Where We’re Headed: A Grad Student’s Point of View

A behind the scenes look at the organizational culture responsible for Hulu’s massive success.

I’m currently studying arts administration in the context of an MBA program. At the end of my first week last fall, I remember noticing that Apple had already been mentioned in every one of my core business classes. The massive success of companies like Apple, Google, and Hulu (see above), the current speed at which start-ups nationwide are generating new products and apps, and the separate but related DIY/pro-am movement in the creative sector has led to a collective cultural focus on innovation and change.  No doubt, it’s not just MBAs who want in. Young people entering the non-profit arts crave the same excitement and sense of creation, and often assume they’ve chosen a field conducive to that.

But that’s not always the case. The Next Gen Arts Leaders Quick Poll conducted by ArtsFwd a few months back gave voice to the frustration young arts administrators feel when their ideas aren’t heard and their organizations aren’t flexible. It was no surprise that “80% of next generation leaders who self-reported working in highly innovative organizations see their organization as ‘one they’d want to move up in,’ as compared to only 38% in non- or slightly innovative organizations.”

I imagine this problem is compounded for graduate students of arts administration. Whether it’s an MBA, MFA, MA, or MS, such students have taken time out of their lives to study and reflect deeply on how to be better leaders in the arts. In addition to gathering hard skills in finance, policy, curation, and management, they’ve also likely been reading and debating about organizations that work and those that don’t, about trends in creating and presenting art, about exciting work being done around the world. The need for change and innovation in our field is reinforced day after day in such programs, whether directly or indirectly. And yet, as graduates, few will find themselves in a position to do much about it in the short-run if they work for established institutions. In fact, in a course on business strategy, only one student raised their hand as having participated in strategic planning conversations in their previous place of employment. Will that change when we graduate?

I think so, for two main reasons. First, there’s a mass of new arts administrators who have been raised on the blogosphere and academia’s incessant dialogue of change in the arts (personally speaking, the words of Greg Sandow and his ilk—however controversial—ring in my ears every day). Though we haven’t necessarily been taught to make our voices heard, and probably can’t be, being a team player, studying the organization rigorously, and making smart, creative decisions can go a long way to getting that proverbial seat at the table and having the opportunity to implement new ideas. And sure, depending on an individual organization’s structure, recent graduates will sometimes have to work harder and with more than a little chutzpah to get to that seat as fast as they’d like.

Second, organizational structures are evolving away from traditional top-down models, making room for innovation from the ground up. I like this quote from Bill George, the Harvard Business School professor and former CEO of Medtronic:

“The hierarchical leadership style that was so prevalent in the 20th century is no longer effective. Today’s successful organizations are filled with knowledge workers who don’t respond to hierarchical leadership. Command-and-control leaders are finding it difficult to motivate those workers who are closest to the needs of the communities they serve and are ill-equipped to take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom.”

In other words, the Google-esque environments that young non-profit arts workers want to be a part of are becoming the norm. If your organization wants a good starting place for inspiration in this direction, check out Hulu’s philosophy. The oft-cited Trey McIntyre Project is also a good example of this new, democratic, creative organizational model taking hold in the arts. As Jon Michael Schert said in that post, arts organizations, by nature of their product, should be the one’s leading the way in new business models. Still, even if non-profits continue to look at for-profit models of success as they have in the past, it is clear the change is coming.

Brian Hinrichs grew up playing the cello and began transitioning to the administrative side of arts organizations in college. He is interested in innovation through programming and technology, and believes strongly in the power of connecting audiences to the process of creating new works. Brian is currently an MBA candidate at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, WI, where he works as a graduate project assistant for the Pro Arte Quartet and is researching the impact of composer-in-residence programs at American symphony orchestras. Previously, he was the director of marketing and community engagement at Madison Opera. As a Fulbright Fellow to Thailand in 2007-08, Brian explored the emerging classical music scene in Bangkok with an eye for organizations and composers fusing traditions. A 2007 graduate of Colgate University, he is originally from Bay Shore, NY. Follow @classicalive

