Founding Artistic Director Transitions and Evolutions:

How Two Organizations Cope with Change

Documented by Lisa Mount
Edited by Judi Jennings for GIA

What happens when a founding artistic director moves on? Whether the move is a departure or a shift in roles within the organization, leadership change presents a daunting — and inevitable — challenge. As the nonprofit arts field matures and faces unprecedented economic challenges, the question of how to survive and embrace significant transitions in the leadership of an organization becomes pressing.

Plenty of resources exist on how to conduct an executive search. Transition consultants are thick on the ground. The steps of transition are outlined in books and on websites, and considerable foundation funding has gone into increasing nonprofit organizations’ readiness and ability to weather a founder transition.

But all the planning and guidance in the world won’t make the emotional journey any easier. Emotions matter in many arts organizations because people in all their complexity are valued. For arts organizations where this is the case, the corporate model of “old leader out on Friday, new leader in on Monday” cannot work.

Creating new solutions to the perennial problems of founder transition requires asking new questions and imagining new processes. Rather than importing a business model, two leading arts organizations, Cornerstone Theater Company and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, decided to share their knowledge and learn from each other. Both are midsized companies ($1–2 million annual budgets) that are artist-driven, focused on the creation of new work, deeply engaged in creative interactions with community, and decidedly risk oriented. All of these factors impact the process of changing a founder’s relationship to his or her company. They also defy an executive search model. For Cornerstone, a founder transition was defined as the departure of the founding artistic director from the company. For the Dance Exchange, it was — and is — defined as changing the founding artistic director’s role within the company so that others can take responsibility for and feel ownership of the organization. The two companies created new paths making use of their artistic skills and creative practices: story sharing, participant engagement, creativity, and risk-taking.

Two stories from the field: Cornerstone Theater and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Cornerstone Theater Company, founded in 1986 by Bill Rauch and Alison Carey, began by working in rural communities, creating twelve productions in ten states in its first five years. In 1992 Cornerstone settled in Los Angeles, California, to begin urban residency work, such as the “Faith-Based Cycle” that examined many beliefs and traditions. In 2006 they launched the “Justice Cycle” featuring five new plays exploring how laws shape and disrupt communities. The company is often commissioned to collaborate with other major arts organizations. In 2004 the company created the Cornerstone Institute to teach the process of making a show with, about, and for the residents of a particular place.

Multi-ethnic, ensemble-based Cornerstone makes theater with and for people of many ages, cultures, and levels of theatrical experience. By doing so, Cornerstone builds bridges between and within diverse communities in their home city and nationwide. The company believes society can flourish when its members know and respect one another, and creates theater made in that spirit. They value art that is contemporary, community-specific, responsive, multilingual, innovative, challenging, and joyful. They honor the artist in everyone and theater that directly reflects the audience.

Founded in 1976, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, first functioned as an urban community-based school of dance that gathered dancers on an ad hoc basis for performance projects and community engagement at such sites as senior centers and hospitals. As performance opportunities increased, a regular ensemble coalesced that steadily built a reputation for innovative performance focused on current and challenging concerns, such as national defense spending. In 1999 Dance Exchange purchased its home base in Takoma Park, Maryland. Since the beginning, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange asks four questions when creating and presenting its work: Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is it about? Why does it matter?

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is a professional company of artists that creates, performs, teaches, and engages people in making art. They create groundbreaking new works performed by a cross-generational company and presented throughout the U.S. and their home region. The company presents classes, workshops, and institutes for people who dance to make a living, those who dance to make a better life, and people who have never danced before. Their local and national projects engage individuals, institutions, and communities in making and performing dances. The company pursues a broad definition of dance as a multidisciplinary art form that encompasses movement, music, imagery, and the spoken word. They strive to build an accessible body of knowledge and make meaningful connections between people and art.

The Collaboration Begins

In 2005, both Cornerstone Theater and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange were selected to participate in the Animating Democracy Exemplar program. Jointly developed by Americans for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, Animating Democracy originated through a field study profiling a representative selection of artists and arts and cultural organizations whose work engaged the public in dialogue on key issues. The study led to the four-year Animating Democracy Initiative, which provided grants and advisory support to thirty-two cultural organizations across the country to implement projects that experimented with or deepened existing approaches to arts and humanities-based civic dialogue. The Exemplar Program provided an additional two years of support to twelve of these organizations nationwide. The organizations were recognized for outstanding cultural work in their communities and in the field, based on their participation in Animating Democracy and the Ford Foundation’s Working Capital Fund. Supported by the Ford Foundation, the two-year Exemplar Program aimed to foster a holistic and integrated approach to organizational health, institutional growth, civic engagement, and aesthetic investigation.

