d love to have you share your expertise. Wherever you are, whatever level, whatever you desire for your career path, we want to know and we want to support you. That’s who we are. We believe we can create a healthy, passionate, fulfilling, dream-come-true life in the arts one leader at a time. Let’s change the game together!

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Love the desired outcomes here and the intent. I wonder if our models of what leadership is get in the way of progress at times. By understanding leadership as the quality of an individual, we naturally gravitate toward issues of equity, compensation and succession. The challenge may be that the systems (including institutions) that are in place to ostensibly serve the cultural sector are no longer aligned with the needs of those they serve. At The Banff Centre we endorse systems that get stronger with participation and that offer new markets for solutions. Rather than looking for a different piece of a finite and failing pie, the cultural sector may need to focus on different pies and different picnics.

Jerrold I agree, we don't all eat the same kind of pie, but I think that in terms of the "picnic" we need to be aware of whose at the party. Issues of equity and compensation are major talking points because people of color in our the field are still not paid the same or hold positions of leadership even though we are more than qualified. So Next Gen is looking at a future where we develop our strengths as a constituency of leadership focused on the same values and goals for a stronger, healthier (organizations and personal) life.

We don't have the answers, yet. But we invite anyone into the circle that wants to change the institutional climate, create tools, build relationships, in hopes of enhancing the field. I would love to hear more about what you do with Banff and maybe you could also share with us some tips that have positively influenced your audiences and your staff. We do have monthly learning calls!! You are welcome to lead one :)

I certainly wouldn't want to diminish the importance of privilege and systemic racism in creating the systems that we're dealing with. We absolutely need to be talking about issues of equity and compensation but I am curious about how we talk about equity and compensation. The existing structures prefer certain modes of exchange that may not be favorable to achieving certain outcomes. So, language of equity often is in a 'deficit ' mode, which is one way of addressing an unfair system. Another mode might involve describing what healthy systems look like and what is required to embody them that doesn't involve fundamental changes in existing structures. We don't have answers, either, but are interested in models of leadership that suggest a new path and that is compelling enough that the existing systems, built on racism and privilege, become unlnecessary. Of course, even my optimism that this is possible likely derives from my own position of privilege, but we have seen it work (and we have seen it fail).