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.