  • Brian,

    I found this article interesting, but I think we are in a bit of struggle still and need to prove to such arts organization that we can lead an organization. I’m still earning my masters in arts administration as well, and work in marketing for an opera and ballet company. I also had the experience of sitting on a board for a short period of time. I left the board because of differences. Every time I voiced my opinion I felt eyes roll and ears turn away from what I was saying. Compared to the others in the room, I was the youngest by a good 30 years. You see a lot of young arts administrators starting their own business and trying to find jobs with arts organizations that they hope to work for some day. I love opera, but most people my age really don’t. They might go to a production, but they are not necessarily passionate about it like me. Most people I went to college with are spending their time creating a new nonprofit rather than working for one. Why is that? I think it has to deal with the fact that current arts administrators have a set way of how they believe their organization should be run because it has been that way for so long. I also think that leaders in the field are listening to us, but that is only the select few. It’s like being a new lawyer in a big law firm: You have to be a tadpole before you can be the frog. I think if we are passionate about working for the arts organization we grew up admiring, we should continue to push for that goal. The way we look at subscriptions, marketing, development and productions are shifting and it will be up to us to prove that an audience member’s time and energy means the world to us. It is up to us now as we learn in our first job to become well-rounded in all issues, but it is important to also move with the times. Basically, if you want to be a leader someday, you need to live in the present state of the organization (following the rules and making some suggestions), understand the history of that organization, and look to the future.

    Good luck in your studies!

    • Brian Hinrichs, Blogging Fellow

      Hi Brooke –
      Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree completely with what you’re saying. Everyone has to earn respect and contribute traditionally within an organization before moving up or contributing to long range planning and innovation. I think my slightly more optimistic stance is based in part on my experience working at a small opera company with a young general director and a board very open to experimentation, at least on the marketing and education front. I felt that my voice was heard, but it took an organizational environment open to “quick and dirty” trial runs of programs and ideas. My larger point here is not that a degree is or should be a shortcut to larger standing within an organization, but rather that it is better for all if boards and leaders are in tune with the ideas of their staffers at all levels. I think organizations are naturally heading in that direction for the reasons I mention above, but I’m hoping young arts administrators can nudge them along if they feel they have something larger to contribute.

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  • Rob

    I have an MBA from a non-arts administration program and have worked in arts for my entire career. I remember that heady feeling when I graduated, confident that every conceivable problem in the work of an organization would yield to analytic methods I learned in the classroom. I also think many of my MBA skills have helped my organizations and my career (e.g., not freaking out when I look at a page of numbers, being conversant in the language of strategy and marketing, understanding how databases work). But the bottom line is that the MBA is a degree in management control systems, not an initiation into techniques of innovation. The things I know that help me innovate come from living in the world and seeing connections between my work and what’s going on beyond my organization, tempered by my experience in making things happen and intuiting how people will respond to ideas so I can refine my presentation of them. If young arts administrators are frustrated that their ideas aren’t heard, it’s very possible that their ideas aren’t all that good, or that they’re not putting them across very well, or that they just don’t know very much compared to the people who are choosing not to pay attention.

    • Brian Hinrichs, Blogging Fellow

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s cool to hear the ways in which your MBA has helped you in the arts. As with Brooke’s comment above, I agree that experience is key, and the longer one works within an organization and in the field in general, the better prepared one will be to propose new ideas that have the potential to succeed. What I’m hoping is that the current dialogue of change and innovation–in the arts, in tech, everywhere–is not being totally dismissed in practice. Whether the ideas that are generated are good or bad, an environment that allows them to be discussed can be really enriching for all parties involved. It increases the likelihood of an organization looking out to the world and knowing when real change will be needed. That all said, again, I agree that for the young and inexperienced especially, presentation and quality of ideas will go a long way in the quest to “be heard.”

  • Kelvin Dinkins, Jr.

    I also just finished classes for my MFA in Theatre Management & Producing, so I can identify with the tepid charge to “affect change” and save our struggling non-profit arts organizations. From the reactions of my peers to the responses by established professionals, those pursuing innovative solutions to fix non-profit companies are at an impasse when it comes to whose responsibility it is to be true change agents; these conversations are also limited by the idea that the only plausible change is from within the organization. Unlike the culture of the start up, young, ambitious arts leaders are rarely, if ever, empowered to think innovatively enough to create something new, compete within the existing market, and secure the funding necessary to generate and support art through a bold, inventive institution. If there are emerging arts leaders out there implementing dynamic organizational change, then please speak up and