How Can We Empower Emerging Leaders to Kickstart Adaptive Change?

The next generation of arts leaders will be responsible for challenging old models and accelerating the movement of adaptive change practices.

The next generation of arts leaders will have to take an active role in the movement towards adaptive practice in theaters, museums, and all arts and culture organizations. Image: The Commons, Flickr
The next generation of arts leaders will have to take an active role in the movement towards adaptive practice in theaters, museums, and all arts and culture organizations. Image: The Commons, Flickr

Breaking with expectations

Revolutions start with dissatisfaction. As an emerging professional in the arts on a traditional career path, I am dissatisfied that my development as an arts leader will most likely be in the hands of established arts organizations that have become manufacturing plants of artistic expression, rather than risk-taking institutions focused on impacting their communities. I believe such an experience could leave me, and my peers, ill prepared to embrace innovation and adaptive change, which I will most certainly need in the future as funding becomes ever more scarce and the traditional arts become more irrelevant. So, my question is: How will the next generation of arts leaders learn to question assumptions, develop adaptive business models, and forge new initiatives to energize and invigorate the role arts organizations play in our communities if the organizations where they start their careers don’t embrace those same values?

The torchbearers of the regional theatre movement, like Zelda Fichandler (of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.), founded their theatres over a half-century ago with the conviction that the Broadway model was not necessarily the best way to produce great theatre. The challenge now for these same theaters, and other arts organizations, is to break with old “best practices” about how they impact their communities and to flex their adaptive muscles. Unless, they bring emerging leaders along with them on the journey, though, the future of this sector doesn’t stand a chance.

The value of a new perspective

Arts organizations are being seriously outpaced by the more accessible mediums in entertainment, and the kind of change this industry needs doesn’t seem to be coming from organizations that cling to “McTheatre” models and boast business-as-usual. With so many young business leaders leading bold initiatives in the tech industry, I had to consider why the arts sector and its funders do not do more to encourage innovation in young leadership and adaptive change: who’s going to fund that? As an industry, should we be willing to stifle the potential for creative breakthroughs by excluding young arts leaders from crucial conversations that could significantly impact an improvement in our organizational models?

Consider, as an example, if more emerging arts leaders could develop and implement a plan for an arts collective that organized their operations into teams dedicated to the Audience Experience, Institutional Advancement, Operations and Design; and within all of these departments there existed a staff member from development, artistic, education, administration, and so on to carry out the traditional operations of an arts organization. With a collaborative unit focused on one common, specified arena, a diverse set of skills and perspectives could be utilized for interdepartmental problem solving with the potential to produce more informed, dynamic results than each department working in a silo. A business model that does not restrict its capacity for creative thinking and engages all staff members, regardless of his or her expertise, could resolve adaptive challenges and inspire funders to see a greater potential for developing sustainable and adaptive arts organizations.

You can handle the truth

Instead of avoiding adaptive dexterity, we have to confront industry challenges by responding to questions like, “What can be learned from other industry practices today and how can we better relate to our community?” As arts leaders willing to work towards building new models, practices, and processes, we have to look to what is successful about existing models, enhance those qualities, and engage new methods to connect with our audiences. We have to be the change that most seasoned arts professionals are afraid to embrace with so much to lose; we have to be the change that they fear. Regardless of where you are in your career, a sustainable organizational vision, an empowered staff, and a greater sense of responsibility to a more diverse community will help to carve your own, truly innovative, path as an arts leader. Answer your dissatisfaction at every turn, step outside of the prescribed way of thinking about the arts and become a harbinger of a new movement in the arts ignited by the idea that there is, and must be, a better way.

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. is a Creative Producer-Artist-Manager currently completing an MFA in Theatre Management & Producing at Columbia University and has a BA in English/Theatre from Princeton University. He has a background in non-profit theatre management and development with an interest in promoting the innovative development of cultural arts institutions and supporting communities that are artistically underserved or in need of a creative renaissance. Kelvin is currently the Communications and Development Manager for The Civilians, the New York-based center for investigative theatre boldly exploring the intersections of theater and society. Follow him on Twitter at @KBD217.

  • Laker

    Amazing post. Extremely thought-provoking and powerful– How can we compete in this fast paced world where entertainment is at everyone’s fingertips and instant, and sometimes free? Young theater leaders need to step up to the plate and find a way to keep theater relevant in these times. I have no doubt Mr. Dinkins is such a leader. Looking forward to more posts.

    • Francesca McKenzie

      Laker, how do you see theater leaders stepping up to the plate? In New Orleans a lot of companies are trying to create theater more of an event, whether it be multi-media, all-sensory experiences, or just an open bar. This move towards events rather than just a play comes from the city’s tradition of parading and having a party wherever you are. What sort of ways do you see theatre being able to compete with all the other different entertainment options we have available to us?

    • Kelvin D.

      Thanks, Laker!

      Strategy for competition very much depends on the market of the communities in which these arts organizations are grounded. Live theatre has to retain its novelty and the dynamic impact that comes from being in a room, with other human beings, and telling unique stories that appeal to that unique audience. Young leaders will only be empowered to step up to the plate when they can control the conversation with funders and engage them in a forward-thinking model of supporting the arts and innovative ideas. The priority now is to make sure young arts leaders know their worth and use it embrace innovation and possess the entrepreneurial spirit necessary to change the way arts organizations make an impact in their communities.

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  • Alison K.

    An incredible barrier to emerging leaders feeling empowered to affect change seems to be rooted in the fact that they’re usually reporting to seasoned staff, and rarely have the opportunity for collaborating as peers. In addition to championing the dismantling of silos in favor of inter-departmental/cross-sector/etc. collaboration, importance should be placed on cross-generational/cross-hierarchical exchanges as an equally effective means of breeding creative solutions to pressing industry issues. This way, it isn’t an “us and them” situation (no matter what side you happen to be on), and more of a unified, organization-wide approach.

  • Rick Robinson

    Kelvin, this is well written and provocative. I would only change the words next and future to current and present. That time is upon us now, and I can tell you that about half of the established cultural institutions maintain a death-grip on the traditional models. That is where the big money is, it’s too hard to change and they don’t want to relax their hard-won standards. I was a member of a major orchestra also working hard to bring a wider community to our concerts. Even after a decade of major success sharing our music with communities who wouldn’t come to orchestra concerts, I still could not get financial help from my orchestra. Now, there is financial help available to do that, but it is too little, too late and with too many strings attached to be experimental or innovative. Major orchestras are so firmly invested in the adjective “world-class”, they are reluctant to be seen expressing the RAW ENERGY young and non-white audiences really respond to. So I left the orchestra (and the collective bargaining agreement) to build an organization with a mission of balancing BOTH high standards and raw energy to connect the casual community with real classical music. The time is now.

    • Francesca McKenzie

      I love Rick’s response, it is sad that there are institutions that do have a death-grip and refuse to adapt. Interesting that when an organization does finally get funding there are restrictions to their creativity and innovation. How do you get the more traditional funders to see the benefits? Or if that’s impossible what are ways arts orgs receive funding outside of this framework?