CULTURE FRONT: Artists as leaders
JACKSON, WYO – It’s ironic. During the past 15 years, Jackson has been assaulted with the patronizing advice that arts organizations need business minds to lead them. Business execs that took early retirement and absconded to the tax-sheltering mountains of Wyoming have tried to bestow their business prowess on our humble arts nonprofits. Yet, the very same business world they came from is turning to artists to learn how to innovate and thrive in a changing world.
“The way that artists think can be more valuable than traditional management approaches,” said John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design, in a recent issue of Design Mind.
Similarly, Vanderbilt University’s Steven Tepper wrote in the March 2013 issue of Fast Company, “The artist is a builder, an engineer, a research analyst, a human relations expert, a project manager, a communications specialist, and a salesman. … Not a bad set of talents for any business challenged to innovate in a world of volatility, uncertainty and change.”
Several Jackson arts nonprofits know how valuable artists as leaders can be. They have seen their organizations thrive in the past decade, responding to a shifting economic landscape with aplomb. I’m thinking of Dancers’ Workshop, Off-Square Theater, Riot Act, Jackson Hole Public Art, Teton Artlab, Center of Wonder, and others.
Why, then, does the Art Association cling to an old and erroneous view that visual artists should not be empowered to lead the venerable visual arts organization? The current board chair, Dave Muskat, has been acting as executive director for over two years now. This is a nonprofit governance no-no, but at the Art Association it has become de rigueur. When longtime development director Cathy Wikoff resigned two weeks ago, she was replaced posthaste with a board member and without a proper search.
The Jackson Hole News&Guide reported that Muskat recently proposed moving the Art Association out of Center for the Arts, and in so doing he lost four dedicated board members. The rationale for the move in Muskat’s view was a need for more physical space. Even if that need were real, the move would have impeded collaboration with other arts organizations and confused the public. He claimed the move would save the organization $200,000 over 10 years. Not only is this miserly focus on the bottom line antithetical to enlarging a vision for the organization, it’s also not much of a savings.
I have a suggestion for the Art Association: listen to the forward-thinking business wisdom of today. Hire an artist to be executive director. You’ve had the chance in the past, but it’s not too late to remedy your mistake. A creative mind will figure out how to use your space to the fullest. Artists constantly work within both external and self-imposed restrictions to create their work. Artists are problem-solvers extraordinaire. They know how to improvise, how to collaborate with others, how to innovate, how to play and have fun, and how not to alienate their main constituents. Artists are experts at utilizing resources efficiently, partnering with others, and creating an environment where exploration and experimentation thrive. Artists know how to dream big and to find ways to realize those dreams.
To the extent the board of the Art Association is unwilling to adopt a healthy governance model and empower artists to direct programming, it will continue to lumber like a dinosaur into the past.