Succession: Arts Leadership for the 21st Century

Illinois Arts Alliance

2003, 130 pages.

The topic is percolating in conversations at all types of nonprofit organizations (cultural to social service), in graduate programs, at annual conferences, and in the corridors of philanthropic institutions. It is no longer relegated to board rooms. In many ways it has become the "water cooler" subject de jour in many offices of arts grantmakers. It is a conversation that, at its core, is about the very future of our field — leadership. And the subject will prove to be equally as important as the ways we rally around what we care about and how we face current economic realities.

This report, the result of the vision of the Illinois Arts Alliance and generosity of the Chicago Community Trust, is a focused attempt to encapsulate the evolution of leadership among arts organizations in Chicago, although it truly is much more. To the benefit of us all who work in the nonprofit arts sector, this publication illustrates that Chicago is a microcosm of what cultural organizations across the country are experiencing simultaneously.

The Illinois Arts Alliance's research methods used both quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (focus groups, interviews, and commissioned white papers) techniques. The combination allowed a variety of voices to be heard and highlighted the complexity of leadership in the arts. The report identified three constituencies who share the focus in its analysis: executive directors, boards, and emerging leaders.

The report is presented in three sections. The first analyzes surveys of executive directors and emerging leaders. Highlights include “state of the field” statistics on demographics and information about training, compensation, job satisfaction, job tenure, succession planning, and professional development. The executive director survey was described as “relatively long and rich;” but despite its detail, it garnered an astonishing 65 percent response rate. The findings are presented in six sub-sections and each is followed by recommendations.

The next section summarizes the groups and interviews. The topics are presented in sub-sections: Job Requirements of the Executive Director, Less Appealing Aspects of the Job, Organizational Stresses During Times of Transition, Special Challenges to Organizations During Times of Transition, A Look at the Future: Expectations of Emerging Leaders, and Recommendations: What the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation Can Do.

The last section of the report includes the commissioned white papers. These are informative in content, valuable in perspective, and varied in subject matter. Examples include Ted Berger's thoughts on succession given his long career in arts administration, Lauren Gumbs' and Wayne Winborne's investigation of barriers to involving young people of color, and two sections on the board's role in ensuring strong leadership and effective succession planning.

When the Illinois Arts Alliance undertook this project it made what may be the first attempt to conduct serious research on nonprofit arts leadership. The report sets forth concrete, logical, and sustainable recommendations and action steps that are entirely appropriate and amazingly comprehensive. The report charges us all to develop and take full advantage of our bench strength: smart, determined, and committed leaders — emerging and seasoned.

Adrienne Edwards is program associate, Culture, The Pew Charitable Trusts.