While taking part in a convening of the Exemplar Program, staff members of Cornerstone Theater and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange discovered that they were both undergoing transitions with their founding artistic directors. As of December 2006, both had budgets of roughly $1.4 million, staff of either twelve or thirteen full-time employees, and core companies of artists. Dance Exchange had seven core company members and fourteen adjunct dancers. Cornerstone had sixteen ensemble members, which included five full-time staff members, and a roster of fifty-three associate artists. Both companies created an average of three major shows each year, conducted performance and teaching residencies, and created educational shows and commissioned works. While once Liz Lerman and Bill Rauch were the dominant artistic voices of their companies, now multiple artists are choreographing and directing at their respective companies. Both have active boards of directors and strong local and national community connections, as well as excellent fund-raising track records.

Significant differences between the companies center on leadership and governance. Cornerstone has a “standard” nonprofit theater structure of artistic director and managing director, but the ensemble makes major artistic decisions about content and hiring using formal consensus process; and the artistic, managing and associate artistic directors are members of the ensemble. Dance Exchange is collaboratively led (i.e., major decisions are made together) by the producing artistic director, managing director and humanities director, with the founding artistic director serving in a strong advisory capacity. Dance Exchange owns its space, while Cornerstone rents. For 2006, Dance Exchange had a higher earned income percentage than Cornerstone (40% vs 15%) (theaters usually have a higher earned income percentage than dance companies).

Cornerstone and Dance Exchange both have clearly articulated artistic methodologies and a set of artists with whom they regularly work. They both recognize that emotions matter in professional situations; people as well as artistic quality are highly valued. Rather than draft another treatise on the process of searching for a new artistic director or transitioning a founder into an advisory role, the two organizations chose to use questions and stories — two key creative elements for both companies — to illuminate and guide their discoveries about this kind of change.

The Investigation Process

Over the course of nine months from December 2006 to August 2007, key individuals from the two organizations gathered for three facilitated conversations that examined the founder transition or evolution already underway — primarily for the new leaders of the organizations, secondarily for the founders themselves. The participants in the meetings remained consistent throughout the process. Lisa Mount served as facilitator for all three gatherings. Each meeting used a variety of artistic practices and facilitation techniques to build candid camaraderie and explore the topic of transition.

The first meeting offered a chance to get to know one another, the worth of which increased over the succeeding nine months, and to begin discussions about individual and organizational experiences. In both the first and second meetings, participants received in-depth looks at both organizations and attended rehearsals of work in progress.

The final meeting was an opportunity for a synthesis of what the participants had learned throughout this process. People’s experiences of these transitions had changed, in part because of this examination, in part because of continuing changes within these organizations and individuals, and in part because of the passage of time.

The final meeting closed with an exercise in crafting questions for imaginary peer organizations that might be preparing for a change in their founding artistic director’s relationship to the company.

Fundamental Questions about Founder Transitions

  • Is an on-going founder relationship desired? Are all parties willing?
  • Should you continue to exist as an organization? Why? What is core to your organization? Is your mission valid?/li>
  • What parts of your mission and company aesthetic must you keep? What might you change?
  • What are the essential qualities you want in an artistic director?
  • Do you know your organizational culture?

Key findings of the stories inspired by these questions:

  • When knowledge is at the core of an organization, codifying artistic practices and methods becomes part of the transition process, in order to transmit the founders’ learnings both to future practitioners within their companies and to the wider world.
  • All parties potentially benefit when the founder’s transition or evolution is the founder’s choice and terms are negotiated with everyone’s best interests taken into consideration.
  • A founder’s curiosity and interests change over the life of his/her organization; the nature of what an organization offers to its founder also shifts as institutions evolve and grow. How a founder deals with these changes is an individual decision.
  • The mission and philosophy of an organization can remain constant even if a founder transitions out of the organization or to a new role; but an organization does have to articulate how its values exist independent of the founder.
  • The depth of the staff’s — and, to a certain extent, board’s — understanding of the organizational culture at work will impact the experience of this transition.

Questions about the Future

  • Where do you want to be, and what do you want to look like in five years? In ten?
  • What opportunities lie ahead because of this moment?
  • Will you change your leadership structure as part of this transition?

Key findings from the stories inspired by these questions:

  • Transitions or evolutions are about managing change, which makes planning essential.
  • It is important to articulate individual and organizational desires early in a transition process, and to revisit them in cases where a transition is gradual.
  • Leadership structure and personnel changes are nearly inevitable, and in fact may be desirable in supporting, balancing, and reflecting the essence of the founder transition.

Questions about Financial Implications

  • What are the costs and benefits of your founding artistic director staying or leaving?
  • What will the financial impact of this transition be? How can you lessen the negative financial impacts?

Key findings from the stories inspired by these questions:

  • Founding artistic leaders are often generators of earned and contributed income; organizations struggle to find appropriate ways to leverage that for a departing founder.
  • A negative financial impact from a founder’s transition or evolution is likely.

Questions about Legacy and Relationships

  • What are the current definitions of the founding artistic director’s legacy?
  • How will the founder be honored, acknowledged, and remembered?
  • How dependent are you on your founder’s charisma? Are there ways to transfer that?
  • How will you sustain those who remain?
  • How will you prepare and create tools for the new artistic leaders?

Key findings from the stories inspired by these questions:

  • Simultaneously serving the founder’s and successor’s needs is challenging both artistically and financially.
  • Passing knowledge to the new leader — especially one new to the company — takes time and benefits from an opportunity to collaborate.
  • While acknowledging the founder’s “charisma factor,” succeeding leaders may question the expectation of charisma placed upon them.
  • Sustaining and retaining staff and artists beyond the founder may be a daunting task for midsized organizations.

Questions about the Decision-Making Process

  • Are you willing and able to take the time to reflect?
  • Who makes the decision about choosing the succeeding artistic director?
  • Who participates in the decision-making process? How? In what order?
  • How prepared are all your stakeholders for this process? Stakeholders include the founding artistic director, the search and transition process leader, the board, the staff, and the artists.
  • “Your founder … and who else?” Who else is likely to leave or change their relationship to the company because of this transition?
  • What will your internal and external communications plans be?

Key findings from the stories inspired by these questions:

  • Good decisions are grounded in reflection, implemented as policy, and communicated clearly.
  • In founder-led and ensemble organizations, the sense of ownership is higher among the artists and staff than among board members; boards are participants in the transition process but not the primary drivers or sole decision-makers.
  • Transitions and evolutions take more time than planned, no matter how generous the projected timetable.
  • Transitions and evolutions don’t stop with the artistic leadership of the organization. Everyone is affected.
  • A strong communications plan — both internal and external — is crucial for success.


The discoveries made in the exchanges between these two exemplary organizations provide valuable lessons to the nonprofit arts field.

As one participant observed, “You only lose a founder once.” Yet, when a founder moves on in an ensemble company, all members can play important roles in holding organizational memory. Arts organizations can also redefine founder transition. For example, a gradual, evolutionary and iterative process can be described as a redefinition of leadership structure, rather than the loss of a founder

Whatever this change process is called, it ushers in a new era. In some cases, it is more useful to speak of eras in a company’s development, rather than generations of leadership. An individual’s experience within an organization is defined in part by the point in time at which they enter the organization. Significant changes, like moving or leadership departures, mark changes in eras. Adapting to a new era is a challenge for all involved, and requires innovative thinking on a par with artistic creation.

Change can be hazardous, messy, gradual or rapid. There is always at least one unexpected outcome. It can, however, have a positive impact on art making. For example, there may be multiple creative voices instead of just one within a company. A company may consider new micro-enterprise financing models to use in supporting an even greater diversity of artistry. Others may make powerful new partnerships, as well as welcoming new staff members into the fold. People can learn to work together in new ways, with different distributions of authority.

This process revealed that a founder transition or leadership redefinition is just one kind of transition in the life of an arts organization. But the profundity of the change causes — demands — a moment of reflection that, if handled well, can deepen the company’s commitment to its core principles and methodologies. This is crucial because its artistic and economic futures are predicated on leveraging the company’s knowledge resources and finding new markets for what they have to teach.

In some ways an increased orientation toward intellectual capital is the true hallmark of transitions. Knowledge can become the center of an organization, surrounded by a variety of charismatic personalities who are capable of interpreting that knowledge for diverse audiences. The people within these two organizations worked thoughtfully through the inevitable mess that emotional situations generate. By asking questions and sharing stories, they found peers to call upon for a reality check. These relationships and this new knowledge can make future changes a little easier to wrangle.

This summary of Founding Artistic Director Transitions and Evolutions was edited by Judi Jennings, executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women from the original publication in collaboration with the author, Lisa Mount.  The original paper was supported by the Animating Democracy/Working Capital Fund Exemplar Program, a program of Americans for the Arts in collaboration with the LarsonAllen Public Service Group, funded by the Ford Foundation.